Vive le Métro

The Paris Underground Resistance

by Katie Zerwas

27 September 2004

In a city of millions where you are bound to rub elbows with those who rub you the wrong way, the availability of a healthy cathartic outlet is crucial. If, like Americans, Parisians could reach for a gun every time they stepped in some shit, which is as ubiquitous on the sidewalks as boulangeries, murder would reach pandemic levels. Thus, it is understandable why the government tolerates a certain level of transgression in exchange for a more sustainable peace.
Musicians on the Paris Métro
Photo courtesy of Frantisek Staud  

According to my Paris guidebook, Paris: The Collected Traveler (Ed. Barrie Kerper, Three Rivers Press, 2000), Kafka once wrote of Paris, “Because it is so easy to understand, the métro is a frail and hopeful stranger’s best chance to think that he has quickly and correctly, at the first attempt, penetrated the essence of Paris.” Whether the guidebook included this quip in jest or in warning, it is true that the network of underground trains appears deceptively simple and straightforward. Born of humble beginnings over one 100 years ago, the métro has grown to include 13 principle lines stretching over 201 kilometers, stopping at over 350 stations, and carrying over four million passengers every single day efficiently and for the most part comfortably. Today the art-nouveau entrances to the métro have become not only a symbol of Paris, but a symbol of the gilded success and seemingly natural vibrancy of France’s 5th Republic, as well. The ubiquitous transit system unites east and west, blue-collar and white collar, workers and intelligentsia, proletariat and bourgeois; and they all travel together under the banner of the French’s particular breed of blind tolerance, or laicité.

Of course, with so many passengers on the daily commute it became obvious that some sort of regulatory authority was necessary to maintain order and civility, so in 1948 the government established a private and independent organization, the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), to enforce the rules and to ensure that each traveler arrives at his or her destination safely and undisturbed. Thus, a private police force was gathered, tailored, and endowed with a now familiar badge giving them the authority to ticket and fine passengers who refuse to comply with policy. Nevertheless, visitors to Paris cannot help but regard the métro with awe, particularly Americans, so accustomed to their automobiles, for whom public transit has never appeared so easy.

A network of trains, each line laid out in an uncomplicated and color coded pattern, carrying millions of passengers of every walk of life, each of them sharing their personal space in apparent peace, their calm and emotionless gazes regarding the other passengers with friendly indifference. At first glance, the métro is a testament to the possibility of diverse human beings living together in stressful times of morning and evening rush hours. It is a community that is even able to absorb the stresses of the occasional suspicious package left on a quay, a hastily dropped cellular phone languishing perilously on the tracks, or the frequent worker “manifestations” when all the workers air their collective grievances in displays of solidarity that tend to resemble parades more than actual strikes.

Regarding these public displays of Enlightened reasoning, the métro neophyte handily concludes that all is well underground, that France’s great Revolution, along with its underlying principles of rationalism and democracy, have indeed triumphed, leaving little to protest short of the slowly rising cost of a baguette. Yet, there is something insidious in the public’s indifference that even the slightest cynic surely could not miss. That a people whose history bears so much turmoil, the clash of monarchies and the pillaging of fascists, the shame of imperialism and the pressures of mounting immigration, could sit back, relax, and simply forget the contentious debates and political foibles they read on the front page of their daily journal, seems questionable, impossible even. It wasn’t until I discovered the underground resistance that I learned the key to the famed Parisian “zen”.

The first time I caught sight of what I have now come to believe are the last rebels of the French Revolution was when I saw someone jump a turnstile in the St. Sulpice métro station. It was the middle of the day, and I was on my way to class when I saw a young man casually approach the turnstile, and rather than lawfully inserting his ticket into the machine, he braced himself against the turnstile with both arms and, in one fluid motion, kicked his legs up and over the three pronged gate and landed easily on the other side. As a consistent bonhomme for whom even the thought of jaywalking seems outside the realm of sanity, I looked around in a panic hoping to find someone who might catch this thief, or at the very least a fellow witness with whom to commiserate. The only other onlooker, however, was the RATP ticket seller, seated in her booth directly behind said turnstile from where she had clearly witnessed the crime. When I caught her eye, her unflinching gaze returned said it all: nothing was to be done.

From then on, I began to see small acts of unchecked rebellion all throughout the métro: men urinating on the quays, youths refusing to give up their seats to the elderly as directed, no smoking signs obscured in a haze of cigarette fumes; all in plain view of blasé RATP agents. I became convinced of conspiracy late one night when I glimpsed the rare sight of agents actually catching one of the rebels. As I was waiting for the next train to arrive, a pair of well-dressed, visibly intoxicated gentlemen stumbled down the stairs on the opposite tracks followed by a pair of militant looking high-booted RATP agents. The drunkards were yelling and cursing unabashedly at the agents, who were calmly explaining to them that in order to ride the train it is necessary to have purchased a ticket in advance, and that having not done so they will be forced to pay a fine.

While the sight of accused criminals arguing with their accusers is not so far beyond anyone’s comprehension, what did appear strange was their reasoning. Rather than insisting they were not stealing but had, perhaps, left their tickets in a bar or had them stolen, they were arguing instead that it was unjust to not allow them their free ride once and a while, just like everyone else. In their loud, albeit slurred French, I was able to make out that they truly believed that breaking the rules was within their rights, and based on the rampant rule-breaking behaviors I had witnessed up to that point, I had to agree with them. As the arrival of my train carried me safely away from the escalating dispute, I couldn’t help but wonder as I regarded the zen-like demeanor of the agents in the face of such verbal abuse. Are the rules of the métro really meant to be broken?

Former Newsweek staff writer Ted Stanger addresses the topic of the Parisian underground resistance in his controversial book Sacres Francais: Un Americain Nous Regard (Gallimard, 2003). In his estimation, the apparent laxness of the RATP and their national sponsors is a deliberate social soupape, or safety valve, for the French people to let off a little post-revolutionary steam. In a city of millions where you are bound to rub elbows with those who rub you the wrong way, the availability of a healthy cathartic outlet is crucial. If, like Americans, Parisians could reach for a gun every time they stepped in some shit, which is as ubiquitous on the sidewalks as boulangeries, murder would reach pandemic levels. Thus, it is understandable why the government tolerates a certain level of transgression in exchange for a more sustainable peace. What is curious, however, is why the French choose to exorcise their demons in one of Paris’s most public, policed, and practically necessary locales.

Yet, the answer is simple. To keep the rebellion contained, simply push it underground, out of the way and out of sight. As important as the métro is in maintaining the well-oiled machinations of the French capitol, it is at the same time a place that doesn’t really exist. In her book, Musicien de Métro: Approche des Musiques Vivantes Urbaines (L’Harmattan, 1998) French scholar, Anne-Marie Green, has referred to the métro as a non-lieu, or no place; not a destination but rather a means to an end. The métro as non-lieu is merely liminal space that forms the borders of the city and acts as the network that joins the city’s various neighborhoods together, but it remains a space that is defined by its function, not by its residents, of which it technically has none. Thus, it is a place that is peopled, but it is inhuman. The métro is uniform, standardized, and wholly without character as each stop is no more than a link to the real place it serves, never an end in itself. Used by everyone, yet seemingly belonging to no one, it is a natural target for petty acts of cathartic vandalism and theft.

These ordinary criminals of the Paris métro, however, are not the real French revolutionaries of modern day. Visitors to Paris are quick to discover the true rebels: the musicians in the métro. With guitars, accordions, violins, or tape machines, these musicians descend into the métro’s hallways and trains to play traditional and popular music and to collect a little loose change from passengers’ pockets in return. Tourists often consider these “troubadours” quaint or amusing, and for many Parisians they add a human element and a certain ambiance to the otherwise sterile space below the city. The RATP, however, considers them a nuisance.

Since the métro’s inception in 1900, all varieties of musical performance in any part of the underground network has been forbidden based on the reasoning that it disturbs the passengers and hinders the all-important flow of traffic. However, in 1985 as mounting vehicular traffic and police crackdowns on street musicians began to take effect, musicians began to descend into the métro for the first time in significant and unwieldy numbers. RATP’s response was, if you can’t beat them, join them, and so authorized 255 musicians at a time to play in the halls of the métro stations. Approved musicians had to audition for the part, and once accepted, promise that they would only play in the hallways, never on the quays or on board the trains. Further, they would wear a “badge”, a sort of photo ID bearing the RATP’s emblem, a green line tracing the path of the great River Seine, anthropomorphized to resemble a human profile. Yet RATP’s efforts to legalize the musicians have done little to humanize the underground, as few musicians actually pursue RATP accreditation. Rather than the requisite 255 musicians, there are in fact over 2,500 unauthorized musicians playing at any given time, anywhere in the underground.

The reason for this, according to Green, is that RATP prefers to only authorize classical musicians and, for whatever reason, cripples. Not surprisingly, few classically trained, crippled musicians are actually attracted to the idea of playing in the dank, filthy, and handicapped inaccessible Paris underground, and in reality the average métro musician does not conform at all to these narrow parameters. Most are young and quite healthy, two qualities that are virtually prerequisites for enduring the harsh and unpredictable conditions in the métro to which the musician must be able to adapt. First, there are the environmental hazards of having to stand or sit on urine-soaked floors and breath decades of mildew, followed by the complications of dealing with quickly moving crowds of people that often swell suddenly and uncontrollably and may not always be friendly to musicians who appear to be in the way, not to mention having to deal with the frequent RATP shake-downs and the métro’s various other clandestine residents.

While there are many “classical” musicians in the métro, most of who are in fact accredited, they are the least common and appear the least interested in the role they have to play in this underground resistance. They are middle-aged men whose wire-rimmed glasses add a topographical dimension to their faces that might well have been lost by their slowly receding hairlines, and they sit in similarly wire-framed chairs with eyes fixed in a steely gaze to the sheet music clipped to their rickety metallic music stands, rigidly sawing the strings of their cellos, upright basses, violins, and occasionally plunking the keys of some electric keyboard to the tune of Bach, Beethoven, and any of the old fogies in between. In their open instrument cases are CDs of their versions of these “classics” with photos of them on the cover, looking somehow even more like wax-figures than they do in real life.

The musicians who are most successful in the métro, however, which is to say those who make the most money and reach the most people, are the musicians who ride the trains. Those who choose to ride the trains are at the frontlines of the resistance not only because what they do is the least tolerated by RATP, but also because they are manipulating a captive audience, bringing their music directly to the place where the passengers are headed. Mostly young men toting guitars, violins, accordions, and tape-machines, they some times work in pairs but more often they’re flying solo. Unlike their accredited counterparts, they are informally dressed, and they address the passengers casually with a nod. They brace themselves against the opposite door, and begin to sing and play medleys of popular music. Theirs is the most difficult job a musician can take, playing flawlessly to an honest and irascible crowd, in a lurching train car. They select their music carefully to please their passengers, a peppy song to bring a little sunshine below ground, or a bittersweet tune to recall touching memories of good times past. After around three stops the musician passes a tattered paper cup or wrinkled coin purse and the passengers deposit a few coins, not much, but enough for a baguette, and all told, nearly enough to make a comfortable living. Their aloof appearance and cold-hard stares to the contrary, the donations from the Parisians passengers are testimony of their genuine appreciation for that bit of entertainment.

Despite the vast numbers of musicians and their inescapable presence, there is a certain invisibility that surrounds these secretive troubadours. Passengers rarely look at them. As they recognize the familiar strains of a Miles Davis trumpet melody echoing through the dusty halls, they instinctively reach for a coin which they wordlessly toss in the musician’s open instrument case or upturned cap, looking up only enough to perfect their aim.

The musicians themselves seem to enjoy and maintain their secret world apart from the workaday crowd. They rarely converse with the passengers, typically verbalizing nothing more than a short merci or pour la musique as they receive their donations. In a sense, what they are doing is not so different from the métro’s vandals and turnstile jumpers, in that their resistance against the RATP gives them a particular sense of escape and cathartic release. For them, the badge of the revolution is found in the dodging of the RATP badge and a conscious rejection of all that smacks of formality and hierarchy. According to Green and my own interviews, many of the underground musicians are actually classically trained professionals with talent to spare, but they choose to play both for the extra cash and for the opportunity to live a life of their own choosing, a life free of the patron, and the drudgery of a steady boulot.

For some métro musicians, this freedom means more than the opportunity to make an independent living. For such people, a life making music in the métro is their only choice if they want to survive. A 1997 film by Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann entitled L’orchestre Souterrain tells the stories of the many illegal aliens who find refuge in the métro, most of whom have escaped their war-torn home countries with little more to sustain them than their musical talents and their dreams. RATP’s own statistics confirm the existence of this underground and often invisible nation. Among accredited musicians, only 52% are French, while the rest come from over 30 different countries, mostly South America and Central Europe. Rebellious artists in their homelands, they bring their culture and fearless determination with them to the métro.

Many of these refugees display their traditional heritage proudly underground, particularly the groups of Peruvian, Guatemalan, and other Latin American musicians who gather in bands of as many as 13 and sport the multicolored ponchos and wide-brimmed straw sombreros of the musicians in their homelands. Despite their beaming smiles that seem to glow under the fluorescent lights of the métro in contrast to the matte tan of their sun-soaked skin, the raucous strains of their traditional music and the wild colors of their costumes gives the impression of an advancing band of Zapatistas, and in some sense their personal struggle to survive as a refugee in Paris has brought their political struggle to the public’s doorstep. That they have given up their established positions as profession musicians to trespass in the inhospitable hallways of the métro during the day just so that they can breathe the fresh air of liberty in the evenings is a poignant testament to their political convictions and faith in liberal society.

More generally, Green notes the presence of an anarchiste-sympa attitude among the métro musicians, one that flouts the authority of the RATP and regards their fellow musicians as troubadours of the popular underground revolution. Look closely, and you can see a whole network of musicians working to coordinate who plays where and when, so as not to conflict with one another’s repertoire and to make the most money for all involved. Occasionally, this network extends its support to the aboveground lives of the métro musicians, as well. Many musicians have used the métro to meet potential band-mates, find gigs, make friends, and occasionally like-minded musicians meet their mates.

Unlike the fair-weather French anarchists who smoke cigarettes and jump turnstiles once in a while to blow off some steam, marginalized individuals such as immigrants, refugees, and free-spirited musicians are drawn to the métro to exercise a similar sense of liberty but also to live in a community that accepts them, to work among people who understand their plight, and share their dreams. In another sense, however, such people, often illegal immigrants, are forced underground by policies that restrict their access to housing and work, or simply prevent them from playing their music elsewhere. Increasingly the French police are cracking down on musicians who choose to play on the streets, chasing them from storefronts and sidewalk cafes, and forcing them underground.

As the roar of automobiles and canned music blaring from speakers outside of ultra-modern fashion boutiques and chain restaurants steadily increases, the troubadours are pushed further to the margins of society. Theirs is not a dying race so much as a disappearing one, made ever more invisible through increasing persecution and disinterest in the human imperfections and idiosyncrasies of live performers. Yet, the resistance marches on in a million small ways as turnstile jumpers and badge-free troubadours carry the flag of civil disobedience forward.

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