Monday, January 30, 2012

It started out as a simple run to renew my press card.
But this is Paris, a European capital.
Things happen.

La Grande Roue, Place de la Concorde
I take the Métro to Place de la Concorde and decide to walk the rest of the way,
instead of transferring for just one station. That takes me past the American Embassy (once accessible to all, and now barricaded... but that’s another blog) and then through the gardens that line the most famous street in Paris: the Champs-Elysées.
     Surprise! The entire avenue - all 1910 meters of it (1.2 mile, or 21 football fields) - is cordoned off by those metal things that look like bike racks. Not a car anywhere. Quite an apocalyptic image, like something out of "On the Beach" (look it up). There are two formidable-looking gendarmes in uniform at the crosswalk. And other pairs of them spaced out evenly on both sides of the avenue, in both directions, as far as the eye can see.
     (Here you need to know that gendarmes aren’t some slapstick Mack Sennett type of cop. They’re a branch of the military that serves as police in the provinces throughout France, anywhere there’s no municipal police force. They’re also sent into the roughest possible situations around the globe. Trained to obey and execute orders, much like Navy Seals.)
     I ask the nearest of the two officers whether there’s any chance of crossing. Politely, he replies, "No, ma’am. But there’s an underpass at Concorde and another at Franklin Roosevelt."
     Both are quite a hike, and well out of my way. Plus I’m curious to see what has merited the cost and bother of hanging these banners all along the avenue. (The French government must have a whole warehouse somewhere full of banners in the colors of every country in the world for just such occasions.) Paired with France’s bleu-blanc-rouge today are orange-white-and-green banderoles. I have no idea which country that could be. I decide to wait a while and see which bigwig they’ve battened things down for. After all, they can’t keep the Champs-Elysées closed forever.
     Little by little I strike up a conversation with both gendarmes. They are very apologetic and seem to enjoy my curiosity and lack of attitude. They identify the bigwig as the new President of the Ivory Coast, Alassane Outtaro, on a diplomatic visit to Paris. At that very moment, he’s doing what all visiting heads of state feel they must do: place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the very top of the Champs-Elysées. How long that will take? They don’t know. But after that he’s going to drive down the entire length of the avenue - Lord only knows why, maybe for the same reason a dog licks himself... simply because he can. Meanwhile, no one else can drive down the avenue and no one can cross it, even on foot.
     The younger of the two gendarmes tells me that he had been deployed to the Ivory Coast to help keep the peace during the civil war between Outtaro and the previous president, Laurent Gbagbo. I ask if it was dangerous and he says no, because the population had nothing against them. But when I say, "Oui, mais un accident est si vite arrivé" (accidents can happen fast), he smiles and nods and admits he’s glad he’s back.
     After about ten minutes, walkie-talkies crackle up and down the mile of gendarmes and word comes that "they’re on the move". Sure enough, here comes a whole motorcade, with a motorcycle escort tight around a limo flying the same colors as the banners - orange, white and green. They zip by at a fast clip, President Outtaro safe and invisible behind his armor of motards français.
     After two more minutes Gendarme Numéro 1 opens up the passage and I rush to take a photo of the Champs-Elysées sans cars... which is something not many people get to see. Then it’s across the rest of the still-bare avenue to take care of the business at hand.

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Formalities at the branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs take only a few minutes, but there’s a journalist’s event going on in the reception area, complete with TV cameras. With my press card renewed, I’m welcome to attend.
     Curious again, I find it’s a Human Rights Watch press conference on how the French police targets minors - mostly Arabs - for contrôle d’identité. A few minutes listening shows me it’s the same refrain as in the U.S. - Driving While Black, police profiling of Latinos... but focused on minors. Different country, different Usual Suspects, but same old same old.

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Seeing as I’m already out - and there’s so much to do anytime in Paris - I decide to check out a prehistoric exhibit on my way home. The museum’s in the same building as the journalism office: the Grand Palais, a stone-and-glass building built for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. (It’s also the same place I took my first final exams when I was at the Sorbonne.)
     Walking around the building, I’m engulfed by several busloads of schoolkids headed for the same entrance. Must be a prehistory field trip. When we get inside, there are many more busloads of schoolkids, all sitting cross-legged on the ornate mosaic floor, eating their lunch. Good timing. Thank you, President Outtaro.
     While they munch, I enjoy an almost private tour of the small exhibit that has been set up like a treasure hunt, complete with a booklet of hints and questions. The theme? There’s been a double assassination. Find all the clues you can. But being French, the displays have a definite didactic touch. The most interesting part to me was the skeletons themselves. Not the ones laid out at the beginning on what the curator chose to call an "autopsy table", but rather the ones at the end: two skeletons huddled together in their tomb, festooned with necklaces of tiny cowrie shells and shielded by an arbor of prehistoric deer antlers. They look so fragile, this man and woman murdered some 7,400 years ago.
     Something to think about in the Métro on the way home.

Palais de la Découverte

Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt
75008 - Paris
Tel : 33 (0)1 56 43 20 20

Open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30-6, Sundays and holidays 10-7.
Closed Mondays, Jan. 1, May 1, July 14, August 15 & Dec. 25
(specializes in the sciences)


  1. The things you run into while out and about in Paris. I've been following President Outtaro's story by podcast. I'm hoping he can help the Ivory Coast, but I'm not impressed with his trip down the Champs d'Elysses. Also, I'm reminded of London. The Mall was FULL of traffic just two days before the wedding. I spent the night before the wedding on it with thousands of others. The only vehicles were street sweepers, which I was told were probably security teams in disguise, and actual police vehicles. Until the Royal Procession, that is.

    1. Yes, those sweepers probably WERE plain-clothes police and more.
      As for the trip down the Champs-Elysées, they ALL do it, although sometimes not the entire length. I had to drive across that street every school day for five years and it was often the case. You had to make a huge detour. So it's not just Outtaro. This being said, I hope he will be good for the Ivory Coast. Africa could use a few more stable countries right now!