Hangdog and half-awake, I gaze at the face of the man about to search my belongings. On line for fifteen wobbly minutes, I’m closing in on the head of the queue.
I scrutinize the guard standing beside the metal detector, trying to find the live being in this solid citizen with his droopy cheeks and sober stare. He’ll leaf through my things with hands that reveal the manual labor of his youth while he radiates the world weariness of a poet or a postman thumbing a stack of junkmail. What’s he really looking for? I don’t trust him. Just routine. He’ll rifle wallet and keys, my half-eaten croissant, feed them into the x-ray while I step through the body scanner. And then it’s on to the next suspect.
And then it hits me : no passport. I left it at home. I can feign some unspoken excuse and duck out. That will arouse suspicion, won’t it ? Who is this man who bolts from the queue and takes off down the street ? What kind of mission is he on ? The Conciergerie is the Vatican for the Paris police. There are officers everywhere, most of them standing around with nothing to do, crushing plastic cups and looking people over. Out on the street plainclothes cops loiter, giving everyone the once-over.
Well, let’s find out who’s awake at this Tuesday morning. I give myself a shake and sail through the detectors. Everyone is on automatic, they’re barely alive, they’ve performed the ritual a thousand times. That it’s for show is taken for granted: people with murder and mayhem on the agenda don’t stand on queues. But we submit. It’s proof of our innocence.
Metal check cleared. The passport office is a free-standing structure a dozen steps away. There’s a guard in between to make sure litigants, witnesses and supporters go directly, point A to B.
I’m not going. Still, it all depends on what sort of officer you get. When you have papers, some cops flip the pages idly and others are sticklers. Depends on the hour, the mood. No point to that today.
I swing wide of Security Dick like I own the place, give him the quickest of glances and head for the courts on the ground level.
Do I resemble someone important, someone he’s seen before? No time to find out. Better to disappear in the warren of passageways behind Sainte-Chapelle. I head to the street-level courtroom on the north side where G had his first hearing.
The officers are helpful and together we go down the list of the day’s cases. G isn’t on it. His appeal is being heard elsewhere but no one has a clue where that might be.
G-Unit lost the first round in typical fashion: overwhelmed public defender, expired visa, failure of nerve when it came his turn to present his case in French. Back to the hoosegow on the other side of Bois de Vincennes went G. Today’s appeal is simply to state the obvious : there are no charges against him, he will have to be released.
Ah yes, this G, aka G-Unit, Big G, Gun. You want to know about him.
Honduran, some 30 years of age, G was picked up on the streets of Paris on September 3rd while riding a velo- or bike-taxi near Notre Dame. Asked to produce papers, he could not; he’d lost them in a bar fight two years before. He made efforts to renew but there being no Honduran embassy in Paris, he let it slide. He worked in construction and on the velo-taxis and the overwhelmed Paris police, with graver threats to pursue, missed him in previous encounters. But this time he got a mean cop. The velo-taxi was impounded and he was sent to the Redoute de Gravelle (“Immigration Integration”) outside Joinville-le-Pont, where detainees can be held for as many as 45 days when, if there are no serious charges pending, they must be released.
Mechanic, driver and level head in the free-spirited community of Paris velo-taxi drivers, G was, as far as law is concerned, guilty of no crimes, serious or petty. Just another soldier of this earth tramping one place to another, the immortal race of chancers looking for a fair share of the world’s riches. In that sense, the differences between G-Unit and hundreds of African souvenir hustlers or Bangladeshi water sellers on the streets of Paris can only be measured by the sheer desperation of their flight.
But where is he?
Big G still has a phone, his only possession in captivity. Frantic textos ensue. Where the hell are you hiding ? I’m somewhere else, he replies. Prophetic phrase. Yes, I know but where? Escalier T35bis, he writes after asking the guard. Good luck finding that! Do you have your head screwed on this time, bro? No copping out! Insist you’re not leaving France. To which he replies, Don’t worry, boss. Bolas bien puestas.
I spend the next 45 minutes covering the Conciergerie from bottom to top and back again trying to locate this fantastically secret little stairway.
I find it – behind a door that flush with the wall is well-nigh invisible. I clamber up the stairs straight into a swarm of guards who inform me that the public isn’t allowed into appeal hearings. Why? Five of us were there for the first go-round. Well, you can’t. No explanation. Something suspicious in that. Can’t I see him for a minute beforehand?
Consternation all around. There seems to be no definitive answer. He’s right on the other side of the wall, just past the latest metal detector, cooling his heels while the court deals with other cases. The cops mill about, sit down, promise to think about it. I can wait in the hall, they tell me.
Watching the cops without looking at them directly, I read their lips. I don’t have a chance of seeing Big G. I’ll wait anyway.
Lunch hour arrives. No cop on the beat, no private security force, no able-bodied anti-terrorist is going to miss a meal. You can’t run after a jihadi or even write a ticket on an empty stomach. So my new friends troop past me down the stairs and away to the canteen. They leave a clean-faced rookie in charge, an officer who looks all of nineteen and hasn’t yet had the gentleness wiped off his countenance.
I approach, put in my request, G-Unit full name yes there it is on the list, case hasn’t been heard yet, only a minute or two, yes, right here is fine, and I go back to the hallway, where I promptly nod out on a wooden bench.
A huge, barrelling laughter invades my dreams.
I open my eyes and there he is, framed by the metal detector, glowing, happy to see somebody he knows. He’s Honduras in Paris, born on a coffee plantation that once stretched for miles in the highlands near the Salvadoran border, a big overgrown macho with German-Indian blood, an Olmec face and an identical twin who never left their small town. His German grandfather made hay and babies with the local ladies and the generation that came after fought like scorpions for their share of the land. G has 35 cousins and it was his parents’ generation that tore the finca to shreds, leaving G and his siblings to grow up in a plantation house à l’andalouse with vitrines full of WWII regalia and little else.
A French lady arrived in town one day. It didn’t take long for G to make his decision: he’d follow wherever she went. And she went home. How was he going to get there? Hard to imagine a place further from Europe than Marcala, Honduras. With no way to make real money on the finca, the only way to France was by indirection. By heading North.
He made two journeys to the U.S., the first packed in a truck with 150 hopefuls from all over Central America. Departing from Mexico they travelled for days jammed together like sticks of wood. He crossed the Texas desert on foot and got caught, he set out again from Honduras and made it, worked on a chicken farm in North Carolina and saved the dollars. Two years later he landed in Europe but never found the woman, kicked around the cities and ended up in Paris on a velo-taxi, waiting, watching, wondering if she’d appear.
G and his race will ramble on to the next open city, wherever there are chances to be had and thrills along the way, with or without those precious papers that any semi-pro terrorist can get in under an hour. Shown the door in one city or a hundred, banned here and jailed there, the searchers will never be eradicated. They can’t be. They’re part of the human tribe, the crazy ones who write poems with their feet.
For five minutes we jabber in an easy going, allegorical Spanish-English meant to mystify the guard. We’re a bit too friendly, shaking hands too often, things are slipping out of control. The cadet doesn’t want to blow it on his watch. He looms in close and declares the metal detector a no-fly zone.
After five minutes the interview is over and G returns to the antechamber. He’ll lose this round as well.
That’s the last I saw of G-Unit, all 6’3″ of him. Why ? Because the police decided to deport him and they bent the law to do it.
On Thursday, little more than a week after his appeal, the forty-fifth day of his incarceration, they would have had to let him go. His friends, legal and otherwise, were waiting to welcome him back.
He hadn’t been charged or convicted of any crime and he wasn’t a vagrant. And then at midnight Wednesday he called – from Madrid. He was waiting for the flight back to Honduras, and he was saying goodbye. Two immigration dicks stood guard while he called his friends.
As le Canard Enchainé pointed out (18 October), the European Court of Justice has condemned France numerous times over the last decade for its illegal expulsions, principally but not limited to gypsies from Eastern Europe. According to Canard, in January the Macron administration will propose legislation that reëstablishes the so-called double peine : foreign aid only to those countries that accept anyone France expels.
G’s experience takes place against the backdrop of a France where the special powers of the Etat d’Urgence have been written into the constitution and the police have near unlimited sway to enforce as they see fit. (Regional newspapers are the place to go for that story.)
And Paris? The city is having a panic attack. The Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, caviar gauche to her heart of hearts, campaigned for the Olympics and won and yet the din of police sirens and screech of motorcycles suggest not so much a festive city but one under siege. Meanwhile the grubby, grumbling resistance of everyday Parisians – les velo-taxistes y compris – shambles on. They’ll still be here when the police have other mice to catch.
James Graham lives in France, where he’s working on a novel. He can reached at email@example.com