The Allure of the City
Danielle Charette is a PhD Student with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, where she studies political theory. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a BA in English Literature.
Review of Aurélien Bellanger, Le Grand Paris (Gallimard, 2017).
Aurélien Bellanger’s Le Grand Paris fictionalizes the experience of being seduced by politics. Part novel, part manifesto, Bellanger’s fourth book follows the young Alexandre Belgrand through what might best be described as a bureaucratic trance.
Le Grand Paris is the rare novel written for political theorists, and the book abounds in theologico-political tropes: the Hobbesian state of nature, the tower of Babel, the forest of signs, Baudelaire’s demons, Nineveh, the Kantian sublime. All of this might be wildly cliché if it weren’t for the fact that Bellanger isn’t actually groping after a catch-all metaphor. Rather, he has written a novel about our unsatisfactory quest for political paradigms—which have the tendency to explain everything and nothing. Bellanger offers his readers a kind of political Rorschach test. Naturally, the psychological diagnostic is another one of Bellanger’s many metaphors.
The plot is fairly minimal. Alexandre Belgrand begins as a teen of West Paris and, afterwards, advances as something of an aspiring apparatchik at ESSEC, one of France’s top business schools. There, he comes under the sway of a professor by the name of Machelin, who obsesses over the ésotérique and the théologico-politique. The Machiavellian undertones are obvious: Machelin is grooming Belgrand to serve in the presidential administration of a charismatic cynic known only as The Prince. Machelin’s chosen candidate is a master of the media. The Prince, Belgrand explains, treats the television like a confessional. The president has a gift for channeling a berlusconisme à la française—a clear dig at Nicholas Sarkozy but also an eerie preview of Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump. Belgrand admits that the Prince might be mistaken for an American neo-conservative with a French passport. Like Trump, the Prince doesn’t drink. He may be gruff and impulsive, but his sway over the media requires a sober cunningness.
For his part, Machelin professes a philosophy in which revolution and revelation are interchangeable. The politician who understands religion can also use it; a politics that harnesses the power of theology can reinvent its way around a tepid laïcité. Most often, Machelin sounds like Leo Strauss or perhaps Pierre Manent, yet he occasionally morphs into Michel Foucault. A former radical, Machelin who once taught at Foucault’s Université de Vincennes and still yearns for the sort of institution where “French theory” actually matters. His ambition, Machelin claims, is to use the philosophy of the Left for the advancement of the Right. In one especially wry scene, Belgrand discovers that Machelin’s apartment consists of a panoptic constellation of mirrors, which intensify the light refracting off his teacher’s bald head. Meanwhile, Belgrand graduates from pot to Red bull to vodka, as he imbibes the political philosophy of his professor and floats through his studies in a prolonged stupor.
The narrative, told almost entirely in Belgrand’s first-person voice, is one of roving lonesomeness. At night, he cruises through Paris on his scooter, usually drunk and almost always alone. Belgrand’s co-conspirators in the president’s administration seem universally world-weary. One is a Catholic who looks to The Prince to subvert secularism. Another made a fortune at a start-up and enjoys embodying as many neoliberal stereotypes as he can. All the Prince’s staffers are comfortable disrupting civil norms. Yet Bellanger’s talent rests in his ability to lend his protagonist just a tinge of hope. Descended from a long line of great architects and planners—the name Alexandre Belgrand, a distant ancestor, is inscribed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower—he has a genuine desire to use urban planning for the sake of state reform. Though as to whether this dream has more in common with Haussmann’s streetscapes or Plato’s city-in-speech, Bellanger is ambiguous.
By the time Belgrand is employed in the Élysée Palace, his parents have died, and we learn very little about them as people. Instead, we read of what they built. In a brilliant allegory for modern dystopia, Belgrand’s parents helped construct some of France’s first amusement parks: Astérix, Mirapolis, and France Miniature. Belgrand, however, is embarrassed that their contributions were soon eclipsed by EuroDisney. Even when it comes to otherworldly theme parks, globalism seems impatient with French construction.
Belgrand aims to defy this trend with the design of the Grand Paris Express. In the service of the Prince, he dreams of reconnecting the banlieues to the city center. His goal is not just to modernize Paris’s infrastructure but also to integrate the communist and Muslim exterior. Perhaps the Grand Paris Express will help pave the way toward economic revival and religious moderation. Or perhaps it’s a statist blueprint to control urban blight. Bellanger wants us to weigh both possibilities. Yes, the rail system shares the name of Sarkozy’s pet project, but Bellanger suggests it could be an authentic example of urban pragmatism. Then again, it could be a bad faith strategy for courting the Muslim vote, or—still worse, for a student of Machelin—the Grand Paris Express may represent a liberal pipedream. The novel’s uncanny appeal comes from Bellanger’s subtle movement between these different registers. Even as a staffer for a right-wing strongman, Belgrand can be quite starry-eyed. Readers will need to discern where Bellanger’s irony begins and ends.
Although Bellanger’s most flagrant paradigm is Machiavellian, his most promising template gestures toward Alexis de Tocqueville. Bellanger sends his protagonist to Béchar on a mysterious mission to unlock the secrets of urbanism by way of the North African desert. Belgrand’s grandfather had been an early designer of Algeria’s villes nouvelles, and Belgrand’s time in the desert combines family lore with blatant orientalism. But alongside the colonialist architectural schemes is a true thirst to comprehend Islam. Indeed, Belgrand’s ambivalence evokes Tocqueville’s own complicated take on Algeria.
There is a Tocqueville who once dreamed of integrating Algerians into French society, but also the Tocqueville who defended General Thomas Robert Bugeaud’s razzias against the Arab population. We must grapple with the Tocqueville who scoured the Koran for political insights and the Tocqueville who lamented France’s ill-realized conquests, even as this same Tocqueville continued to believe there was an imperative to rival the British Empire. In Machiavelli’s infamous comparison, the French king held his principalities with love, while the Turk maintained his conquered subjects through the top-down use of fear. Tocqueville, however, reverses Machiavelli’s model: by ignoring the Ottoman rulers’ customs for local rule in Algeria, the French had wrested resources “from our unhappy subjects by means far more Turkish than those the Turks ever used.” As a test case between the French and Turkish models of imperial governance, Algeria found the French wanting.
Like Bellanger’s young urbanist, Tocqueville seemed to think of Algeria first and foremost as an administrative laboratory. Just as Belgrand looks to modernize the skyscrapers of La Défense, Tocqueville’s arrival in Algiers in 1841 inspired his observation: “On all sides, one sees nothing but recent ruins, buildings going up; one hears nothing but the noise of the hammer. It is Cincinnati transported onto the soil of Africa.” In America, Tocqueville had been a witness—Algeria was his chance to play an active role in an experimenting government. Still, Tocqueville’s first trip to Algiers also brought about an uptick in his descriptions of ignorant and “half-civilized” natives and his subsequent support for “domination”. Likewise, Belgrand’s passage in Algeria is followed by his willingness to serve a president who denounced the rioting racaille. The administrative temperament is not immune from cruelty. It may even be attracted to it.
Yet even at his most colonialist, Tocqueville was wary of over-centralization. Just as France had suffered from the excessive power of Paris, the “greatest vice” of administration in Africa was its centralization in Algiers. It was a mistake to assume Algeria’s three provinces shared the same interests. In a similar spirit, Belgrand obsesses over the Hauts-de-Seine and Seine-Saint-Denis departments. Some of his fixation, to be sure, stems from an impulse to control France’s minorities. And much of it may be a bitter satire of Islam and the banlieues. But, at his most liberal, Belgrand also has the Tocquevillian hunch that France’s future is in the suburbs.
Bellanger’s fascination with infrastructure perfectly captures both sides of this administrative liberalism. A project like The Grand Paris Express receives its funding from the city center and its planning from urbanists with elite diplomas, but it travels outward to the diversity of the banlieues. Old-fashioned conquest and modern bureaucracy mingle with pluralism and possibility. Bellanger’s novel holds out hope that statism may yet bend toward reform. The Grand Paris Express, as Belgrand imagines it, is something Tocqueville would have likely ridden aboard.
Photo credit: Hofi0006, Blick vom großen Triumphbogen, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.