I think I have been to Place de la République six times. Potentially I’ve passed by or passed through a couple more times but I only actively remember six occasions and for reasons that will shortly become evident the place has taken on quite a weight of symbolism for me. The account that follows is all true, but tinged with memory, symbolism and things and people that later became more important to me than they were at the time.
The first time was the 8th January 2015. Our history teacher let us out of class half an hour early so we could go to the protests in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims. This was the day I had to very quickly learn the words to the Marseillaise. I was there with a particular friend who we will call A who I didn’t know too well at the time. After I left (my accommodation had a curfew) she sent me a video of herself later on at the top of the statues. Everyone was climbing them that evening and she smoked a cigarette looking out at the protest. I never made it to République during the march on the 11th. There were too many people.
Nine months then passed with me having absolutely no need to go to that part of Paris because the next time I showed up there was the 14th of November 2015. Obviously this was an awful time, but I found it touching to see that everyone had spontaneously come together and that, more importantly, we knew where to go because we’d all already been there to stand together. I went with one friend who had to leave Paris the day after and didn’t want to miss the sight of all the candles. Simultaneously, A texted me to see if I was around – so I agreed to meet her at République. Knowing that A would forget, I took two tealights and a pack of matches with me so that we could add our candles to the glowing mass gathering around the base of the statues. You couldn’t get very close to the statues because there were already so many flowers, candles, paintings and messages all over. While she was lighting a candle a photographer snapped a picture of A and she ended up in an English newspaper with the caption “young women mourn at Place de la République.” I guess I must technically be in the photo in the black shadows since I was standing right behind her. Across the square stood the wooden boards hiding a small construction site with a huge graffiti “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” in silver on a black background.
Later in November I was meeting some friends in a bar that was close by. I decided to walk around the whole statue to see all the tributes and messages. The whole affair had been formalised a little, the dead flowers and faded pieces of paper taken away. What remained were messages of defiance and support graffitied on the stone and a ring of empty glass candle holders with occasional paintings, laminated photos and a huge part of the base taken up with victims names. I made it a habit from then on to walk once around the statues every time I went to République, partly out of respect, partly out of a fascination to see how time would change and wear away all these things written and attached to the statues.
On the 14th May 2016 an English friend was visiting Paris and Nuit Debout was still in full swing. I had been busy and hadn’t yet gone and he was only there for a few days so we dropped by. I called a French friend who knew Nuit Debout like the back of his hand and we had a look around and a drink. I remember my English friend being surprised that there were still so many messages relating to Charlie Hebdo on the statues and I shrugged and said “we covered the whole thing, how were we to know we’d be needing all that space.” In huge words on the statue the words “thou shalt not kill” stood out strongly. I found the whole thing horribly depressing for a reason I couldn’t quite make out; later I came round to thinking that it was wonderful that there was something positive and fun being associated with this place, instead of it becoming a sad place that only held the memory of terrorism. Now there was music, a falafel stand and a faint smell of smoke that didn’t seem entirely to smell like cigarettes. All in all I felt like maybe the people were being a bit over the top about it but they were taking back this place to be somewhere positive.
In late May I went back to République to meet a friend before we went to the theatre. This girl, M, started out as A’s friend and so I knew her quite well but I think this was the first time we met up without A. In fact, I had to text A to get her number since I was early and she was late. I texted her that I’d meet her next to the lion –it’s a pretty obvious meeting place, given that there’s only one lion and quite a large square. Besides, I liked the lion because it was the centre of where the last remaining flowers and candles were and it was somehow humbling to see that they were still there, fewer but still many and still a strong memory. I noticed that the wooden boards had become a café, called Fluctuat Nec Mergitur. I watched a kid try to teach himself a skateboard kick for five minutes solid. He did not achieve it. Then I saw a great production of Cyrano de Bergerac.
30th June 2016 – A had got into a highly selective school so naturally a celebration was in order. I was busy during the day so we proposed to meet at around seven at République since it is, after all, a good place to go out at night. I got there at about five past, walked around the statues. I saw that some parts of the friezes had been spray-painted gold and I found it cool. Parts of the “thou shalt not kill” had been painted over. Nuit Debout seemed a memory, the sign was still painted as “Place Commune” instead of “Place de la République” but there were very few stands still up and instead a temporary skate park had been installed at the far end of the square. I texted A to propose that we all meet at the lion. As I said, it’s an easy meeting spot. An old lady next to me was relighting every candle that still had a wick and praying from time to time. A lot of the names had fallen off or been ripped off. I suppose if they’d been ripped it was a little disrespectful but I was in a good mood so I felt like it was just a necessary part of the rejuvenation. Yes, the past would sometimes be taken away violently but there would still be the memory and it would get less painful. The candles would still be there but the graffiti would become unrecognisable. All the scars would heal over and calm down. I’d had a great day. I was proud of A, I’d found a jacket in a lost property free-for-all that I really liked and the sun had finally come out. I was listening to a new album that was really good and just at that point a feather was falling, not in a swerving arc like they do normally. Somehow it had ended up on its point in mid air and was being caught and spun by the wind while upright. It must have taken a full two minutes to fall and I’d never seen anything like that before. I had my phone out waiting for a text anyway and so I took a selfie while I waited.
Then I got mugged. I’m not sure of the exact series of events but I ended up on the ground and I think I got kicked. When I got back up I had no phone, wallet or headphones and a cut on my face that was pouring blood into my eye and mouth. It was a group of about five girls around my age that beat me up. In the struggle they ripped off my sunglasses but I grabbed them back in some glasses-wearer instinctive fear that they were taking away my sight. As it happens I was wearing contact lenses, but I’m glad since I really love those sunglasses. My iPod somehow made it from my pocket to my bag and stayed there paused at the point where the headphones had been ripped out for a couple of days. A group of strangers then surrounded me offering advice, tissues, disinfectant wipes and to call the police. All of these were done and a couple of them led me into the Fluctuat Nec Mergitur café to get myself cleaned up and gave me a glass of water.
My friends arrived later. One of the people who helped me went out to find them while I cleaned myself up. A told me later that she had tried to call me since I wasn’t by the lion and a strange old lady told her to be careful with her phone in this neighbourhood. We figured out from our descriptions later that it was the same lady who had been relighting the candles. I spent the rest of the night in A&E with A, M, and three other good friends who had all meant to be spending the evening celebrating with A. Given the circumstances we made quite a good evening of it and I’m sure we lightened the mood for a few other waiting room inhabitants that night. One group of girls had sent me to hospital and another group had stayed with me until I left.
I haven’t been back to République yet but I will. For me the overwhelming memories are not my most recent visit and never will be. They’re scrambling through a bag to find a pen to hold to the sky last January, sitting in sad silence with A next to the candles last November, watching my English friend and French friend get along like a house on fire despite neither priding themselves on language skills and mostly, how I felt sitting next to the lion watching that feather thinking that, yes, bad things happen, but they fade in time and become just a small part of something bigger and better.