Written before Macron’s lock-down, of course, Jeremy Allan Hawkins observed that Parisians were walking through their city again. But did he see the same type of dilly-dallying, louche, truth-seeking, urban hanger-on as Baudelaire’s flaneur? Or the existential and psycho-geographical explorers of Guy Debord’s Situationists? Not quite…
They were driven first by necessity in the midst of massive transport strikes, then by choice in a kind of pedestrian wake: either as the on-foot aftermath of the social movement, or in due observance of grief at the fall of the French social state. They are not a yellow-vested protest march filling the streets, however; they are the daily transhumance clogging the pavements. Crossing the French capital, they make multiform and uncanny echoes of new fashions and old forces. On one hand, they are the unplanned spectres of millennial pedestrianisation, steadily giving new weight to urban policies announced out of the Mairie de Paris, the policies themselves slow iterations of municipalities desperately seeking to offset the significance lost in a pulverising confrontation between digitisation and touristification. Seen through a trick lens, the image of energy transition conjures up visions of public space not as agora but as open-air arcade, where shoppers unperturbed by vehicular movement can have free latitude to engorge. One the other hand, the walkers of Paris reinforce a long-term administrative vision of Imperial-Republican France, centralising the nation in the gravity well of its capital through both a dense bureaucratic core and the implacable reach of its able-bodied lesser functionaries. The Parisians walk to work on maintaining centralised power, cramming the downtown offices, or packing into trains heading for the provinces. In this sense, they walk with purpose.
They remind us that the flâneur is long-dead (and good riddance), its ghost continually crushed under the slow stampede of mass tourism and state-mandated shopping. The world’s well-off grandparents do their best performance of an idle stroll, peering into the retro-styled vitrines of the boulangeries and wondering about café etiquette, while their spendthrift grandchildren queue for branded macarons and status-structuring selfies. For flânerie, the ensemble forms a kind of death masque – not infinite in duration, but still splayed out into an indefinite future – wherein the dancing always occurs in private ballrooms and the tourists are continually shunted through the antechambers of the party to the tune of tortured accordion music interpreted by the original Bohemians, as they were once wrongly known, the Roma musicians returned West. Meanwhile, the play is performed in concentrate through the halls of Versailles, where the freedom to move and to consume is hyper-canalized in ways all too appropriate for an effigy to absolute monarchy, fitting in a town that housed the bourgeois retreat that would eventually smash the Paris Commune, the most singularly emancipatory moment in French history. The Versaillois hide the payoff from that coup in the cloak rooms of those same private ballrooms in which they host coming-out ceremonies for their scions, while the tourists, imagining themselves princes and courtesans, clamour back into the RER commuter rail to Paris to have time to throng Montmartre, to have time to sit for a street caricature.
The story turns on mobility. The TGV-isation of France has put Paris just over two hours away by train from Bordeaux, less than two hours from Lyon, even less from Strasbourg, an hour from Lille, just three from Marseille. Contemporary travel speeds for 19th century administration. The Parisians rail away to their positions protected by lifetime contracts, teaching in the universities, filling the benches of magistrates, directing institutes and museums. They take the place once held by state-assigned village schoolmasters, forming a diffuse network of Parisian influence and control over the country. They fulfil their duties, express their longing for certain objects or experiences only procurable in the capital, and leave their last meetings early to run for a train back for the weekend, at the very least.
But they do walk. They arrive in Montparnasse and hike two hours back to the northern edge of the 18th arrondissement. They come late into the Gare de l’Est, but decide to make the walk back to Montrouge. From the Gare de Lyon, they take bicycles to Marne-la-Vallée. They turn away from the city center and walk to Pantin, saying it’s “Pas si loin.” They could return to riding the metro, back in service, or the commuter rails, or they could take advantage of Uber’s slave fleet. Yet so many are choosing to continue walking. Their night would be wasted anyway, so why not clear the head, get some exercise? Why not cross a neighbourhood or a park they enjoy? Why not follow the river or the canal? Why not regain the Paris that had been broken into an archipelago by a transport system that was meant to make it accessible to all? In the most undramatic terms, they refuse an hour of reality television, or virtual window-shopping on Amazon. They make a phone call or listen to an album from a new artist. They stop off for groceries or break for a small beer. They find reasons for a walk without real purpose. Or they did.