Parisians march to demand liberation of American journalist… No, seriously, this is who the “Yellow-Jackets” (as I prefer to call them, even if the translation isn’t literal) like to think they are. Marcelo Brodsky, “Paris, 1968,” from the 1968 series “The Fire of Ideas.” Featured in the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the artist, HFFA NYC & Rolf Art Gallery.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — Seriously, all I want to do is find a playmate. In addition to fixing my teeth so she’ll be able to see me and finding a way to make what comes out of my mouth (words) fetch (earn) what comes into it, this is why I came to Paris. C’est quand meme assez simple. On Saturday, March 2, I met a pretty dazzling — let’s say awesome — candidate. Someone who made my heart bouge as it hadn’t done since junior high school. So I returned to the same table-tennis court — at the Jardin des Explorateurs which abuts the Luxembourg Gardens — this past Saturday, paddles and balls in hand (by which I don’t mean les bijoux familial — inside joke), hoping she’d be back.
Lest you think me an obsedé, it wasn’t just for the girl, although I love the way she made fun of my defensive stance, picked up from the Chinese kid who slaughtered me in the city-wide 9-12 year-old San Francisco championships whose spin balls I couldn’t touch. There was also the excuse of a brocante (antiques stand sale) on the boulevard Montparnasse, as well as my embarrassingly virgin visit to the ‘loriette’ — gazebo to you, bub — at the top of the Jardin des Plantes since my return to see if the oldest, and heretofore crumbling, metal structure in Paris had succeeded in inspiring enough private donations to be restored (our mayor preferring to spend the same amount of money on 30-minute New Year’s Eve light shows), plus the lure of having my thermos coffee at my various favorite fountains and ponds at the Luxembourg.
I almost cried at seeing the kangaroos at the Jardin des Plantes: at the realization that I’d been too addicted to this screen to come get re-acquainted with them earlier. Hoofing it to the Jussieu Metro — in pleine student-land — on an instinct I crossed the rue Linne to check the latest offerings of a bookstore I know…. There on the ‘giant books for 1 Euro’ shelves he was waiting for me: I.F. a.k.a. Izzy Stone, in “The Haunted Fifties,” an original language compilation of the first 10 years of the independent journalist’s I.F. Stone’s Weekly. I say waiting for me because it was a reminder that Stone’s success in getting an initial 5,000 and ultimately 20,000 readers to subscribe at $5 a pop may be a way for me to go… Until I remembered that a) Stone started out with a mailing list of newspaper readers already familiar with his product, b) the ‘market’ is exponentially more flooded with words (and columnists) today and c) no one has time to read. (Not even a recent French cultural minister, who confessed as much in an interview since become infamous.)
I won’t go into all the details of Izzy Stone’s project and the connivances and conniptions of McCarthyism to which many of the initial essays are devoted because if I did we’d never get to Saturday’s near-riot in Paris which found a certain ex-San Francisco youth ping-pong championship runner-up surrounded by CRS national police while trying to impersonate Forest Gump sitting on a bench with his paddles waiting for a potential sweetheart, but among the startling (to me) revelations in Stone’s book was the December 21, 1953 piece “A Few who Fought Back,” his report from Chicago’s Walsh Hall on the National Conference to Repeal the Walter-McCarran Law and Defend its Victims, sponsored by the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, “one of the last functioning Popular Front organizations,” Stone explains. (As you’ll see, the piece is not entirely irrelevant to a site devoted to translation between languages… and cultures.) It seems that the Walter-McCarran Law and various other manifestations of McCarthyism had prompted a mass deportation and denaturalization campaign that by comparison makes ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) look like it takes its marching orders from newly elected Left-leaning Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
“The deportation drive cuts across every basic liberty,” Stone writes. “Fifteen editors associated with the radical and foreign language press have been arrested for deportation or denaturalization…. The foreign language editors arrested are elderly folk editing papers which are dying out as the process of assimilation steadily cuts into the number of Americans who still read the language of ‘the old country.’ Almost one third of those arrested for deportation are trade union members or officials…. One of the leading victims of the current drive, Stanley Nowak, was present in Chicago. After ten years as a Democratic member of the Michigan State Legislature, part of this time as floor leader, he is facing denaturalization proceedings. This Polish-born legislator played a role in the organization of the automobile industry…”
And if you think Central American (and other dark-skinned) migrants to the U.S. have it bad now, Stone continues:
“The most numerous and widespread abuses have occurred in the treatment of Mexican-Americans. Reports to the conference from Los Angeles pictured terror and lawlessness — the use of roadblocks and sudden raids on areas in which persons of Mexican origin live, the invasion of their homes without warrants, the exile to Mexico of native-born Americans of Mexican parentage. The Mexican-American community is kept steadily ‘churned up’ to maintain it as a source of cheap labor in constant flux.” During the first six months of 1953, the conference was told, “more than 483,000 persons were deported to Mexico — while almost half a million others were being brought in for low paid agricultural work.”
Others who would no doubt form the base for the founding of the United Farmworkers a decade later. At about the same time I was having those first pre-teen crushes, my hippy alternative school in San Francisco would take us on a week-long field trip to work with the Farmworkers in La Paz, California.
So having found the Luxembourg Gardens closed — no doubt indicating that there must be a “Yellow Jackets” (I’m purposely mistranslating “Gilets” for the allusion to guepes, bees, as the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” are just as annoying) demonstration taking place somewhere within five miles — my hoped-for reunion with her (the pre-teen crush’s) reincarnation in Paris in 2019 was about to be ix-nayed (Pig Latin for ‘nixed’). There I was on a partly cloudy Saturday afternoon, reflected rays of Sun emerging to flirt intermittently from the red brick buildings en face, ping-pong paddles circa 1973 and I.F. Stone circa 1950s flanking my carcasse circa 1961 with its heart preserved at the age of 12 like Forest Gump (it was seeing Tom Hanks bringing his paddle to a reunion with his amour d’enfance that had inspired me to bring my pair with me on this trip to Paris) when, all of a sudden, a caravan of ten CRS or national police vans and cars silently pulled up outside the western fence of the park. (Already I’d noticed a phalanx of the vans on the side street leading to the closed entrance of the Luxembourg.)
What the Boulevard St.-Michel DID NOT look like Saturday: From the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the Paris Prefecture of Police, Memory and Cultural Affairs Department. Atypical among the archival photographs and posters on the May 1968 student and worker rebellions which have enjoyed a resurgence in during last year’s 50th anniversary of May ’68, what I appreciated about this photograph is that it humanizes the policemen.
At about this point a park security guard made the rounds to inform all of us that the park was closing.
A Saturday afternoon in Paris and not only were they closing an anodyne park whose greatest attraction is three concrete ping-pong tables (and thus vetoing my albeit remote chance to find what this city is supposed to be made for) — the tables take up more space than a nearby Lilliputian playground any respectable kindergartner would be ashamed to frequent — but the Luxembourg Gardens …. The Luxembourg Gardens which, as gardens and as the seat of the people’s representatives — the grounds are presided over by the French Senate, whose members are elected by the country’s 10,000 mayors — was being closed to the people to whom it belonged. (The counter-argument would be that this was to protect the landmarks — a fair one, given the vandalization of the Monument to the Unknown soldier at the Arch towards the beginning of this media-anointed “Yellow-Jackets” movement.)
Still, I could hardly imagine hoards of “Yellow Jackets” darting over from the Boulevard St. Michel a block away where it turned out the march was taking place, invading the gardens and, what — occupying the ping-pong tables? Moving their iron chairs to the edge of the grand fountain before the Senate building? (Officially interdit, as I had learned when it took a 7-foot tall guardian less than a minute to run over and wag his finger at me after I tried this bold move.) Adapt Marie Antoinette’s response to the bread riots — “Let them eat cake!” — by following Hemingway’s example and stuffing the pigeons bathing in the Medici fountains under their shirts to twist their necks and make pot au feu? My own deepest antipathy was directed at the marchers — at this point a motley medley of chronic demonstrators, chronic members of the dwindling French Communist party, or, judging by the different flags that flew above the crowd who eventually, respectfully, made their way up the Boul Mich towards the Place Royale, various other groups, including the unions, trying to latch on to the “Yellow Jackets” — for almost ruining my Saturday. It’s a sort of interest group politics that doesn’t give a shit about any one else, as long as they can have their little manifestation party.
I actually like French president Emmanuel Macron because he’s trying to rise above all this, and imagine France’s global role, living up to its historic importance. For example, no one was lobbying for him to commit the country to restoring some 80,000 artifacts to their African countries of origin. He just thought it was right.
Ultimately, I think they’re trying to pretend they’re the ’68ers, the student and worker rebellers of May 1968, only they’re mistaking appearance for substance. This isn’t just me saying this; the majority of voters I talk to here in Paris agree that if the initial motivations and cause of the “Yellow-Jackets” were comprehensible, now they have no idea what they want; it’s tout et n’importe quoi. And ultimately the biggest winner will be Marine Pen’s Front National, currently matching the French president’s party in leading polls for the upcoming European Union elections.
17th-century drawing of the Loriette on top of the Jardin des Plantes.
Me, after observing that my local sanitaire — public toilet — on the other side of the park’s fence (the one where I’d recently rescued 2000 years of Western, Hindu, and Chinese Philosophy) was also now surrounded by mask-wearing and shield-holding black-garbed riot police, I decided to make my way over to St. Mich. A couple of blocks down the boulevard, their procession from the Seine carefully controlled by the ranks of riot police who flanked them on all sides, it was clear to me that this tame assemblage did not risk to tumble down the side streets and trash their own gardens. After crossing the street and continuing down a side street a block or so towards a university building, once the marchers and their police escort had passed I decided to return to St. Mich and sit down on a bench to enjoy the rarity of this main Paris artery completely emptied of cars and buses. Looking up at the Hausmanian balconies bathed in late-afternoon Sun, the perpetual, timeless aspect of the boulevard that being divested of cars lent it enabled me to fill the pavement with the demonstrators of 50 years ago. Later, walking down to the barred entrance of the garden allowed me to venture even further back; an organ de barbary grinder was turning his handle to feed the pock-marked cards of music to his instrument, hoping to find some clients in the groups of frustrated tourists clustered in front of the locked gates, their guides trying to explain in Italian, French, English, and Russia the reasons for the unexpected closure. (On my first Paris trip in 2000, which coincided with a museum guards strike, I arrived at the Rodin museum to find it closed with a sign posted on the locked gates apologizing, “For those who are making their first trip to Paris, sorry.”)
After, returning to the wind-swept Loriette above the Jardin des Plantes to enjoy an umpteenth cup of thermos coffee as I gazed over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris and witnessed a steady stream of huffing and puffing tourists and natives arrive triumphantly at the summit of the wooded labyrinthe, smiling to join me in the small cupola, then marveling at the sculptures in the outdoor Tino Rossi sculpture garden that lines the Seine after you cross to the quays from the Jardin des Plantes, I thought, these “Yellow-Jacket” complainers, they don’t realize what they have. They’re living in the most marvelous place in the world, surrounded by all this beauty, and they still have to find something to grouse about it. Meanwhile, the government is worried, no doubt prompted by the institutional memory of the eight or so previous rebellions whose blood still cakes the streets of Paris.
Arriving at a statue of a divided man whose head was resting on his waist over the inscription “Arthur Rimbaud, with his feet always in front of him,” after thinking “That’s me” even if my sciatic-dogged dogs felt less stable than the sculptured poet who died young and stayed pretty looked, I overheard a mother explaining to her five-year-old, “Do you see those things below his elbow? They’re vowels. It’s because he wrote a poem, ‘Les vowels.’” And thought: If a mother can still school her child on the important things, the boy’s real cultural, literary, and intellectual heritage, maybe there’s hope for France after all.