Flâneur. In French, it describes a person who wanders through a city, seemingly aloof, but truly engaged. The term has no precise English cognate — even Oscar Wilde, a master of language, kept the original French in De Profundis, the famous letter he penned from prison.
For more than a century, the meaning of flâneur has grown alongside the cultural intrigue of Paris. Flâneur is reflected in Caillebotte’s sumptuous painting Paris Street, Rainy Day and Hemingway’s thoughtful strolls through the Latin Quarter described in A Moveable Feast. A flâneur takes a Sunday jaunt through the Luxembourg Gardens or an evening amble on the cobblestone streets of the Marais. She doesn’t hurry. Rather, she allows her surroundings to invigorate the senses, the sweet scent of falafel along Rue des Rosiers or the saturated greens of the Tuileries after a late-afternoon rain. To be a flâneur is to be a proper local in the French capital.
But today if a person were to walk out onto the street to do as a Parisian should, she would likely find her path obstructed. Here is a police cordon, there a cement barricade. And now a bullet-proof glass wall, eight feet high, is under construction around the Eiffel Tower. As the constant threat of terrorism looms in the French capital, how locals and tourists alike experience the city has undergone a profound transformation.
I moved to Paris from Michigan just over a year ago to begin my graduate studies. Since then, the city thankfully has not witnessed terrorism on the scale last seen in 2015. Weeks go by without a single terrorist incident; yet the potential for violence persists palpably.
Until recently, France had been under a state of emergency since terrorists murdered 130 people in the Bataclan Theater and elsewhere in Paris on November 13, 2015. On November 1, a new anti-terror law, initiated by President Emmanuel Macron’s government, came into effect, replacing the state of emergency. Critics claim that with this new legislation France has cemented the emergency decree into law.
Every day I’m reminded of the seeming permanence of danger. I come across armored soldiers patrolling in groups of four as I go to work, or walk to the grocery store, or meet up with friends. Sometimes I get held up at intersections as lines of police vehicles rush by, sirens blaring, stoking that needling fear of another large-scale attack.
It’s a shared anxiety. According to the French polling firm Ifop, which has tracked national perceptions of the terrorist threat since 2012, three-quarters of Parisians still believed in August that the state of emergency should be maintained or strengthened: The troubling thought lingers, reinforced by the recent attacks in Barcelona and New York and the daily reminders one encounters on Paris’ streets.My workplace sits around the corner from the Bataclan, about a five-minute walk. The venue is located on a bustling boulevard, otherwise lost in the surrounding commercial hubbub if not for the presence of tourists peering out front.
Once, following its reopening, I wandered past the theater on my way to the grocery store during my lunch break. I moved down an alley alongside the venue where two years prior I had witnessed — through my smartphone and thousands of miles away in Michigan — concertgoers flee and a pregnant woman hang from a second-floor window trying to escape the carnage inside. On the door frame of the side entrance, I noticed, someone had scrawled “We haven’t forgotten.”
Since my curious trek, I’ve located a supermarket in the opposite direction and have gone out of my way to avoid the theater altogether.
Recently, I discovered, however, that my new path also butts against Paris’ not-so-distant horrors. While on our way to the store one day, my coworker and I took a detour through a quiet residential neighborhood just north of Place de la Bastille. On a secluded street, lined by plain-looking apartments, we spied a series of portraits painted on the whitewashed facade of a building.
“Who do you think they are?” I asked him as we neared the faces to get a better look. He didn’t know.
Then I spied it, that familiar rallying cry written next to the paintings: Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie. We had arrived at the former offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, where on January 7, 2015, two brothers had begun their rampage, murdering twelve innocent people.
The next day I charted yet another course to the grocery store.
There are several little obstacles that impede walks through Paris these days. They are found in the police presence in front of Notre-Dame and barriers erected around tourist attractions. They exist in the stirring memorials set up on quaint side streets. Like so much of Paris’ contemporary appeal, to be a flâneur in the City of Light is slowly receding into the nostalgia for a silent, more tranquil past. ♦
Stuart Richardson is the editor-in-chief of the Paris Globalist. He is pursuing a graduate degree in international security at Sciences Po.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the state of emergency was still in effect.