Fort Vincennes, as we would say, is a gem showing several centuries of architecture. The oldest structures, surrounded by a moat, date from the 13th century; the most recent, adjacent the nearby Boulevard des Maréchaux, is a compound built in the 19th century and used mainly for record-keeping, I am told, but that could be a cover.
Located next to parks and sports facilities on Paris’s southeast corner, including a clay court tennis club that is itself a gem, it is difficult to imagine this is the political prison that once housed Diderot and Voltaire, among others. It was also a royal residence, and the fort with its high walls and towers were important in the defense of Paris against the Prussians, both in 1815 and 1870, while the exquisite high Gothic chapel inside the walls reminds us what the city stood for once.
Inevitably, there is a smell of the Rhine in these eastern neighborhoods, just as there is an Atlantic breeze about those of the west. Contemporary renovations and supposed improvements, including automated ticketing and relatively clean restrooms, do not remove the particular flavor, something to do with sauerkraut and beer, that used to thicken the air at the Gare de l’Est, nor the feeling of sun and olive oil in the Gare de Lyon. Leave Paris from the Gare du Nord, you can feel the Channel.
Place names bespeak the national story. The eastern rail station is located on the Place du 11-Novembre, the northern one on the rue de Dunkerque. Around the old fort at Vincennes are street names evoking colonial wars and generals, in the west we find Washington or Franklin—and de Gaulle, much more than a general. In the northeast and the old red suburbs, now of uncertain hues, there are still echoes of class war, or some sort of faith—Stalingrad, Gagarine, Titov.
There is a slight American flavor to the old Roland-Garros tennis stadium, where I spent most of my time during a visit to the city this past spring. The main entrance is on the avenue Gordon-Bennett, one of our great newspapermen, and the high-rent manners and high-fashion styles of people who come this way or live nearby are far from the working class, insurgent, popu (for populaire, people) flavors of the east side, in all its many varieties.
The truth is that the old working-class Paris is all but gone, confined to a few furtive streets that will not long resist the irrepressible advance of progress championed as much by the present mayor, a nominal leftist, as by his conservative opposition in the municipal council. Their hearts beat as one in their detestation of the old Paris misérables on their barricades, Jean Valjean and Gavroche, preferring to them the gentrifying new classes who think in terms of the price of a square meter of real estate and would not know the reason for a name like the rue de Tlemcen or the boulevard d’Indochine.
However, a platoon of United States Marines performed a silent drill the other day in the old Vincennes fort, after a fanfare of Gardes Républicaines. On the other side of Paris, next to the tennis stadium into which thousands crowded, there lies a beautiful little park called the Jardin des Poètes, on whose stones are inscribed verses, such as those of two poets belonging to different centuries but sharing the same faith:
Heureux ceux qui sont morts dans une juste guerreHeureux les épis mûrs et les blés moissonnés(Happy those who fall in a just war/Happy the ripe grains and the harvested wheat)
Et laissez vous mener vers l’avenirLa lumière porte son secret(Go without fear toward the futureThe light holds its own secret)
The first lines are by Charles Péguy, who died in the Great War (as did the stadium’s namesake), and the second are by Patrice de la Tour du Pin, who survived a POW camp during the next. Poetry too staked a claim as a kind of faith, but neither of these two men went for it. Which may help explain why what they wrote endures.