The Rites of Spring

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In France, the first day of May marries two traditions that have absolutely nothing to do with each another: offering a bouquet of lilies of the valley to one’s nearest and dearest, and celebrating International Labor Day. The noisy parade routes, jammed with union members and sympathizers waving banners, are lined with sausage stands and makeshift tables selling the little bunches of sweet-smelling flowers, rather droopy after having traveled so far. The weather’s bound to be lovely. C’est la fête!

It wasn’t the weather that spoiled this year’s holiday party in Paris. May first dawned cold and gray but heated up rapidly along the route, Bastille to Place d’Italie, thanks to the shenanigans of the so-called Black Blocs : 1200 members showed up from this loosely organized movement of agitators and self-styled anarchists, wearing dark clothing and balaclavas, carrying bags of hammers and Molotov cocktails. The parade exploded into flames at the Place d’Austerlitz, where cars and businesses were smashed and burned. A MacDonald’s was set on fire, with customers trapped inside (no serious injuries reported).

Forty-two suspects are still under arrest. And the finger-pointing is in full swing. Where were the police? (Concerned about collateral damage; however, they eventually swung in with tear gas and water cannons.) The leader of the far left, Melanchon, declares the Black Blocs are actually ultra-right skinheads. The Chief of Police points out drily that it’s unlikely the unions would have invited ultra-rightists to join their parade. And where was the Mayor? The President?

Before the first of May, I planned to post again about the (mostly) wonderful plays I’ve been lucky to see this season in the city of 450 theaters. Before the first of May, I planned also to quote at length from an intriguing recent interview with Macron about his ‘relationship with literature’, and such writers as Proust, Camus and Stendhal. It included this gem: ‘What makes me optimistic is that history is again becoming tragic.’

In context, ‘tragic’ not as a calamity, but in the sense of what literature requires: that something vital has to be at stake. After the long post-war lull of security and prosperity, people everywhere are finding that crucial things are, right now, at stake.  The loss of culture(s). The degradation of public education – and of the planet. The have-nots versus the have-lesses. Religious extremism. The rights and needs of local populations versus the needs of those with nowhere but here to go.

Much is being made of the anniversary of May ’68. I don’t see many parallels, the destructive posturing of the Black Blocs aside (one symptom among many). The conflicts erupting today in Europe  – and elsewhere – run deeper and wider than students battling police, or debates about Marxism. Not to belittle the state violence of those times, or the importance of political-philosophical debate.

France is not alone in being increasingly anxious, impatient and divided.  There’s a time for reading and reflection, and a time to act. It won’t be easy, in a new landscape we are all only beginning to discern, having returned to a sense of the tragic.




  1. Brilliant as always.


  2. margot livesey · · Reply

    Thank you so much, Kai, for this illuminating and troubling post.

  3. Would it be possible for us to borrow M. Macron until the 2020 Presidential election? I fully accept that France needs his leadership, but we on the other side of the water do too. Here it is nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.

    I very much like his observation about history becoming tragic again. And I believe deeply that there is more at stake in the West than there has been since the war: we are witnessing the attempted reversal of more than a century of actual progress. The things we have yelled about for the past few decades have been little more than annoyances by comparison.

    I read four or five reliable papers per day, between newsprint and websites, but your blog gave me more insight about the Black Blocs than any of them. Bien fait.

    1. I do not normally “intrude” on what appears to me as a private conversation, but I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts, Mike. I think we’d be glad to lend Mr Macron to our American friends, but he does have a lot on his hands. Now, if I may extend your thought: one could think of moving some of the best leaders around once they’ve finished their national terms. A challenging idea. 🙂
      (No. Not Tony Blair, please)
      Take care

  4. Oh, my. The U.S. news has been so filled with the chaos here that I didn’t even hear about this news from Paris. One sort of clings to the hope that in France, things seem more civilized.

    1. They are, Janet, by that standard they are. One sees people reading, everywhere…

  5. Hi Maristed. I finally managed to find the appropriate amount to read your post.
    (I do prefer the muguet…)
    But you are right, (and likely Macron is), something vital is now at stake in France, and Europe. I am not sure many see it. Lack of vision focussed on today’s little privileges… There is a need for another Nuit du 4 Août…
    Thank you for your thoughts as always. It connects me with my distant land.
    A bientôt…

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