A Tale of Two Cities

The Communist view of Paris was not just of a city of stark contrasts, but of two different cities juxtaposed. ‘There is the Paris of banks, of boards of directors, of ministries, of American films, of insolent GIs, of American cars from the embassy of which the government is an annex; the Paris of nauseating luxury, of town houses inhabited by elderly dowagers who are lost in the labyrinth of their rooms.’ Then there was ‘the other Paris… at the same time much older and much younger’ – the working-class Paris of ‘Belleville, La Chapelle, la rue Mouffetard, Charonne, Ménilmontant…’

Political rhetoric aside, the stark division of Paris between beaux quartiers and quartiers pauvres came largely from Baron Haussmann’s drastic reshaping of the city under the Second Empire. The populous slums in the centre were razed after their inhabitants had been evicted by force, and a golden boomof unrestricted property speculation began along his strategic boulevards laid out for the field of fire they offered against revolutionary mobs. Haussmann’s dictum that ‘architecture is nothing else than administration’ made town-planning akin to a military campaign, waged on behalf of a brashly triumphant bourgeoisie. There can be no doubt, as the sociologist J. F. Gravier wrote in 1946, that Haussmann’s cleansing of the lower orders from central Paris ‘strongly reinforced class consciousness’.

The shift in population created new slums around the northern, eastern and southern perimeter of Paris. This became known in the 1930s as the ‘ceinture rouge’, even though it never encircled the city. The uprooted poor and successive waves of migrants to the capital were to live in cheaply built tenements and houses, which soon began to crumble. At the end of the war over a sixth of all buildings in Paris were in a seriously dilapidated state, and this proportion rose to well over a quarter in working-class districts. The central problem was that rents were so over-controlled and so low – in 1945 rent took up only 4 per cent of the family budget as opposed to nearly 19 per cent in 1908 – that landlords never spent any money on repairs, let alone improvements to their property. Nearly a quarter of the houses and apartments depended on a tap in the courtyard or on the landing, and nearly half had no inside lavatory. The lack of hygiene extended to cooking, which was dangerous in the cramped conditions. The Prefect of the Seine, in a report to the Municipal Council, spoke of ‘slums which ruin the health and morals of our working people’.

Some 450,000 people, roughly a tenth of the population of Paris and its suburbs, were defined with bureaucratic euphemism as ‘les plus défavorisés’. Worst of all were ‘les îlots insalubres’, the slum pockets in sunless, narrow streets, with squalid little apartments where a total of 186,594 people lived in 4,290 buildings, often with four or five people to a room. Up to 30 per cent of such inhabitants succumbed to tuberculosis, a record as bad as that of 1918. In one slum, the death rate reached 43 per cent. The Prefect, however, appeared to be most concerned with the moral aspect of parents and children sharing beds. ‘We are faced with a major crisis of disastrous social implications… Family life exists in an atmosphere of disintegration, where the degree of promiscuity is appalling.’

In the waves of immigration before the war, the ancient and beautiful town of Saint-Denis on the northern boundary of Paris was swamped. ‘One cannot,’ wrote Gravier, ‘forgive the architects, the developers, and the property companies who built the cheap rented accommodation in Saint-Denis, for having changed a lively city full of history into a sordid concentration camp for immigrants.’

A large proportion of the migrants to Paris came from Brittany and the Auvergne. Although devout Catholics, they had far fewer children once they reached the city than the average in the communities from which they had sprung. In a country obsessed with increasing its birth rate after the slaughter of the First World War, Paris was therefore seen as a vampire, depopulating the countryside by attracting its young, then reducing their fertility at a stroke. One writer argued that the loss in births from internal migration to Paris between 1921 and 1936 came to the equivalent of the total French casualties during the Second World War. The main causes for this abrupt demographic change were brutally simple: the physical restrictions of tiny tenement apartments and the cost of food. All too many young wives had to resort to back-street abortionists.

In eastern Paris, the districts of Belleville and Ménilmontant lay mainly between the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the Porte des Lilas and the cemetery of Père Lachaise, burdened with the memory of the massacre of Communards in 1871. Alleys, steep little cobbled streets, and houses with grey shutters and peeling grey stucco bore testimony to a very different sort of history from that of the spacious and grandiose centre of the city.

After the thick slush of winter, the only colour in spring came from the blossom of a few stunted and polluted lilacs or optimistic shoots from ruthlessly pollarded plane trees. The begrimed romanesque façade of Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix in the Place de Ménilmontant appeared to belong to an industrial city of the north, not to Paris. Few buildings matched in height and the chaotic roofscape was completely unlike the Haussmann-imposed discipline of central Paris. There were not many shops: the odd under-provisioned grocer optimistically entitled ‘Alimentation Générale’, the dingy little establishments run by migrants from the Auvergne selling wine, firewood and coal, and bare cafés with little more than a zinc counter for those in cloth caps and blue overalls who needed a petit vin blanc to start the day. Housewives still did almost all their shopping in the street markets, like the one on the rue de Ménilmontant.

As well as the Jewish leather-workers and cobblers and garment workshops in Belleville, the area was filled with artisans of every description: watchmakers, woodcarvers, caners, cabinetmakers, monumental masons for the gravestones in Père Lachaise, all working in tiny ill-lit premises, in most cases no more than a cubbyhole with a workbench, pigeonholes and a single bulb on a flex above.

From the water towers overlooking the cemetery of Belleville round to the abattoirs of La Villette, to the marshalling yards and railway workshops of La Chapelle, eastern and northern Paris were areas of great working-class solidarity, however fragmented their population.

In the 18th arrondissement, which included the central workshops of the French railways, young Communists hero-worshipped their elder brothers who had taken part in the Resistance – the centre for their activities had been the basketball club.

On Sunday mornings, the men of the Gager family put on their Sunday suits and went off to sell Communist Party newspapers. Hersz Gager, the father, sold L’Humanité, and the elder son, Georges, sold L’Avant-garde. Each had his own pitch in the rue de l’Olive next to the market.

Activities for Communist youth were taken as seriously as the Church’s activities for young Catholics. There were outings to politically approved plays, the cultural programme of the Association France-URSS, which usually involved watching films about the heroism of the Red Army, and camping for boys and girls in a very puritan atmosphere. The only relaxation came when young Communists in the 18th arrondissement used to organize a dance known as la goguette, the name coming from Saturday-night parties on the banks of the Marne before the First World War. They danced le swing and loved le bebop. The Communist Party decided not to maintain its anti-jazz line too strictly – it needed to recruit the young.

Hersz Gager’s weekly cell meeting took place in the rue Jean Robert and started after supper. He always shaved carefully before setting out. (Cell meetings in factories took place after work, but most workers preferred to avoid a cell linked to their job because if the boss found out you would be the first to be fired.)

The Communist year had its feast-days and days of political observance. Supposedly the happiest, like an ancient spring rite, was the fête des remises de cartes. This was a family event, with cakes and wine, and singing and dancing to an accordion. The cell secretary would make a speech, and then present the party membership cards with jocular remarks, such as ‘Perhaps this year you’ll manage to sell a few more copies of L’Huma!’ Other major festivals included May Day, the mass pilgrimage up to the Mur des Fédérés at Père Lachaise where the Communards had been shot, and the Fête de l’Humanité. Even protest marches were a social event, however serious their purpose.

At the opposite end of Paris from the artisan workshops of Belleville lay the vast, disciplined Renault complex at Boulogne-Billancourt. Sirens regulated the day. Each morning, the crowd of capped workers assembled at the tall entrance gates, and when they opened, the men ambled forward under the eyes of the security guards. Then the gates closed again. A young intellectual who joined the workforce to share the experience compared it in an article in Les Temps modernes to entering a prison each day.

Food remained the greatest cause for concern in poor districts of Paris. Their inhabitants, whether industrial workers or state employees, were the most vulnerable in all of France. The country, as a SHAEF report put it, suffered from ‘a chronic shortage of food made worse by an imbalance in consumption’. With average incomes still 20 per cent lower than before the war, the urban poor and those on weekly salaries were receiving 30 per cent less of the share of national income.

Nine months after the Liberation, SHAEF reported that ‘the food position in France continues to be grave. Urban France has never approached the ration of 2,000 calories per head.’ The ration target for the ‘non-farm population’ in the summer of 1945 was 350 grams of bread a day, 100 grams of meat a week and 500 grams of fats a month. In April the population of Paris averaged only 1,337 calories a day, but this overall figure hid terrible imbalances between the beaux quartiers and working-class districts, where many, especially the old, virtually starved to death. The effect of malnutrition on the young should not be underestimated either. The average height of children was to fall dramatically.

Subsequent improvements during 1945 were short-lived. The announcement that bread rationing, which had been relaxed, was to be reintroduced on 1 January 1946 had provoked turmoil in the last few weeks of de Gaulle’s administration. Groups which had nothing in common politically, from the newly formed Comité de Défense de la Petite et Moyenne Boulangerie to the Communist-dominated Union des Femmes Françaises, protested vociferously. And just before New Year, people stormed bakeries in a surge of panic buying. Customers at the back of the queue attacked those coming out with several loaves, even though they too had planned to buy as many as they were allowed.

Those with peasant relatives not too far from Paris stood a much better chance of obtaining provisions. The less fortunate needed all their wits to survive. As during the Occupation, you had to resort to ‘le Système D’ – the D standing for débrouiller, getting yourself out of trouble by any means necessary. This encompassed everything from raising rabbits and hens to dealing on the black market, selling items stolen from work and, above all, avoiding the cash economy. Almost everyone exchanged goods and services. Prostitutes, garage mechanics, plumbers and artisans rarely received payment in cash. Even factory workers were often given produce from the factory in lieu of wages. It was not surprising that the government had such trouble in collecting taxes.

Penury afflicted those on fixed incomes as well as industrial workers. Outside the Ritz, the wife of an American diplomat who threw away a half-smoked cigarette was deeply embarrassed to see a well-dressed old man pounce upon it. There was even a trade in cigarette butts, sold in tens. Those on low salaries defended themselves as best they could. Conductors on overcrowded trains required a tip if they were to find you a seat, a practice which provoked members of the middle class to complain that this was extortion.

Certain shopkeepers, especially butchers, were notorious for increasing their profits by holding back supplies and offering them to richer customers. ‘If you want some entrecôte, Madame, there is some – au prix fort.’ At Barbizon, outside Paris, half a dozen of the best properties were bought up by butchers. One butcher, visiting a house for sale, offered 3.5 million francs in used notes on condition that the owners were out by the next day. In January 1946, the Minister of Supply ordered the Prefect of Police to arrest four leading members of the Syndicat de la Boucherie, but this was little more than a gesture.

The greatest scandal of all, at a time when the wine ration was only three litres per adult per month, concerned the disappearance of large quantities of wine imported by the Ministry of Supply from Algeria. As usual, the law-abiding saw little wine, while everyone else profited – fromthose who registered at several wine shops to multiply their ration, or kept a dead relative on the books (‘The dead generally take their drink dry,’ remarked the secretary-general of the Confédération des Agriculteurs), right up to the major wholesalers, who are alleged to have made huge profits selling the produce abroad. The Minister of Supply, Yves Farge, sacked all forty members of the directorate dealing with wine, but their faults probably stemmed more from inexperience than deliberate wrongdoing. The épuration administrative had removed many competent officials; their places had often been taken by candidates with a good Resistance record but little aptitude for the job.

The affair grew fast, implicating more and more prominent names from the Socialist Party until even the former Prime Minister, Félix Gouin, was dragged into it. The only people who really benefited from the great wine scandal of 1946 were the press, who had a field day.*

Almost everyone caught with black-market produce claimed that he was the father of a large family and was just trying to feed his starving little ones. Many no doubt spoke the truth, but at least half the population seemed to be pilfering or dealing in one form or another. A gang of schoolboys at the Lycée Condorcet – their chief was thirteen and a half years old – was found to be buying chewing gum in bulk from the Americans and selling it at huge profits. The group’s treasurer was caught with 10,000 francs on him.

Nobody stuck scrupulously to their own trade when they could get hold of something else to resell ‘au prix fort’. Galtier-Boissière’s barber offered him American chocolate for 800 francs. A couple of days later his wife, Charlotte, told himthat she had at last managed to get hold of some fish.

‘Where was that?’

‘At the butcher I go to.’

Those with good connections in the catering trade always managed to survive. During the Occupation, for example, Roland Petit’s ballet troupe, whose star was Zizi Jeanmaire, were fed free at the restaurant in Les Halles owned by Petit’s father, who was immensely proud of his son’s success. Diplomats, senior officers and officials with cars and a petrol allowance found a farmer as their regular supplier, and drove out at weekends to buy supplies of eggs and butter and perhaps a ham. They did not even bother to hide their purchases because cars, especially official vehicles, were seldom stopped.

Diplomats certainly did not undergo any hardships. ‘I’m suffering today from a baby hangover,’ wrote one guest after a party at the Turkish Embassy. ‘The Turk did us proud – the board over-groaned. I would have been ashamed “en pleine révolution”, for that is how these days are referred to here – to show such langoustes, such pink foie gras – oysters in such quantities – only wings and breasts of chicken floating in a Turkish cream of nuts.’

A few people were shamelessly flippant about the situation. Noël Coward described in his diary a dinner for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: ‘I gave them a delicious dinner: consommé, marrow on toast, grilled langouste, tournedos with sauce béarnaise, and chocolate soufflé. Poor starving France.’ Some found such attitudes hard to forgive. Yves Montand, singing in Le Club des Cinq, was so angered when a customer just below the stage ordered a whole lobster, picked at it, then ground out his cigar in the half-eaten carcass, that he punched him.

Resentment was fuelled because there were three sets of rules, one for the poor, one for the rich and another for the Americans and British. Smart Parisians with places in the country were able to supplement the tiny meat ration by bringing back game to the city. Since few deer had been culled after the surrender of firearms under the Occupation, large supplies of venison were available provided you could lay hands on ammunition. Every shot had to count, since the ration was twenty cartridges a year. A woman in Paris was overjoyed to discover two boxes of pre-war cartridges under a pile of books in her attic. She was able to convert these, via a complicated barter with a friend who was a first-class shot, into ‘two pheasants, a kilo of butter and a roast of veal’.

The British and Americans were even more privileged in the winter of 1946, with the black-market rate reaching 250 francs to the dollar and 1,000 to the pound sterling. This was at a time when a housekeeper-cum-cook could be found for 2,500 francs a month. A number of diplomats and journalists made honourable attempts to have nothing to do with the black market. The daughter of Cy and Marina Sulzberger was not even allowed to play with the children of parents who resorted to it. Bill Patten forbade any use of the black market in his household. He explained to their cook, Madame Vallet, how to toast K ration biscuits. As soon as he had left, she went straight to Susan Mary and informed her flatly that they must use the black market, but Monsieur need not know about it.

The pressure to succumb was overwhelming when almost everybody else accepted that under le Système D rules were there to be broken. When Susan Mary Patten went to an employment agency to hire a maid, the patronne immediately said with a gleam in her eye, ‘Naturellement Madame aura les provisions de l’armée américaine.’ The significance of US army rations had been obvious from the beginning, even though they came in inconvenient quantities once every six weeks – huge cans of processed vegetables, fruit juice, bacon, powdered egg and army powdered milk known as Klim. There was little choice, but for the French it was like treasure at a time when one grapefruit cost the equivalent of four days’ pay for a skilled worker. Susan Mary Patten’s housekeeper ‘caressed the cans, almost crying’.

In the autumn of 1946, prostitutes had an even greater need to resort to le Système D. To the horror of men and most of the medical profession, brothels became illegal.

Paris brothels were sometimes known as maisons d’illusions, the sort of euphemism which foreigners had come to expect of the city. The more technical definitions were maisons de tolérance, where the prostitutes lived, ate and worked; and maisons de rendez-vous, where ‘the women come to work as prostitutes usually during the afternoon’.

The police vice squad – the Service des Moeurs – was responsible for enforcing the many regulations. Windows and shutters were to be kept closed; on the ground and first floors, the shutters had to be solid wood, not louvred; each inmate had to be registered with the police and in possession of an up-to-date medical card, or carnet sanitaire; and inspections had to be carried out twice a week by a designated doctor.

On 13 April 1946, the new law outlawing brothels was passed, to take effect on 6 October. One of the principal motives behind this measure had nothing to do with morals or with health. Marthe Ricard, a councillor of the Ville de Paris and one of the MRP candidates elected to the Constituent Assembly, had in fact introduced the bill ordering the expropriation of brothels and their conversion for use by impecunious students. There was a desperate shortage of accommodation for students in Paris, but this only complicated the debate over the advantages and disadvantages of registered brothels.

The main battle seems to have focused on the medical question. If official brothels were suppressed, then the 7,000 registered prostitutes would simply swell the number of ‘clandestines’ out on the streets, and disease would spread rapidly. But most of those who supported the measure did so because they found the old system – under which ‘les pouvoirs publics organisaient la prostitution’ – morally reprehensible and open to police abuse.

For many traditionalists, the legislation was tantamount to an attack on French culture. Pierre Mac Orlan said, ‘It’s the foundation of a thousand-year-old civilization which is collapsing.’

Galtier-Boissière was another with a nostalgia for the gossip and banter of brothel life. His favourite maisons de tolérance were in the rue Sainte-Apolline and the rue Blondel, and included Aux Belles Poules (one of the ones on the list provided for American troops) and Aux Belles Japonaises. He used to take the painter Jean Oberlé and Claude Blanchard, his great friends and colleagues on the Crapouillot magazine, with him. They were much less enchanted than their bear-leader, who was fascinated by Paris’s underworld –le Milieu – and used these sorties to gather colour and dialogue for a novel. ‘In most of these brothels,’ wrote Oberlé, ‘the inmates struck me as ghastly in appearance, violently made-up, and their gaudy silk shifts camouflaged what were in most cases sad bodies.’

Oberlé and Blanchard were much happier accompanying Galtier-Boissière to the rougher bals musette – to the As de Coeur in the rue des Vertus, to La Java in the Faubourg du Temple and to the Petit Balcon in the rue de Lappe. The three men would find a table and order one of the staple drinks – a diabolo-menthe or a glass of acidic white wine. After the end of each dance, while the musicians rested for a moment, the patron would shout out: ‘Passons la monnaie!’ and go round to collect the coins, dropping them in a bag round his waist. Once he had made the collection, he would call up to the three musicians in their balcony – accordionist, banjo player and harpist: ‘Allez, roulez!’ And off the couples would go in another waltz or a java. Prostitutes taking a break from their pitch on the street would push past the tables to dance a few circuits of the well-waxed parquet floor purely for pleasure, not to find custom.

Any illusion in the summer of 1946 that France had come through the worst was shattered a few months later, during a winter often described as the worst of the century. For many, the memory of the cold far outlasted memories of hunger. The disastrous shortages of heating fuel – some areas received only a third or a quarter of their allocation – left schools as well as offices unheated. Children had such bad chilblains that they could not write, and secretaries in the Quai d’Orsay could only type wearing mittens. Nancy Mitford was unable to work at home. She wrote to Gaston Palewski – the telephones were not functioning – begging three or four logs because her hands were so cold she could hardly hold a pen. ‘Every breath is like a sword,’ she wrote to one of her sisters.

In the need to cut electricity consumption, all illuminated signs were forbidden, shop windows left unlit and streetlights turned off arbitrarily. In fact so little warning was given of power cuts that, in hospitals, surgeons in mid-operation frequently found themselves abandoned in darkness.

Once again connections helped, even when unintended. Susan Mary Patten was deeply embarrassed when an American general, having noticed a chilblain on one of her fingers during a dinner at the Windsors’ overheated house, sent round the next morning a work party of German prisoners of war to unload a truck of coal for her.

The vicious circle continued. Blizzards halted coal production and trains bringing fuel. Pipes froze, burst, poured forth and refroze in huge icicles. ‘I never saw anything like the burst pipes in this town,’ wrote Nancy Mitford to her sister Diana, ‘every house a waterfall.’

Each morning dozens of small children, well wrapped up except for their knees blue above thick socks, set off to buy milk, clutching metal billycans. The threat of tuberculosis meant that the milk was boiled in a huge metal vat set up in the laiterie, and the shopkeeper poured the steaming milk ration into the can with a ladle which held exactly one litre.


Rationing in times of great shortages will always create a black market and there are all too many examples of its counter-productive effects in France. One of the most shocking could be found in Brittany fishing ports, where trawler owners could make more money from selling their allocation of fuel on the black market than by sending their boats to sea.

On the other hand, a failure to maintain rationing would have triggered dangerous unrest and brought down any government which attempted to follow such a course. The inequalities were far more terrible in France than they were in Britain, where the rationing system as a whole was more thoroughly and effectively applied. It could be argued, however, that the efficiency of the system contributed greatly to Britain’s slow economic recovery afterwards.

The French economy, with its unofficial slide towards the free market which caused such misery, found itself in a much better position to take off in 1949 once foreign aid arrived in sufficient quantity to kick-start commercial activity. ‘It’s a triumph for private enterprise,’ wrote Diana Cooper, ‘although in the long run they may succumb from immorality.’

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