The Place de la République at the intersection of the 3rd, 10th and 11th arrondissements in Paris, has become, since the Charlie Hebdo attacks a year ago, home to a profusion of handmade memorials.
Paris is a sanctioned memorial city, with approved statues of dead dignitaries and literary greats, with streets named to remember engineers and generals and artists. To have a place or a square, an avenue or a building, a statue or a plaque marking your life here is an official recognition of fame, a governmental gesture toward accomplishment, usually in service to France.
At the Place de la République looms the statue of Marianne – symbolizing or personifying the valors of France. It stands atop a giant pedestal on whose sides are three other representations – of liberty, equality and fraternity. That base is now scrawled with remembrances, draped with flags, plastered with handwritten signs, wreathed by unlighted candles, festooned in a way with limp flowers, fading drawings, damp photographs. This display began early last year, and it grew in scope following the November 13 attacks that killed 130 ordinary people who were simply going about their lives in the area, dining with friends on a sultry evening or attending a concert in a crowded theater. Passersby this week could still take them in, under the cloudless blue sky of a mild winter day.
The government has not cleaned the monument of its scrawls, nor has it removed the flowers or signs or any of these other homely mementoes to the dead. The government is, in a way, helpless in the face of a public urge to honor private loss, to make visible the lives of those who may not have contributed to the glory of the country on a large scale but who each created the texture of a living, rather than a memorial, city.
Today the French government cannot, as it might have done sometimes in the past, control the story of who is remembered, what is remembered or how it is remembered. These mainly young people who were slaughtered in November weren’t, most of them, public figures, even if their deaths were made public by the cruel happenstance of targeted hatred. These ad hoc memorials aren’t officially sanctioned either, but neither are they being officially erased. They can’t be for now. No one knows how long they’ll be left there, or if they’ll be renewed by ordinary citizens who want to continue to remember and cherish the forgotten ordinariness of obliterated others. For now, they stay, these testaments to the hope that each of us has that however little we think of how we live or what we’ve done that we won’t be forgotten as quickly as we fear. Or perhaps locals feel it’s better to take the remembrance of others into their own hands and leave the pomp to those who prefer public display to quiet compassion.
The French depend on their government for much, but people at the same time feel helpless in the face of it. They want the government to provide, but often hate the government for providing some of what they’ve come to take for granted. As an American, I’m used to government intrusion into privacy but in general I also expect indifference to my life in other ways. I am not accustomed to a national identity card, or to a national health insurance card, or to any number of bureaucratic necessities and benefits that make up the average French person’s everyday.
My own relation to my federal government, perhaps because it’s filtered through state and local ones, is different from what I sometimes feel the French believe of theirs. For me, and perhaps for other Americans who live part of the year abroad and see their country from the perspective of faraway complaints, the national government is more of a deadpan antagonist than a detested provider. And while America has always had a reverence for certain figures in its creation, we can’t compete with France for placing an official face on the notion of cultural or historical patrimony. And yet in both countries, the personal sometimes rebels against the official – the need to mark who are or who we were in the face of national disregard or misrepresentation.
In the weeks and months after the terrible attacks of 9/11, which I witnessed up close, handcrafted memorials sprung up around Manhattan, near the sites that were destroyed or in areas or neighborhoods that were affected by what had happened.
One around the corner from my apartment touched me deeply, especially as it showed up year after year – in memory of a woman who had lived in a building on West 85th Street and Broadway, and who had perished when the first plane struck the north tower. Every September for a week or so over the course of a decade following the events of that day, someone would tape by the building entrance a photo of this lovely young woman and her dog, her smiling face beaming with life, her dog ecstatic in her company. She might not have been important to the country as a whole, but she was someone special to her small community, just like the fallen Parisians, some of whose images have been affixed like captured souls to the base of a statue, a statue that symbolizes values that really only become human through their loss.