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Originally written for my final project at the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism, dated 27/05/2013. PDF version here.

Suicides in France: A Public Act?

From subways to self-immolation, public suicides are becoming disturbingly frequent in the country of joie de vivre. That can leave a toll on witnesses and those unwittingly involved in ending a life. Photography by Jérôme Verony.

suicides in france - a public act?

The morning before Valentine’s Day, a dark-haired man in a black coat stood at the far end of a subway platform, counting down until the next train arrived. It was around 9am at Odéon, a busy hour at a centrally located métro station. He wouldn’t have to wait long. As the figures “0:00” started blinking on the overhead clock and the tunnel filled with the roar of an approaching train, the man took a deliberate step towards the platform edge. He bent over, put his hands on the ground, and quickly lowered himself onto the train tracks. The horror of what was about to happen instantly dawned on everyone on the platform. Screams of “Non!” filled the station. The man disappeared as the train slammed into him. It was over in seconds.

Standing two paces away from the suicide, Fanny saw everything. “I saw him go down,” she said. “I had the reflex to turn away. There was a loud thud. Everybody was screaming.” The train screeched to an emergency halt in the middle of the station. On board, people lurched and toppled forward like a line of dominos from the inertia. “The passengers didn’t know what had happened,” said Fanny. “But they saw the faces of the people on the platform and I think they understood.” The 26-year-old marketing manager had been idly watching the man from behind just moments before he ended his life, and the horror hasn’t left her since. In her mind, she still sees the man on the tracks. He had been standing sideways, frozen in a sort of stride. At the time she’d had the wild and absurd thought that he would never cross the tracks on time. “I remember thinking: what is he doing?” she said. “But there was no doubt about it, he wanted to die.”

After the impact, people had quickly made for the stairs, emptying the platform. “There was someone continuously screaming and sobbing,” said Fanny, who believes it might have been the train conductor, a middle-aged woman. “But she couldn’t have done anything. Nobody could have. It happened so fast.”  The indelible memory of how the tunnel went cold like a crypt that morning still gives her the chills. “It was like a place of death,” she said. “It didn’t feel like a place you go to everyday.” Fanny declined to share her full name, saying her experience could not compare to the grief faced by the man and, by now, his family.

There are 11,000 suicides in France each year, a fraction of the 195,000 people hospitalised following a suicide attempt annually. According to OECD figures, France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe – twice that of the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in Germany and the United States. It is the first cause of mortality for French people in their thirties. A further 2,200 people take their lives each year without making the official lists. Many family members jump on the slightest shadow of doubt and would sooner call a death an accident than a suicide – a possible remnant of French Catholicism, which considers voluntary death a sin. The fact that there is no option to list “suicide” as a cause of mortality in French death certificates and no systematic inquiry into the causes of non-natural deaths – unlike in most European countries – further helps to mask these numbers.

Many different reasons can drive a person to suicide, and it is often a challenge to decipher the motives behind such a final, fatal decision. But in France, suicides tend to be more public in nature than anywhere else, lending a particular authority to what voluntary death means. In the most recent context of the euro-crisis and growing disillusionment with the country’s future, the phenomenon of public suicide is being seen as a sort of protest against society’s failing conditions. Above all, it is sparking a painful and contentious debate over France’s oppressive workplace conditions and its consequences.

IT IS A CRY
TO THE COLLECTIVE…
THERE IS A MESSAGE
SOMEWHERE
TO SOCIETY 

Last Tuesday, May 22, a 78-year-old man entered the Notre Dame cathedral amidst a throng of tourists, went up to the altar, stuck a shot-gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Dominique Venner was a far-right award-winning historian who had been campaigning hard against the government’s decision to legalise gay marriage, signed into law last weekend by French president François Hollande. “New spectacular and symbolic actions are needed to wake up the sleep walkers and shake the anaesthetised consciousness,” Venner wrote on his blog, just hours before the act.

On May 16, a 50-year-old man with a history of mental health problems forced his way into a nursing school near the Eiffel Tower and shot himself in front of 12 school children aged six and seven. Later, one boy told a French news channel that he had thought the school had been invaded by terrorists.

On February 13, a jobless man burnt himself to death in front of a public job search agency in Nantes. Frustrated after a long period of futile job-hunting, 33-year-old Djamal Chaar wanted his self-immolation to be a public statement about France’s socio-economic malaise. He hasn’t been the only one. At least a dozen men and women have set themselves on fire since 2011 for similar reasons.

The overall suicide rate, while stable, has actually decreased slightly over the last few years. Yet despite this decline, railway suicide is becoming an increasingly common form of these “spectacular and symbolic” deaths. French transport operators are relatively discreet, referring to railway deaths as accidents graves or serious accidents, but it is no secret that suicides on the rails are a disturbingly frequent phenomenon. France’s national railway SNCF sees up to 400 fatal accidents each year, of which a large majority are voluntary deaths – almost double the annual number of suicides on British railways. The phenomenon is on the rise: according to SNCF president Guillaume Pépy, there were 30 percent more railway suicides in 2012 than in the preceding four years. In the Paris métro, which carries the highest volume of traffic in Europe after Moscow, at least one person kills himself in the subway every three days. Paris transport authority RATP says there were 195 such suicides in 2008. By contrast, the New York subway averages about 26 suicides a year.

“There is a collective dimension to this particular type of suicide,” explained Rébecca Hartmann, a psychologist who has been working for France’s national railway for nine years. Although large French firms have in-house doctors, SNCF went a step further in 1997 to create a specialised department dedicated to providing psychological support for staff, as they kept running into suicide attempts. To die by throwing oneself before a train, according to Hartmann, is a cry to the collective. “It’s not at all like a suicide in one’s room,” she said. “It’s not a private affair. The idea is to shout out to the collective about one’s poor wellbeing. The person knows that this will affect hundreds of people who are stopped in their day, so there is a message somewhere to society.”

Indeed, France’s high suicide rate is being widely seen as a sign of the country’s socio-economic malaise. When Hollande called the self-immolation of Djamal Chaar a “personal drama” in March, he was met with scorn. To the French, public suicides are widely understood not as acts of personal drama but as an outcry against an ailing society. It is not difficult to see where this angst is coming from: France is experiencing its highest unemployment rate in 17 years, leading to increased pressure in the workplace. The country’s waning influence in the European Union has led Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to ask if France is “a peripheral country” – a burning point of shame for the French, who have been eyeing Germany’s stable economic growth and burgeoning political clout following the euro-crisis.

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Various studies have sought to capture France’s moody disposition during this time. A 2012 European quality of life survey, commissioned by the European Union, found that the French are the least optimistic about the future after Greece, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. A public opinion survey released by Pew Research Centre this month concluded that the French are becoming dispirited faster than anyone else in Europe. A recent study by sociologist Claudia Senik at the Paris School of Economics went even further: her study, titled “The French Unhappiness Puzzle”, suggests that it’s not the crisis, silly – gloominess just happens to be an integral part of French culture. The consensus is overwhelming: something is rotten in the state of France.

It is unsurprising then that in such a context, public suicides are being seen as cries of protest. Sociologists say these are emanating from “the most vulnerable” in society. Typically, suicide is considered an act of desperation for those who are unable to accept or deny their social circumstances. But in France, the public aspect of suicide gives the act a particularly vindictive tone. It is a ghastlier version of the child in tears throwing a fit, whose intuition is: “One day I’ll die and you’ll be sorry.” Each public suicide is – so goes the reasoning – akin to holding a mirror to the face of society. The idea is that this will force society to examine itself for having created the hopeless conditions for such wasted lives. The message is being delivered in collective overtones, and increasingly, it is being heard. In an op-ed for leading newspaper Le Monde, French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg proclaimed that “today…individual suffering is a declaration that has value for acting on a common problem.” But what is the common problem?

For the past three years, Fabienne Leonhart has been working at Suicide Écoute, a 24-hour hotline that receives 22,000 calls a year. Over the telephone, Leonhart’s grandmotherly voice has a calming and non-judgmental tone – an important quality that has played a part in pulling hundreds away from the brink of death. According to the 43-year-old, it is too simplistic to single out a factor as the main cause of suicidal depression. The answers could be a conflation of anything ranging from mental health issues to workplace stress. “Which caused what? It’s impossible to say! It can all be related,” said Leonhart, who has fielded crisis after crisis from callers with obvious mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The conundrum, she says, is whether to read depression as a cause or as a symptom: is something caused by depression or the other way around?

Since the economic crisis, however, Leonhart admits the hotline has been receiving an increasing number of calls from people who have unemployment or work-related issues. “We are in a difficult economic climate,” she said. “There’s no denying that there is an enormous amount of pressure in companies. It is a phenomenon of the crisis.” When asked how she went about convincing these people not to kill themselves, Leonhart swiftly corrected the question. ”It’s not that they want to die,” she said, sounding a bit pained. “They want to stop suffering.”

Involuntary killers

Suicide always leaves behind the indelible aspect of trauma. And in the case of a public suicide, this trauma extends beyond the circle of family and friends to complete strangers. Few experience this as frequently and as intimately as train conductors, who are the first to see the silhouette of a person on the tracks, the last to see him or her alive, and the ones who are directly implicated in the destruction of a life. It is a peculiar and rather grotesque hostage situation. “Although railway suicide is a violent decision,” explained French national railway psychologist Hartmann, “it is also an act of passivity”, since it transfers the act of killing to someone else. In this case, a train conductor and his train unwittingly become the agents of destruction. “The train conductors are thus taken hostage,” writes Éric Fottorino, former editor of Le Monde, in his latest book Suite à un accident grave de voyageur. “Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill. He kills, despite himself.”

“IT IS A FEELING
OF TOTAL HELPLESSNESS,
TO HAVE BEEN ACTIVE
IN THE DEATH
OF SOMEONE”

“When it happens, there is practically nothing we can do,” said Cédric Gentil, a train conductor who blogs for French newspaper Liberation and author of Mesdames et messieurs, votre attention s’il vous plaît. “By the time you understand what is going on, it’s too late. The distance needed to bring the train to a stop is too long.” The 33-year-old still vividly recalls the woman who had leapt in front of his train a few years ago. Horrified, he had acted instantly. He pulled the emergency brakes, hit a switch that released sand onto the tracks, and cut off the electric current in the rails. These gestures would later be extremely important, not only for the woman, but for Gentil himself.

Then he waited helplessly until the train came to a halt. “When you’re in that situation, the wait is endless,” said the tall, brown-haired man. “I felt as though time was passing in slow-motion.” Once the train finally stopped, he could no longer see the woman from his window. Heart in his shoes, Gentil came out of his cabin and looked in front of his train. He had stopped just 40cm in front of the woman. She was dazed but completely unharmed.

Most of Gentil’s colleagues have not been so fortunate. According to Hartmann, every train conductor experiences on average one railway suicide attempt during his career. Many risk prolonged psychological trauma and some enter depression, often replaying the death in their minds. In 2012, SNCF’s team of psychologists made 50 emergency on-site visits to the scene of the suicide in order to quickly stem the overwhelming sense of shock and guilt. “Even though they know in theory that they couldn’t do anything to prevent it, they go through the ‘what ifs’,” said Hartmann. “It is a feeling of total helplessness, to have been active in the death of someone.”

One of Gentil’s female colleagues struggled from crippling guilt after running into two suicides. “She took a long time to get over the first one,” said Gentil. “She was really traumatised. Then it happened again. It’s like all the work that she’d had gone through to recover, it’s as though it’s for nothing.” For Gentil’s friend, the memory of the man’s face is particularly horrifying. The person killing himself had stood on the tracks and stared directly into her face, as though to “defy her”, until her train rammed into him.

“I’ve asked myself many times why people choose to die this way,” said Gentil. “We talk about it a lot amongst us. I don’t think it’s an innocent act.” Amongst train conductors, there is a flash of anger against railway suicides that appear premeditated. Gentil remembers being confused by the simultaneous relief and rage he felt when he was speaking to the woman who had tried to kill herself. “I was facing her alone, nobody else would have heard me if I had said how I felt to her,” said Gentil, suddenly looking very tired. “But out of respect for the woman, I could never have done it.” Instead, he said to her: “Don’t worry, you’re safe now. Help is coming.”

Gentil has no illusions about how lucky he had been this time. “I don’t ask if it’ll ever happen to me,” he said of the possibility of killing someone who jumps in front of his train. “I ask when. It’s like having the sword of Damocles hanging above my head. I know it’s going to fall on me someday, I just don’t know when or where.”

It is never a clean death. Gentil says it can take firemen at least three hours to recover the grisly remains of a body. “They have to look for pieces of the corpse under the train or in the tunnel where it’s very dark and difficult to see,” he explained. “Sometimes someone will have to move the train a bit backwards in order to remove the body.” Only half of the suicide attempts are successful and survivors are never quite whole again. “A train weighs hundreds of tons,” said Gentil, who drives the RER A, a suburban train with one of the highest volumes in the world at 1.2 million passengers a day. “If people do survive, they are mutilated for life.”

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The ramifications of each railway suicide touch thousands. It takes seconds for a suicide to throw a line into complete bedlam, and hours before things go back to normal. Traffic is disrupted for at least three hours, a halt that snowballs into more cancelled trains and delayed schedules. This knock-on disruption is likely the point of such a public death. Yet for the most part, passengers who are not privy to this cinema of horror react either with indifference or simple irritation. “It’s sad but true,” said Gentil. “When most passengers realise there’s been another serious accident, they roll their eyes and go: ‘Pfffff’!” In his book, Fottorino points out the irony of this final failure: “Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras,” he writes. Despite their public act of desperation, “nobody will try to remember them…the ones who try to shake up the very society that rejects its most vulnerable.”

But it’s not entirely true. First-hand witnesses like Fanny are often stirred by what they have seen. The trouble is finding the company they crave. In the virtual world, many witnesses eventually find their way to public transport forum blogencommun.fr. They anonymously share their experiences in comments threads so they can feel less alone in their shock and grief; there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of the reactions of other witnesses. For days after the métro suicide, Wolf hungrily scoured the internet for something, anything, to lace a human feeling around what she had seen. It was on this forum that she found some solace and my request for an interview. Wolf needed to talk about it. It helped her feel better.

A form of protest against the workplace? 

The growing drama of suicides in France is putting the focus on large firms, many of which shed thousands of employees through ‘voluntary’ departures between 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the media spotlight fell on France Télécom for its wave of 30 suicides each year. Although this number is in line with the French national average of suicides and thus not especially high, some of these acts were especially dramatic. One man allegedly stabbed himself – harakiri-style – in the middle of a meeting. A woman leapt from a fifth-floor office window. Another employee jumped off a highway bridge. Similar stories abound from La Poste and Renault. Perhaps because some work-related suicides have been particularly imaginative and perhaps because they are the simplest to identify and control for, they have become a frequent headline in French media. In March, Le Monde dedicated a spread to la souffrance au travail, where a series of articles analysed French suffering in the context of high workplace stress, unemployment, social tensions, and suicides.

Side-by-side, the numbers and commentary are compelling. According to the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Cese), at least 400 suicides each year are directly related to work dissatisfaction. In a 2008 survey of 1,210 employees, Etienne Wasmer, a labour economist at Sciences Po, found that many experienced work-related disorders (mood 72%, sleep 70%, psychological disorder 52%), anxiety (60%), and abnormal fatigue. According to the OECD, the French incidence of depression was about twice that of Germany’s in the mid-2000s. One governmental study found that French consumption of anti-depressants amounted to 543 billion euros in 2000. At France Télécom, some employees keep anti-depressants on their desks, out in the open.

72% OF FRENCH PEOPLE
SAY THEY EXPERIENCE
MOOD DISORDERS
BECAUSE OF WORK

“For too long, mental suffering at work has been considered as the exclusive result of the personality of the employee,” wrote Michel Debout, a prominent doctor and one of the founders of the National Union for Prevention of Suicide, in one of the articles published by Le Monde. “Managers try to make this a medical problem: they speak of ‘fragile people’ and rarely of ‘people made fragile’.”

Indeed, the French are increasingly outraged at the capitalist ills of large private firms. Last year, former France Télécom CEO Didier Lombard was probed for the firm’s many suicides in 2008, the result of harsh and surreal administration that placed unnecessary pressure on workers in order to get them to voluntarily resign. On May 7, a leaked internal document dated 2006 reveals how Lombard had spearheaded the aggressive shedding of 22,000 workers by 2008. In the document, Lombard declared: “We need to stop being the mother hen…In 2007, I will make these departures happen one way or another, by the window or by the door.”

To explain the particularly violent case of France Télécom and the country’s persistently high levels of workplace dissatisfaction overall, some economists have pointed fingers at France’s rigid labour regulation. According to a 2012 study by Wasmer, high levels of stress are typical in countries with a lot of job protection. Indeed, with its generous employment protection, France has one of the worst levels of workplace stress amongst OECD countries. It is an ironic proposition about the perverse effect of “too much” job security: when labour regulation makes it too difficult and costly to fire employees, managers resort to piling pressure onto workers or neglecting them until they resign. According to Wasmer, firing someone can be as personal and formalised as “filing for a divorce”. The result is varying levels of workplace harassment, known in France by the more profound term harcèlement moral. And with the current economic climate, more employees are willing to suffer workplace harassment than to look for a new job. The price of job security becomes their mental and emotional wellbeing. “Employees initially feel that they are doing this for their family, their children, so they are capable of accepting a lot,” said Jean-Louis Bally, a member of the Observatoire de stress, an independent organisation composed of academics and labour activists and whose main purpose is to monitor and lobby against large firms that create risques psycho-sociaux – occupational stress and suicide risks. “But when it becomes personal, when the management starts to disdain them, they become unhappy,” said the 69-year-old. “They take more sick leave, they fall into depression, and eventually you get suicides.”

The former France Télécom employee has strong views on whether enough prevention is being done in large firms. “It depends how you view prevention,” said the white-haired, bespectacled man contemptuously. “If you view it the way big companies do, then prevention is just about hiring psychologists to help depressed people. But that’s just treating the consequence, not the cause.” In truth, there may be no better way to do it. Most outreach programmes, including the French government’s national strategy for tackling suicides, are also based on identifying and providing psychological support to those at suicidal risk.

Venner, Chaar, and hundreds of other unknown suicide victims appear to grasp intuitively the social implications of self-destruction. Unhappy with their lives and with the societal conditions that made this unhappiness possible, they lashed out at the world by choosing violent and public deaths. It is their final act of vindication, the ultimate protest. In France, voluntary deaths like theirs are laden with social value, intended by the suicidal and interpreted as such by the living. The collective unity of this understanding is perhaps unsurprising, given the country’s particular cultural and intellectual authorities. Although he argued against the act himself, philosopher Albert Camus, whose works are taught in many French high schools, famously declared that suicide was the only serious philosophical question: it represented the rejection of an absurd life in a mute world. France also gave us Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, who in 1897 presented the world’s first monograph on none other than the topic of suicides. In his seminal work, Durkheim stripped away the moral overtones of the church, presenting suicide for the first time as an explicable social phenomenon. Voluntary death is an act of choice, he reasoned, the terms of which are entirely those of this world: it is a rejection of life by those who are poorly integrated in society and morally confused.

IT IS THEIR FINAL
ACT OF VINDICATION,
THE ULTIMATE PROTEST

But it may be the French Revolution that best explains the sentiment behind France’s public suicides. According to Patrice Higonnet, professor of French history at Harvard University, voluntary death was seen as a libertarian and individualised gesture. Suicide – l’acte le plus libre – was just one more facet of man’s right to be free. During the French Revolution, Jacobins and Montagnards alike saw communitarian value in public self-destruction. Voluntary death would “shame their enemies and serve as a pedagogical example” for their peers. These suicides were, Higonnet explained in a 1989 conference, assertions of martial dignity and political high-ground.

With a background like France’s, suicide turns – perversely – into an index of high civilisation. As in “tell me your suicide rate and I will tell you your cultural sophistication,” explains Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God. Richard Brody, a Francophone film critic at the New Yorker and one of several commentators who criticised Senik’s happiness study, believes so too. A “self-consciously intellectual” society like the French, he wrote in March, may just be less willing to say they are happy. The unfortunate price of this sophistication, of course, may be the country’s high suicide rate.

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But for all the grandiose intellectual overtures and thoughtful academic studies surrounding suicide in France, too much scrutiny is still considered taboo. Most studies tiptoe around meaningful details such as linking demographics and causes to modes of suicide. For example, SNCF’s department of psychological support may specialise in railway suicides, but they have yet to compile data on what sort of people throw themselves in front of trains. “It’s a taboo subject,” said Hartmann carefully. “We don’t have any study on the profile – so to speak – of people who kill themselves. Why choose a train over overdose? It is delicate to interpret this. We should avoid hasty interpretations.” The SNCF psychologist is not the only one to use such cautious language; although suicide is a trending point of discussion in France, talk of the phenomenon often takes on a tone of clinical reverence, inevitably creating distance from the subject itself.

It raises a troubling question: is it possible to understand the motives of suicide from a perspective so rationalised and formal that we use language the suicidal does not? Camus himself declared that not naming things properly adds to the misfortune of the world. Perhaps, suggests Fottorino in his book, it is impossible to understand something well without being tempted by it too, thus the reluctance to tread the murky waters of a suicidal mind. The problem is contagion: talking about suicide “can give ideas, like dangling fire before a pyromaniac.” It is amongst the reasons for which French transport operators prefer to call suicides “serious accidents”, explained Gentil. First, “it’s a legal thing.” You can’t call a suicide a suicide unless a formal police investigation concludes as such. Second, “the word suicide is too strong,” he said. “It would make people uncomfortable.”

These euphemisms no longer soften the blow for certain métro users like Fanny. More than ever, the term brings her back to that cold morning when she watched the man disappear under a train. Although she was badly shaken by the incident, she forced herself to go back the next day. “You have to resume your journey, your life, your day,” she said. “I knew I had to face it sometime, so it was better to do it as soon as possible.” Standing where she had last seen the man alive, she gingerly checked the railway tracks for any sign of his suicide from the day before. There wasn’t a trace. Around her, people behaved as though nothing had ever happened. This time, the train docked normally, and people got on and off. Like so many others before this one, the loss of a life had made but a fleeting dent in the clockwork of Paris. But some things will never change for those involuntarily involved in a public suicide. A couple of paces away from Fanny, a woman stood a little too close to the edge of platform. The sight made her go cold.

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Not your ordinary newspaper vendor, Ali Akbar is a local celebrity in the affluent boulevard Saint Germain of Paris. He left Pakistan at a tender age in search of a better life and has now lived for 40 years in France. Initially an illegal immigrant, Ali finally gained the right to stay in France when François Mittérand’s government retroactively regularised illegal migrants in the 1980’s. His humorous headlines (“Sarkozy assassiné! Sarkozy assassinated!”) and emblematic personality has won him much popularity in the quarter, an asset which has helped him build a life in France. Today, he is father of five sons and the author of two autobiographies which have been translated into more than 10 languages.

I spent an afternoon with Ali on his daily route in the 6th arrondissement to document his life as a newspaper vendor and his longstanding popularity in the quarter. You can view the original photo essay on the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism’s student blog Migrants in Paris. I’ve also turned the photo essay into an interactive photo slideshow on Vuvox.

Selling to the elite

Around 12.30pm, Ali starts making his habitual rounds on the affluent Boulevard Saint Germain. Despite his diminutive size, he walks at a breathless pace, often cutting across traffic to get to the other side of the road, and always with a stack of French newspaper Le Monde in arm which he sells to the French elite.

“Ça y est! Ça y est!”
“That’s it! That’s it!” Covering more than 10 kilometers a day, Ali’s signature cry is instantly recognisable by the quarter’s inhabitants – a tactic which has won him much sales and consequently much popularity with his employers. He often furnishes his pitch with the headlines of the day. Sometimes they are real. Sometimes they are cheeky, blatant lies such as Sarkozy is dead. Today, he cries: “Strauss-Kahn candidat! Strauss-Kahn candidat!” Strauss-Kahn is running for president.

In the restaurants
All the restaurants in the area know Ali well. He kisses the cheeks of the female waiters, gives them big hugs, shakes the hands of the managers. His loud cry throughout the dining hall bothers no-one. He knows the floorplans so well that he can easily cover a restaurant within a minute (if no loyal clients stop him for a chat), coming in through the front door and zipping out through the rear entrance like a fresh gust of air.

Les fidèles
Ali has friends – the loyal ones – in every café and brasserie. They expect Ali everyday and never fail to buy a paper. This Turkish man is, amongst dozens of others, his “very good friend”. The two warmly embrace and exchange updates. The man smiles after Ali as he runs into the restaurant to make his rounds. “I have known Ali for nearly 35 years. I know his whole family! His five sons, his wife. He’s quite a character, isn’t he?”

Tempted to stay
Ali often sits down with his loyal ones while passing them the day’s papers, chatting easily as though they have known each other forever. For this group of men, forever does not seem like much of an exaggeration. They have been friends for 40 years. One man is an astrologist, the other a palm-reader. The conversation runs naturally and Ali is always tempted to stay for a coffee. “I cannot stay,” Ali says ruefully but firmly. “If I do, it means I get less sales.” The men understand. “Allez, au travail!” They wave him jokingly back to work.

A ladies’ man
Groups of ladies greet Ali as though they are his grandmother, clucking at him affectionately although they cannot be very different in age – Ali is 57. One lady inside the brasserie raps sharply on the window and beckons him. “Are you forgetting about me?” she calls out. Ali is by her side in moments, giving her a warm hug and kisses. The ladies pass him bills which he swiftly exchanges for small piles of coins. He works so quickly that the lady inside the brasserie has to call him back to her: “I still need to pay you for yesterday!”

Hailed on the streets
Between cafés and restaurants, Ali is often stopped on the streets. Sometimes these are also loyal ones who do not want to miss buying a paper from their favourite vendor. Sometimes they are strangers who turn at the sound of his cries. One loyal one laughs knowingly as he spots the Pakistani. “Who died today, Ali?”

Bonjour around every corner
Ali is never too busy to respond to shout-outs on the street. People lean out of car windows to call out to him. Old men walking their dogs wave to him. Being with Ali is like going around with a social passport in the 6th arrondissement. His friends seem to all be friends with each other, as though they form a club of his loyal ones. Even I get friendly waves.

Weaving through traffic
Ali transports his papers from one end of the Boulevard Saint Germain to the other using a sturdy old bike with a basket on the front and back. He weaves through the traffic in the narrow streets with complete ease, but the sight of the small Pakistani man in his haste makes it terrifying to watch.

A local celebrity
“Ça y est, Ali! Somebody is following you!” A couple of waiters call after him while keeping their eyes on me. Ali responds jovially between his trademark cries. “Yes yes, she is my friend. A journalist from Malaysia!” They laugh and pull him over gently by his arm. They want a picture with their local celebrity.

Camaraderie
Ali also sells to restaurants. At Le J’Go, he hands over a pile of Le Monde papers and special issues and is given a glass of red wine in return. He tells me confidentially: “I don’t always drink. Only once in a while. I never take advantage, you know. That’s not what friends are for.” The chef and the bartender are cool dudes: no hugs and affectionate gestures here, just laid-back shows of mutual respect and camaraderie. “I like this place,” Ali says. “The atmosphere is good.”

Sharing his views
Nearing the end of his route, Ali gets us a couple of glasses of red wine (again on the house). He grows philosophical while reminiscing about his life, speaking of how there are good and bad people in the world, but the good are in the minority. I ask him how he feels about the most recent crackdown on work permits. He replies thoughtfully: “In life, it is good if you are forced to suffer a bit. It is more difficult now, so what? This means you will work harder. You cannot really appreciate happiness if you never work for it.”

Lunch break
Around 3pm, Ali makes his way out of a brasserie and into a Chinese caterer. This is where he has his daily lunch. “The food is good and cheap here. Asian food is always cheap, you know,” he says. He picks out a box of white rice and some shrimps and dumplings to go with it.

“I make the world laugh, but the world makes me cry”
Ali’s first book and the one he is best known for – Je fais rire le monde… mais le monde me fait pleurer! – is an autobiography which traces his journey from Pakistan to France as well as his personal struggle with his family. It is an alternative source of income besides his newspaper, but only a modest one. “I make 80 cents per book when a bookshop sells it.” Ali carries a few copies with him in his bicycle whenever he goes on his newspaper route. For someone who has never gone to school, his writing is unexpectedly alluring – the language is simple, the narrative startlingly aware.

Immortalised as the Loved One
In 2011, the district council of the 6th arrondissement held a poll asking residents to nominate the “Loved Ones” of the quarter. The only foreign nominee, Ali emerged with the most votes. His portrait has been immortalized on the wall of a building on Rue du Four, a collaborative painting which he himself participated in. The mural is located here.

there is something very refreshing about crunching math until you finally land upon that right answer. it is almost worth all that hair-tearing agony that accompanies my nuits blanches.

it’s been a long while since i’ve had that kind of satisfaction.

my final semester at Le Havre begins tomorrow at 8 in the morning. i will have 3 major classes in french as compared to 1 last semester, which i’m quite sure i failed horribly. i think i should resolve to keeping a strict quota of ridiculous stunts this semester. such as not missing up to a month’s worth of classes, publishing damning articles, losing my passport and all sorts of ID, and skipping all workshop sessions only to turn up on the morning of the exam.

it has been a little like those careless highschool days. only this time with the new and hazy glamour of cheap travel, infamy, heartbreak and temporary illegality. 4 months before this chapter closes. 6 months before i pack up for the 2nd time and move into a new world. 1.5 years before i will find myself back in Paris. 3 years before i graduate with a Masters degree. if so much has already happened within the last 3 months, what more my whole 2 years in LH, i’m not sure i’m ready to keep my foot this firmly pressed to the pedal in this heady race of living-it-up.

yes, i think the impending end of my LH séjour begs for some sobriety and damage control.

made the startling discovery while studying for my history paper yesterday that an estimated 20 -30 million people died in the Taiping Rebellion, as compared to the 15-25 million during the First World War. between 20 to 43 million died under Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

i haven’t even begun on the Second World War yet and the number of people who died like flies from just these three events is already the equivalent of modern Malaysia being wiped out about four times over.

remembering you’re one person, a single digit, feels nightmarishly overrated sometimes.

Model ASEM 2009 Le Havre ended on sunday, 9.30am, when the last of our worries finally bought his flight ticket back to indonesia at CDG. after our last roll-call on the bus in front of the youth hostel, a small group of us waved almost everyone (54 of them!) goodbye as they departed for paris. judging by the amount of activity on facebook, it would seem that most of our participants are now home and safe. little model ASEM shoutouts to each other are appearing on my newsfeed every 10 minutes. everybody seems extremely happy to have been a part of the event and even appears sad that is now truly over. last i saw on facebook, even our little indonesian friend is happy now, waiting at abu dhabi on a long transit but relieved to be on the way home.

i am proud. it is extremely rewarding to see such happy faces and to read the feedback forms, nearly all of them overwhelmingly positive. i think we were incredibly lucky to have had such lovely participants. they were lively, open-minded, fun and intelligent – a group of the nicest young people i have ever seen. some participants did not manage to fit in with the group en gros but it was clearly not because the kids played the game of high school politics. there was no air of rebellion or social tension, no suggestion of popular clique-forming and exclusion. i was particularly glad to see that even after forcibly creating groups of mixed nationalities for the Model ASEM Trivia, everyone got along wonderfully and really did profit from the diversity. over the course of 5 days, they came to the fore to defend their ideals, to present their cultures, teach the Austrian waltz, dance the Swedish pole dance, play booming party music in the bus to create a mini party… they even created their own little trivia about themselves to share with the chairs and organisers. “who painted him/herself completely in gold when he/she was seven years old?”

i slept from 10am to 6pm on sunday, completely wiped out from prolonged sleep deprivation and nonstop running around. i’m usually a late sleeper, but between saturday and sunday, i only managed to get 1.5 hours of sleep, which made me feel quite ill when i woke up at 5 in the morning to make my round of wake-up calls. i’m feeling better rested now, but am a little lost and restless from the lingering Model ASEM inertia. not being responsible for anybody but myself has never felt more awkward. i learnt a lot about what it means to take care of people, both older and younger than myself. i saw role models around myself whom i want to emulate in terms of patience, professionalism and sociability.

clearly, i haven’t been blogging at all lately due to Model ASEM. but besides the 1 week long marathon of work, i’ve also been living in a sort of emotional vacuum. i was relatively tired and depressed over the last couple of weeks and am still not completely fine. twice i began to cry involuntarily in front of other people after talking about the 3 main things which have been troubling me substantially. the only time i felt that golden “life is good” feeling wash over me in the last month was when zu, abhijit and aseem came over to my place with our champagne rosé to celebrate abhijit’s birthday on friday night. we talked and laughed till 3 in the morning, when we ran out of champagne and wine. i had to get up at 8am slightly hungover after that for Model  ASEM, but it was so enjoyable that it was worth it. i need more times like that.

barring such emotional hiccups, almost everything else in my life is running perfectly. unless i do really badly for this saturday’s galops, i currently have the best grade in history. my application for a dérogation was successful and i have a phone interview scheduled with someone from the centre amérique about a few US universities tomorrow. the BDA’s presence and reputation has improved twofold since when i first joined it. i said to people that i was determined to travel a lot this year by attending conferences, and by the end of the semester i will have been to paris, london, geneva, bern, lausanne, zurich, barcelona and madrid.

let’s hope things keep on a roll.