Paris after the liberati.., p.36
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.36Antony Beevor
The session which had started on 29 November did not end until 3 December. During its course, the balance of power tipped decisively in favour of the government. Already there were signs of the strike cracking, with non-Communists returning to work despite the violence threatened and used against them. Then, in the early morning of 3 December, a small group of Communist miners in the north destroyed their own cause. Hearing that a train full of riot police was on its way and acting on their own initiative, they sabotaged the Lille–Paris line near Arras by dislodging twenty-five metres of track. Instead of a troop train, however, they derailed the Paris–Tourcoing express. Sixteen people were killed in the crash and thirty were seriously injured. News of the disaster reached Paris in the morning. By the afternoon, there was no traffic in the Champs-Élysées and the city appeared in a state of siege, with armed police at every intersection in the centre.
On hearing the news in the National Assembly, Communist deputies expressed no regret for the victims. They accused the government of having carried out the sabotage, and compared the incident to the Nazis setting fire to the Reichstag and blaming the Communists. Such tactics did themlittle good. Newsreel cameras had been rushed to the site of the crash. Their slow pans across the wreckage created stark black-and-white images of carriages split open, revealing battered corpses inside. One commentator, in a voice vibrant with anger, talked of an ‘abominable attack’ carried out by ‘anonymous criminals’. These newsreels, shown in cinemas all over the country, had a powerful effect. The derailing of the express immeasurably strengthened the hand of the government.
On the day after the session ended in the Assembly, Maurice Thorez went north to talk to the miners of Hénin-Liétard and rally their spirits. He made no mention of the derailment. While he was absent, a grenade – a German grenade – exploded in the garden of his residence at Choisy-le-Roi. It was most probably an attempt to divert attention from the victims of the train crash.
Perhaps the most decisive effect of the rail disaster was the split it produced among strikers over the question of violent methods. The postmen, who had just returned to work, were given police protection. Other workers still out on strike came under increasing pressure from their wives to resume work before Christmas. Distrust of the Communist Party’s intentions spread even more rapidly after the crash. These suspicions proved well founded. Not long before his death in 1993, Auguste Lecoeur admitted calmly in interviews with the film-maker Mosco that sabotaging the French economy and splitting France politically was simply part of ‘the struggle against American imperialism’.
A growing number of workers resented being used by the Communists for political ends and demanded secret ballots on whether or not to continue the strike. At first the Communists resisted this by intimidation, but by the second week of December the pressure had become too great. ‘Under these circumstances,’ wrote Moch in his debriefing document to the prefects, ‘the Communist directors of the CGT no longer had any choice but to begin strategic withdrawals or suffer a total defeat. If they had delayed another forty-eight hours in giving the back-to-work order they would have lost complete control of the CGT membership. The end of the strike must therefore be considered as a Communist withdrawal, implying a serious check but not a definite defeat.’
General Leclerc’s funeral service was planned for 8 December in Notre-Dame. The event had taken on strong political overtones in the circumstances. ‘All Leclerc’s boys are pouring into town,’ Nancy Mitford wrote to her sister. ‘It is like mobilization – there will be 2,000 of them in Notre-Dame.’
President Auriol and most of the diplomatic corps attended. ‘The ceremony was fine and impressive,’ wrote Duff Cooper in his diary, ‘but the twelve other unhappy coffins detracted from the grandeur of the central figure without gaining any themselves. One regretted their presence yet felt doubly sorry for themon that account. A man’s funeral is his last appearance and he ought to have the stage to himself.’ The British ambassador then led the diplomatic corps on foot from Notre-Dame to the Invalides through two heavy showers. Leclerc’s loss would be felt most in the direction of French policy in Indo-China. He was one of the few realists left in a senior position. His strong advice that the French should negotiate independence with Ho Chi Minh had embittered relations with his superior, Admiral d’Argenlieu. Politicians in Paris, even in the Socialist Party, felt obliged to support d’Argenlieu. They had not grasped how much the world had changed.
The last strike collapsed on the morning of 10 December. The headline in L’Humanité – ‘This morning, 1,500,000 combatants returned to work as a group’ – represented a desperate attempt to paint defeat as victory of a sort. Huge mounds of refuse still lay in the streets of Paris.
That night Duff and Diana Cooper gave their farewell ball at the British Embassy, and it turned out to be the ‘gala occasion it could not have been the week before’. Nancy Mitford wrote to her mother that the embassy had received 600 acceptances, ‘in spite of the fact that no letters have been delivered for a week’.
Churchill flew over from London on the morning of the party. He arrived to a beautiful day. News of his presence caused huge crowds to gather outside the embassy in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, chanting their demands for his appearance. He went out to address them in his inimitable version of the French language and received an exuberant ovation – ‘a thing he always enjoys’, his host noted with amused affection.
The party began at half past ten. Virtually all the corps diplomatique came. The ‘conspicuous exceptions’ were the Russian, Polish and Yugoslav ambassadors. Churchill, beaming, in white tie and full decorations, entered the salon where his parents, Lord Randolph Churchill and Jenny Jerome, had been married. On his arm was the beautiful Odette Pol Roger in a spectacular red satin dress.
Guests wandered in admiration through the high-ceilinged and gilded reception rooms. Like Churchill, all the men were in white tie with full decorations, the ribbons and sashes vivid against the black tail coats and starched white waistcoats. Diana Cooper had invited several designer friends – Dior, Balmain, Rochas and Molyneux – and they looked at their own and other creations with a critical eye.
Susan Mary Patten wore a dress by Schiaparelli – ‘heavy ivory grosgrain, with an enormous bustle, very Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Christian Dior bowed to her and said, ‘That is one of the greatest dresses I have ever seen, and I wish it were mine.’
The Gaullists there that night, such as Gaston Palewski and Pierre de Bénouville, were puffed up by John Foster Dulles’s statement the day before that General de Gaulle was ‘the coming man in France’. Dulles had even made a point of ignoring Bidault at the London conference. Jefferson Caffery was one of many who were exasperated at this clumsy intervention in French politics. Support for de Gaulle would have been more to the point in 1944; in December 1947 it simply came as an insult to Schuman and Moch, whose determination and stamina during the previous two and a half weeks had won the respect of even Malraux and Palewski.
Susan Mary Patten was deeply embarrassed when the playwright Henri Bernstein came up and said, almost within Robert Schuman’s hearing, ‘Well, thank God you Americans have at last declared yourselves for de Gaulle. Bravo for Mr Dulles.’
Perhaps provoked by Dulles’s praise of de Gaulle, Jules Moch made sure that the Americans appreciated the efforts made to defend Republican order; but his main objective was to put pressure on the United States to hasten financial aid to France before unrest erupted again. With Caffery, he was, of course, preaching to the converted. The ambassador’s reports to Washington extolled Moch’s ‘courageous and energetic measures which have tended to bolster the government’s and his own prestige’. But he also believed firmly that without the announcement of the Marshall Plan, the Schuman government would never have been able to inspire sufficient determination among its officials and political colleagues to resist the Communist onslaught.
The Minister of the Interior did not rest on his laurels duri
Moch hurried forward his predecessor’s programme of eliminating Communists from the Paris police and the CRS riot police. Such was the success of this procedure that the balance was entirely reversed. By the summer of 1948, it was estimated that 19,000 out of 23,000 policemen in the capital were anti-Communist. The Ministry of the Interior meanwhile altered the distribution of CRS riot police around the country so that more were deployed close to the main danger areas – the coalfields of the north and the larger industrial centres of the east. Moch also asked the Ministry of War to formnew squads of Gardes Républicaines from the gendarmerie. In critical regions, the army was to allocate infantry battalions as permanent reserves for security duties.
The idea of commanders of military regions exercising control was anathema to Moch. He said that he wished to avoid ‘the psychological and political disadvantages which often accompany a declaration of martial law’, but he also did not trust anybody else, certainly not the Ministry of War, to control civil unrest. Neither he nor Robert Schuman lost sight of the fact that only a real improvement in the standard of living would reduce the power of the Communists, and that depended on the Marshall Plan.
The Great Boom of Saint-Germain-des-Prés
The bars, bistros and cafés of Paris had long acted as intellectual incubators, but never so much as in Saint-Germain after the war. An extraordinary array of talent had come together in two square kilometres of Paris at a time when the cross-fertilization of ideas had never seemed more exciting and important, when every art appeared on the point of a new departure. This could not have happened without places in which people could meet, talk, argue and write, from morning until late at night.
The ideas were new, but the café setting was reassuringly familiar. Whether the floor was of wood or tiled, whether the triangular ashtrays on the little tables advertised Byrrh or Dubonnet, whether the posters for the latest plays and exhibitions were tacked to the door or pegged to the yellowing net curtains, the smell was always the same. It was warm and sociable, established over the years from imperfectly washed bodies, Caporal tobacco smoke and cheap wine. Entering a familiar café was like a homecoming.
Café life in Saint-Germain observed certain conventions. Sartre noted that ‘people would come in and find they knew everybody; each person knew the smallest details about the private life of their neighbour; but one did not bother to say bonjour, although one would immediately if one met any of them elsewhere’.
Before 1944, when the effects of his fame became too distracting, Sartre used to work at the Café Flore for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. The morning session began with him bustling through the door, his pockets stuffed with books and papers. He threaded his way through to his favourite corner table, settled down, lit his pipe, downed a couple of Cognacs while spreading out his papers and started to write.
The proprietor of the Flore, Paul Boubal, at first had no idea of his customer’s identity. He often came with a dark-haired woman, who also wrote – in the same corner of the café, but at a different table. They left at twelve, but came back after lunch and worked in the room on the first floor till closing time.
One day there was a telephone call for a Monsieur Sartre. Boubal had a personal friend called Sartre and told the caller he was not in the café. The caller insisted that he must be, so Boubal called out the name – and up stood the little man with the pipe and pebble glasses. ‘From that moment he became my friend, and we often had a chat in the morning; later, the telephone calls increased to such an extent that I decided it was necessary to put in another line specially for him.’
The famille Sartre and the bande Prévert used to patronize both the Flore and the Deux Magots. The great period of the Deux Magots had been between the wars, when – according to Vercors – the café was so filled with celebrated artists, politicians and men of letters that it was almost impossible to find a place; particularly since young disciples would bring up chairs and sit two or three deep round the tiny tables, listening attentively to the conversation of the great figures. Yet by the late 1930s the Flore had also gathered an impressive group of regulars which included not only the bande Prévert, but also André Breton, Picasso and Giacometti. Towards the end of the afternoon, people often drifted to the Deux Magots, where they could enjoy the last of the sunlight.
Communists, if they were not in Marguerite Duras’s apartment in the rue Saint-Benoît, favoured the Bonaparte, on the north side of the Place Saint-Germain, while musicians tended to gravitate towards the Royal Saint-Germain, opposite the Deux Magots on the south side of the Boulevard. In the evening other places came into their own: the Rhumerie Martiniquaise, the Bar Vert and the bar of the Hotel Montana.
The central point of this café life was the square between the Deux Magots and the ancient, much rebuilt abbey of Saint Germain-des-Prés. The frontiers of the quartier were clearly defined: on the east, the Boulevard Saint-Michel; on the west, the rue des Saints-Pères; on the north, the quais along the Seine; on the south, the rue de Vaugirard. The narrow streets were still cobbled then, gently dipping between tall houses that leaned this way and that. Roofs, stucco, bricks, cobbles, shutters and paintwork provided every shade of grey fromzinc to soot. Occasionally, when the large door of a porte-cochère was open, one might catch sight of a courtyard with a few shrubs and potted geraniums; otherwise the only green was that of the leaves of the plane trees on the broad boulevards.
As it was considered bourgeois to have an apartment, young intellectuals lived in dilapidated hotels, which came to symbolize the rootless and unmaterialistic life of an existentialist. The Louisiane in the rue de Seine, the Montana and the Crystal in the rue Saint-Benoît, the Pont-Royal in the rue Montalambert, the Madison in the Place Jacques Copeau: all were cheap, offering little more than a bed and basin. The concierge – usually the proprietress – who sat glowering behind the desk was a figure to be feared and placated, especially when one was behind with the rent. Juliette Gréco was so terrified of the landlady of the Louisiane that she scarcely dared ask for her key or her mail. Yet these little hotels had the atmosphere of a university hall of residence, happy and familial.
Since cooking in the rooms was strictly forbidden in most establishments, the bistros were important in the life of Saint-Germain: the Cheramy, the Catalan, the Petit Saint-Benoît, Les Assassins, L’Esculape. Everyone knew everyone – if not well, then enough to exchange a ‘Bonjour, ça va?’ in the street, or swap quotations from Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style. This little masterpiece was both a brilliant demonstration of the versatility of language and one of his funniest and most accessible works.
Despite the cold and lack of money, the tiny theatres of Saint-Germain, like the Théâtre de la Poche, the Vieux-Colombier, the Huchette and the Noctambules, all flourished. This was the anti-théâtre, le théâtre de l’absurde, le théâtre révolutionnaire, le théâtre des idées – ‘more ideas than theatre,’ grumbled the critic Jean-Jacques Gautier. One of the most original and inventive playwrights of the post-war theatre was Jacques Audiberti. His plays were noted for the fertility of his language, which managed to be both musical and rooted in the everyday.
These little productions worked as cooperatives: the actors were also scene-shifters and costume-makers, they swept out the theatre and painted the scenery. The odd-job man round the corner could sometimes be persuaded to knock u
The youth of Saint-Germain lived off coffee, sandwiches, cigarettes, cheap wine and small loans from friends. The men were recognizable by their American-style plaid shirts, crew-cuts and gymshoes. Tartan featured prominently in the mid-1940 s; and in the cold winters that followed the Liberation, the canadienne – a felt jacket designed for lumberjacks – had the dual advantage of being warm and looking proletarian. Girls no longer had their hair built up above the forehead; fringes were in fashion, and the rest was left long and droopy. High-necked, tight-fitting tops and sweaters, short black skirts and ballet shoes completed the costume. After 1946, black became increasingly fashionable for both sexes.
The face and voice which came to epitomize the youth of the late 1940 s were those of an inexperienced actress called Juliette Gréco. Her father was a commissaire de police from Montpellier and her mother had almost lost her life in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Juliette had come to Saint-Germain in 1943. For a time she was a member of the Communist youth organization and sold its newspaper, but then she became sickened by it. In four years her acting career had not advanced, and later she was to become notorious as the figurehead of corrupt Parisian youth; yet she always retained an innocent, unworldly quality which was part of her appeal. Christian Bérard designed for her a pair of tartan slacks, trimmed with mink around the ankles. Gréco asked what mink was.
Her introduction to the famille Sartre came through Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a quiet man of great charm whom Boris Vian described as ‘the only one of the philosophers who asked women to dance’. Gréco was amused by the way the waiters in his favourite haunt were used to receiving his silver cigarette lighter until he could pay the bill. One night, at the Bal Nègre in the rue Blomet, he introduced her to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre she found very accessible. ‘He was a great one for jokes and talked easily to the young’, and answered any question you put to him. Simone de Beauvoir, on the other hand, had ‘un aspect plus difficile’. Also sitting at Sartre and Beauvoir’s table was a red-haired girl in black velvet called Anne-Marie Cazalis.
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