New Media for a Forgotten Massacre

The killing of up to 200 Algerian protestors in Paris by police on October 17th, 1951 has been called France’s “forgotten massacre.” Exactly fifty years later, it seems light is finally being cast on the events of that cold autumn night –with a distinctly new media flair.

At the height of the Algeria’s war of independence, thousands of Algerians gathered in Paris to protest a curfew imposed by the city’s police chief Maurice Papon (yeah, that Maurice Papon). The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) had called for a demonstration against what they considered a racist curfew imposed solely on the capital’s Algerian residents. Up to 30,000 peaceful protestors filled the streets. But most historians believe that Papon had planned in advance for a violent crackdown against the demonstrators. Throughout the night, over 10,000 protestors were beaten, arrested and then sent to detention centers in series of attacks throughout Paris. Anywhere from 50 to 200 protestors were beaten to death or shot dead by police.

Most horrifyingly, dozens of dead or unconscious protestors were thrown into the Seine. Bodies were found downstream, some as far as Le Havre, 100 miles away on the English Channel.

Until recently, the events have been little covered by the mainstream press and still are not included in school textbooks. In fact, many French historians and commentators claim that the government has covered up the killings. The government has yet to officially apologize and authorities still question the death toll.

This year marked a real turning point, with plenty of coverage of commemoration events in the print media and a deluge of new books. Moreover, the French talent for multimedia web production was on full display, with an impressive amount of content available online. After all, the French love the web documentaries, which they lovingly call webdocs (every self-respecting bobo is “finishing up their webdoc”). Webdocs are a perfect meeting ground for the French love of photo, video and quirky storytelling.

Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve found online this week:

La nuit oubliée (The Forgotten Night)

A fantastic webdoc combining comics, video interviews and much more. There’s also a great interactive map of Paris. Click below for the webdoc (french only):


Another webdoc, with interactive map and plenty of interviews. The trailer is below and you can find the webdoc here: (also only in French)

Intro 17.10.61 from Cosmografik on Vimeo.


The youngins over at Owni are Paris’s own data visualization gods, widely worshiped in new media circles. They featured a great visualization (below) and an article with scans of official documents showing that French authorities planned out the illegal incarceration of thousands of “FMA,” or  French Muslim Algerians:

Ici on noie les Algériens (We drown Algerians here)

The French talent for documentaries has also been poorly applied to the events of October 17, 2011 – up until now, very few films have been produced about the massacre in the center of Paris. Seems this is changing as well. Here’s a trailer for one that opened in select Paris theaters yesterday:

The Godfather Comes to Montreuil?

A violent attack on a squat in the eastern suburbs of Paris last weekend has received a considerable amount of media attention for what has become an almost banal Parisian summer event: squatter evictions.

Over the weekend around twenty masked strongmen wielding iron bars and tear gas lay siege to a group of “activist” squatters in an abandoned house in the municipality of Montreuil. What the press has called an “armed raiding party” smashed the building’s entrance gate on Saturday, roughed up some inhabitants and returned two times over the weekend to wreck more havoc. According to witnesses, police showed up 30 minutes after the attack started but did nothing to stop the casseurs (hooligans). One usually reads about staged battles between casseurs and the police – this was a weird turn of events.

In a series of short statements released to indymedia, the squatter “collective” said they had occupied the house since 2007 with no outside ownership claims. Despite calling the squat La Maison qui Pue, (the House that Stinks), the collective insists that they lived in harmony with their neighbors. According to the collective, this weekend’s attackers were hired by a local real estate group called IAD that professes to have bought the house and wants to avoid a lengthy legal battle.

There was a surprising amount of mainstream buzz this week. Even the mayor of Montreuil chimed in, condemning the raid to the AFP. Local politician and teacher Bruno Saunier wrote an editorial piece on the website of news channel France 24 describing the owner’s “mafia-like methods.” The attack has received a large amount of coverage, including center-right Le Figaro, thanks to a video taken by a resident of the neighborhood:

But evictions at the numerous squats in the Eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil are an old story – squats have been sprouting up in this famously far-left neighborhood for decades, bringing in artists and anarchists alike. French law forbids evicting tenants during the winter, so the warmer months see a number of evictions, especially in Montreuil. It’s somewhat of a spring fertility rite in the area. Whole streets are blocked off for massive police operations, as screaming anarchists are dragged out of the large and often charming turn-of-the-century houses typical of Montreuil. The squatters have an impressive support network and always manage to attract local attention to their cause, while shunning the mainstream media.

This weekend’s event was different. It almost seemed that French press sniffed a whiff of the Godfather in the air. The media buzz has had an effect: According to Bruno Saunier’s personal blog, the two employees of the real estate company that ordered the attack have already been fired.

Squatters versus casseurs versus the police versus squatters. The gangs of paris never cease to amaze me.

Protest out my window #1- Pro-Gbagbo March

As French troops surround Laurent Gbagbo’s resident in Abidjan, it’s time to roll out a series I’ve wanted to do on this blog for a while: Paris’s protest marches as seen through my window, but with an angle on causes that reflect the city’s diversity.

Yesterday hundreds of pro-Gbagbo supporters marched in front of my apartment, offering a fascinating window – literally – on how diaspora communities express themselves as unrest divides their home country.

I live in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, on a side street off the largest protest/strike route in the city between Republique and Nation (see below). The 2010 retirement age protests, the 2006 “equality opportunity law” student demonstrations – I’ve seen it all from my window.

Every once in a while I’ve opened the shutters to a march that defies French protest clichés of worker unrest, disgruntled public sector employees or screaming students. I’ve seen communist Kurds, Malian immigrant workers, supporters of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and much more. Yesterday was new.

The large Ivorian community in Paris is divided between supporters of Gbagbo and internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara. Support is still strong in France for strongman Gbagbo, according to the AFP. Here’s the view from my window, hastily put together (apologies for poor quality):

Demonstrations have taken place throughout Paris since the disputed November 28 presidential election but yesterday protest was all the more tense as UN and French troops lay siege to Gbagbo’s home in Abidjan. Add to this France’s complex relationship with its former colony. Until recently the Ivory Coast was feted as the jewel of West Africa, with its large French ex-pat community and booming cocoa-based economy. Things went sour in 2002, when France got involved in Ivory Coast’s civil war. Nationalist youth groups linked to Gbagbo’s regime attached French-owned businesses in 2004 and a wave of Francophobia hit the country.

I saw some of that anger yesterday. “Sarkozy/Juppé: Murderer” was the most common slogan, after “Gbagbo: President.” Protesters brandished disturbing placards of charred bodies, claiming that French attacks have already left 2300 civilians dead. I ran down to talk to a few protesters.

“You live in a country with a media controlled by its President,” one man told me two seconds after I reached the boulevard. “Of course you don’t read about the atrocities in the papers.”

Will be interesting to see how the unfolding crisis plays out in Paris… That is if this sunny weather holds out.

Touche pas à mon Cirque!

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s clampdown against Romanian and Bulgarian Roma immigrants took a new twist recently when France’s only gypsy circus announced that their performers could soon be “invited” to leave their caravans for a one-way flight back to Romania. The French government has already paid for the “voluntary” repatriation of over 1,000 Roma back to the Balkans following clashes between the police and French Roma this summer. The performers at the Cirque Romanès claim they are next. “They want to put us in an airplane,” according to the website of the beloved circus a few weeks ago.

A poll this summer showed that almost half of the French support their government’s controversial drive, which includes dismantling illegal squatter camps. Nevertheless, resistance is strong amongst the French left and the Cirque Romanès is rapidly becoming a hyped-up symbol of the peril facing the Roma in France.

Why has a group of circus performers captured the attention of France? Although Newsweek has hinted that Sarkozy represents the new “extreme right” and European Commissioner Viviane Reding was reminded of the deportations of the Second World War, you simply can’t take a circus away from the Parisians. Certainly not the beloved Cirque Romanès, an old-school tented act that has charmed the city for almost 18 years with a frenetic combination of classic circus numbers and traditional Romanian music.

This Monday, almost a thousand fans and a horde of television journalists packed under the circus tent for a benefit show organized by the flamboyant founder of the circus, Alexandre Romanès. The Cirque is always a chaotic affair – jugglers, contortionists and trapeze artists vie with a 6-piece Southern Romanian band for precious space on the tent’s carpeted floor. For the benefit, it was especially cramped, with dozens of camera crews and photographers throughout the tent. On several occasions acrobats literally had to hop over crouching cameramen.

The city’s artistic bohemian elite was also out in full swing, providing plenty of fodder for celeb photographers. Actress/singer Jane Birkin was among the various notables that joined the performers. The show went on as always (see my hastily put together video below) but everything felt a little awkward with the surplus of media and celebs.

The media frenzy has reached such levels – a photo of a ten year old Romanès performer graced a major weekly (see photo below) – that the French government issued a statement the night of the benefit show. According to the Minister of Immigration Eric Besson, the circus organizers have engaged in a “gross manipulation” and their plight has nothing to do with the government’s “fight against illegal immigration from Romania and Bulgaria.”

In reality the situation is more complicated. Alexandre Romanès was born in France, making him, his Romanian-born wife Delia (and resident circus diva) and his immediate family of performers all French citizens. In fact, it is his five Romanian musicians (fiddle, accordion, trumpet, clarinet and bass fiddle) that are in trouble as their request for renewal of work papers was recently denied. In his opening speech at the benefit, Mr. Romanès, had no doubts why their papers were turned down after years of easy renewals. “It was the word Tsigane that caused the administrators to block,” he said.

The French administration has directly responded to the accusations, claiming that the circus pays below minimum wage, employs children and has unacceptable working conditions – the performers do live in caravans behind the circus tent. In an argument repeated throughout the French print and television media, Mr. Romanès has insisted that his musicians are well-treated, (“they are paid twice the minimum wage”) have free electricity and that his musician’s paper troubles have everything to do with the government’s efforts to combat Roma illegal immigration.

Since the government crackdown this summer, misunderstandings in the media have been rife. Confusion has been sown between French Gypsy, Romanian Roma, French Roma and so on. There are around 300,000 “French Gypsies,” known as gitanes, largely in the south of France. Most came to France in the 19th century and form a distinct semi-nomadic cultural group of Roma that includes the Spanish Gypsies. On July 22 in the town of Saint-Aignan, a group of French Gypsies surrounded a police station to protest the killing of a young member of their community by a policeman.

Sarkozy’s reaction was immediate – he described “problems coming from the behavior of certain itinerant populations and Roma.” By “Roma,” he meant the some 20,000 Roma immigrants that came to France after escaping aching poverty and discrimination in Romania and Bulgaria. So, on one side there are French Gypsies who have been French citizens since generations and the other side Romanian/Bulgarian immigrants, who by European Union law can legally stay in France for three months.

A few weeks ago, a government memo that was circulated to police chiefs over the summer was leaked to the press, identifying Roma camps as a “special priority” for dismantlement. The government quickly distanced itself with the memo and had it retroactively modified to remove the nasty ethnic reference. Yet this only increased public misunderstanding of Roma, Rom, Roms, Romanian, Gypsy, Gitanes etc. It is gaffes like this that give credibility to the Cirque’s claim that their problems stem from simply “being Gypsy,” despite their French nationality. (Alexandre is a French Gitane and widely published French poet)

It remains to be seen if the media circus around the circus and its paper problems will help break the impasse. A petition has gathered well over 10,000 signatures and I’m sure Alexandre and his performers will continue to raise awareness of their problems, and hopefully shine some light on the issues faced by French Gypsies and Balkan Roma throughout France. (I’ve covered the plight of a Moldovan musician with similar problems in this space)

The Cirque and its performers reflect many common clichés about the Roma. The image of free-living, musical bohemians juggling in some caravan-strewn abandoned lot outside of Paris fits perfectly into our common Roma fantasy. Perhaps that is why they have become such media darlings. But isn’t this romantic/nostalgic image so quintessentially “French?”

I asked a circus worker if he thought the circus’ future was in jeopardy and he seemed surprised. “Of course, can you imagine a circus without music?!” I guess he took me for the dumb blogger I am, or thought I was. Little did he know I cameo as an accordionist/banjoist/guitarist/drummer in the smallest Circus in Paris, the Zebre de Belleville.

I remember the first time I went to the Cirque Romanès. I was fascinated by the well-behaved kids in the audience enjoying old timey Romanian music and classic circus acts. I couldn’t help think, “jeez this is the coolest country.” A few years later, when I found myself playing Romanian accordion in a dimly lit Paris circus I felt like this New Yorker had truly integrated and was on track to becoming French, or at least my conception of what seemed so quintessentially French.

Maybe I was wrong…

Adrian Receanu – Playing By the Rules

Photo: Alexis Rimbaud

One piece of advice you might hear when pitted against the French bureaucracy is “don’t play by the rules.”

It’s been eons since my last post (time-consuming job), but I’d thought I’d make a comeback with an entry about a young clarinetist from Moldova who has done everything humanly possible to play by the rules. While Paris is swarming with illegal musicians – be they Romanian subway accordionists or American ex-pats – 30 year-old Adrian Receanu has filled out every last page of paperwork.

And now he is deep, deep căcat [dans la merde in Romanian]

After living, studying and performing legally in France for ten years, on March 11th Adrian received an avis d’expulsion du territoire français, a dreaded document among immigrants here. In short, the avis orders you to leave France in one-month’s time – giving Adrian until April 11th to get out of le Dodge. Today’s Canard Enchaîné, a well-known satirical weekly, summed up Adrian’s sticky situation: “He made two mistakes: the first, to get married, the second to divorce a Frenchwoman de souche.” [most appropriate translation I could think of, ”blue-blooded Frenchwoman]

According to Adrian, he simply tried to update his immigration status. But at some point during the complicated process of changing his marriage residency card to a student visa, he caught the attention of the immigration officials. A simple administrative nightmare – anything involving paperwork in France invariably becomes horrific – turned into a spiralling descent into a bureaucratic hellhole. Having already clocked three bureaucratic nightmares in my five years living here I can only sympathize. But Adrian is facing exile from his home, friends and workplace.

Luckily, Adrian has many friends.

This Wednesday, the glitterati of Paris’s Romanian and Klezmer music scene were out in full force for a benefit concert at the Cafe de la Dance in central Paris. Adrian has a hefty lawyer’s bill to pay to deal with the paperwork and try to gain the upper hand in his immigration proceedings. Luckily, Adrian is a transatlantic Eastern European music superhero. The some 300 fans and supporters that showed up and gave to the cause were testament to this.

The concert was a real spectacle. France’s reining Gypsy Queens were there: Norig, Rona Hartner (from Gadjo Dilo fame) and an up-and-coming young Franco-Hungarian Gypsy singer Erika Serre were among the headliners. At the final onstage jam, Adrian found himself in a Gypsy Diva sandwich, surrounded by legions of admiring Klezmer musicians. After all, Adrian has a special place in the hearts of those of us that are obsessed with old time Eastern/Central European Jewish dance music.

Photo: Corine Goldberger

He stared playing clarinet at the age of 12 in his native Moldova, eventually going to a “folk music” conservatory to master Moldovan folk music. Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, was at one time a melting pot, with ethnic Romanians, Russians, Hungarians, Greeks, Jews, Roma and the Gagauz, a Turkish ethnic group, to name a few. Moldovan traditional music reflects this rich heritage.

Adrian, curious about the diverse roots of Moldovan folk music, is particularly fascinated about the shared roots of Moldovan and Klezmer music. Since moving to France, he has plunged into the repertoire of German Goldenshteyn , a Moldovan Jewish clarinet player that was one of our last links with old time Jewish music. Although German died in 2006, Adrian picked up many of his tunes, and just, well, plays them right.

He is a member of the all-star “Other Europeans” ensemble project, which explores the common roots of Yiddish and Roma music. Pending future visa problems, Adrian should be touring with them in the US soon. Check out a short clip of Adrian playing with his band in Paris:

Despite the festive mood at the benefit concert, conversation quickly turned serious. France’s ongoing debate about immigration is well-known. The current government, which was pummelled at regional elections last week, recently called for a controversial public “debate” about French national identity. France’s far-right wing party, the National Front, made a surprising come-back at the polls in last week’s elections, scoring over 20 % in certain regions. Many observers blame the current government’s obsession with immigration and identity for the rise of the far-right.

At the concert, there were dark rumours that Adrian was part of the government’s rush to deport as many immigrants as possible. Since Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007, the government has made public the number of “expulsions” of illegal immigrants – last year they announced 30,000. Was Adrian a victim of number-crunching?

“Our goal is also to show that Adrian has a real life here in Paris – friends, fans, supporters and all of the well-known artists that he works with,” Elie Petit told me outside the venue. Elie, a Klezmer clarinet player himself, is the treasurer of the Union of French Jewish Students. The largest Jewish student group in France was out in full force to support Adrian, taking time off their busy schedule of throwing clown noses at the Iranian President.

A personal note: Adrian is one of the kindest, sweetest and most genuine musicians I have ever met. Back in 2004, I spent a couple of weeks in Romania to learn local accordion styles and got my ass kicked (musically) from Wallachia to Bukovina. I did leave with enormous respect for the local musicians and their dedication to playing their musical traditions “correctly.” Yet I’ve been terrified of the wrath of Romanian musicians ever since. Meeting Adrian – and sharing a few tunes with him – has changed everything.

No doubt that Adrian has more than a vie privé here in Paris. He is an essential part of the trad musical scene here… and abroad. Check out and join his facebook support group.

This being France, there was some heated discussion in and around the concert if the organizers should also use Adrian’s plight as an opportunity to raise the awareness of the situation of immigrants in France. If anyone wants to voice their opinion on this, feel free to do it the comments section: [en français si vous voulez..]

Lesser-Known Languages of Paris – Insults in Judeo-Arabic

Most New Yorkers have been exposed at least once to Yiddish, probably after passing a few Hassidic Jews on the street, but does your average Parisian know that they’ve probably crossed paths with another arcane Jewish language, Judeo-Arabic?

While Yiddish – a mix between Hebrew, German and various Slavic languages  – was the lingua-franca of European Jews, “Judeo-Arabic” (and its various dialects) was spoken by Sephardic Jews from Casablanca to Istanbul. A mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and local Arabic dialects, Judeo-Arabic evolved over time after Sephardic Jews left Spain in the 15th century and settled in and around the Mediterranean.

Most of the remaining speakers of Judeo-Arabic today are in Israel, with small pockets in Tunisa and Morocco, which both still have small Jewish communities. But France’s Sephardic community – about 60% of the total Jewish population of around 600,000 – also boasts a few older speakers, due to large-scale Jewish immigration to France from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. And like Yiddish, most of the language disappeared with the second generation.

For American Jews, only the most juicy Yiddish words have endured, such as schmuck or putz, (idiot, fool). Interestingly, second-generation North African Jews in France have also retained a colorful arsenal of insults.

For this post, my second so far, I’ll have to backtrack a bit to a previous job of mine at a Paris-based Jewish organization, where I shared a room with two Tunisian Jews. I quickly found out that when the stress escalated, my Jewish colleagues would unleash invective in what I initially assumed was Arabic.

I was soon corrected – Tunisian Jews don’t swear in Arabic, according to my former colleagues. They swear en Judeo-Arabe.

More specifically, my roomates were cussing in Judeo-Tunisian, a sub-dialect of Judeo-Arabic. Ethnologue cites a Judeo-Tunisian lexicon of 5,000 words in 1950 that documented 79% words of Arabic origin, 15% Romance loanwords and 4.4% Hebrew loanwords. Unlike the ghettoized Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, Jews and Arabs lived in close proximity, sharing language, music and culinary traditions. Judeo-Arabic reflected this co-existence.

Although many Jews in Morocco and Tunisia spoke Judeo-Arabic, by the late 19th century Algerian Jews were mainly French-speaking, following the “Crémieux Law” of 1870 which gave French citizenship to 37,000 Algerian Jews. As a result, Algerian Jews began to assimilate to French culture even before they immigrated to France after Algerian independence in 1962. Moroccans and Tunisians, on the other hand, retained both Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, carrying it with them into France.

Judeo-Arabic has not made the inroads into French that Yiddish has into American English. Nevertheless, modern French slang is full of words of Arabic origin like bled – city, kiffer – appreciate, reflecting both French colonialism and post-war immigration to France from North Africa.

Today Judeo-Arabe is disappearing, along with plenty of other vestiges of Jewish culture in North Africa, as second and third generation Sephardic Jews assimilate in both France and Israel. But there are plenty of traditions that exist in Paris – mostly in private – that I hope to get at in later posts.

If you find yourself on the streets of Belleville or other heavily Sephardic neighborhoods in Paris, listen closely and you might hear the final breaths of a dying language. And if you are really feeling adventurous, arm yourself with some of the useful insults below, you might just impress someone, or at least send them into an amusing rage:

Insults – Field Recordings and a Lexicon

Between bouts of screaming in Judeo-Arabic, I finally took it upon myself to start writing down some of the more colorful phrases that were let loose in the pitched battles that were a daily occurrence at my office. At first, my colleagues were perplexed that a New Yorker would want to learn their insults – distrust and mutual incomprehension are somewhat endemic of the Sephardic/Ashkenaz divide in France.

But by learning their curses like Naal din rassa taik, I was able to slowly gain their trust and dive into my anthropological research:

Here, a former colleague, “M,” a second-generation Tunisian Jew, effectively demonstrates a Judeo-Arabic tirade, replete with the all-important hand gestures. Roughly translated: “Cursed be the religion of your mother, may she mourn your passing, you f****r.”

Next up we have “A,” born in Algeria, offering what she claimed was a “polite way to say f**k off.” Unfortunately she wouldn’t translate it. Deeply religious, “A” wasn’t going to partake in the often scatological insults used in her mother tongue:

Worlds apart from A’s shy prudishness, we have “G,” born in Tunisia:

“G” also refused to translate, but upon consulting my excel spreadsheet of insults, it seems he is saying “f**k off you American dwarf” along with some unfortunately unpublishable material. [ed: my grandmother reads this blog]

For those that want to delve a little deeper into the venomous couscous of Judeo-Arabic insults, I’ve listed some of the more printable insults, unfortunately edited down a bit, so my Bubby doesn’t get verklempt when she reads this:

Chrabonne boul a lik ya carba – je vais pisser sur toi – i’m going to urinate on you

Ishou omok fik – que ta mere sois en deuil de toi – may your mother mourn your passing

Nadeen ram bok – maudit soi la religion de ton dieu enculer – cursed be the religion of you mother, f**k you

fuk a lia fout ma la paix – get the hell out of here

kul mogalti tai – eat me [edited down version]

bara neeyik – f**k you

in tee jnoun – tu es un petite nain – you are a small dwarf [notice that the word for dwarf, jnoun, resembles “Djinn” or genie, a supernatural creature in Arabic folklore]

Naal din rassa taik – polite f**k off [Judeo-Moroccan version]

atini le flush ya zhnoun – give me the money, you little dwarf

ya bouftak – you have a giant butt [ahem, edited a bit]

meuftouk – screw you

ya ta han – you voyeur

kruzhl zu bit ai on boul a lik – I will urinate on you [other version]

irrdum yaf fin yen – Weakling!!