Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moving into a troubled city

Last Thursday evening, a fascinating TV program concerning the long and tumultuous career of the former French police chief Maurice Papon [1910-2007] reminded me retrospectively that I was surely a naive and uninformed Antipodean when I first arrived in Paris on Sunday, 4 February 1962. In particular, I was totally unaware that the French nation was in a state of undeclared war with her former colony, Algeria. On Monday, 12 February, a week after my arrival in Paris, I started working as a computer programmer with the European headquarters of IBM. Between these two events in my narrow personal existence, the tragedy of the métro Charonne had unfolded. Papon's police had pushed leftist political demonstrators down the steps towards the underground station (not far from where my daughter now lives), without realizing that the steel grid was closed, resulting in the death of nine individuals.

On that cold day, I was wandering around in the Latin Quarter, searching for an item of clothing that I had never possessed back out in Australia: an overcoat. Since I was incapable of understanding French-language newspapers, and had no access to TV, I was unaware that a tragedy had taken place over on the other side of the Seine. In any case, I was quite unaware of the Algerian conflict in which France had been bogged down for years. Among other things, I had never heard of the bloody events that had occurred in Paris on 17 October of the previous year (at a time when I had just celebrated my 21st birthday, out in Sydney, and was looking forward excitedly to leaving soon for Europe on the Greek vessel Bretagne), when Papon's police simply executed spontaneously and brutally an unknown number (between tens and hundreds) of Algerians who appeared to sympathize with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and tossed their bodies into the Seine.

Within a few days of my settling down in Paris, I was brought face-to-face with the realities of living in a city in which plastic explosives were being detonated by insurrectionists, intending to draw attention to nasty events on the other side of the Mediterranean. One evening, as I opened the door into my tiny hotel room in the Rue des Ecoles (just a few hundred meters away from the Sorbonne), an explosion destroyed a bookshop on the other side of the street. I remember the familiar horn signals of police vehicles against the delicate tinkling (like proverbial Xmas sleigh bells) of glass fragments falling from shattered windows in the vicinity of the targeted bookshop. A few days later, when I arrived at the IBM building in the Cité du Retiro (just near the Elysée Palace), I learned that an explosion had occurred there during the night. A month later, everything calmed down overnight when the president Charles de Gaulle signed a peace agreement with the FLN on 18 March 1962 at Evian-les-Bains, in the French Alps.

Meanwhile, IBM France (whose headquarters were located at the Place Vendôme) had given me an identity card.

By that time, I had moved into a tiny so-called "maid's room" at the top of the Hôtel du Pas de Calais in the Rue des Saints Pères.

An aspect of my professional situation at IBM that amazed me was the effort they were devoting to the challenge of my obtaining a French work permit. The procedure was set in motion by an initial visit to the Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité. This was the headquarters of the domain of de Gaulle's police chief, Maurice Papon: a vast stone building alongside the Seine, just opposite the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, built around a square courtyard.

I was accompanied to the préfecture by a curious Frenchman who was surely being paid by IBM to assist foreigners such as myself. Within the precincts of the police domain, he seemed to be on friendly personal terms with many members of the clerical staff. Consequently, we were never obliged to line up in queues, or even wait to be received by prefectural personnel. I was amused by a trivial gimmick that my guide exploited constantly. In his coat pockets, he seemed to have an ample supply of American filter cigarettes. Whenever he ran into somebody he knew, his initial gesture consisted of offering him/her a cigarette, which was inevitably received with a smile, and immediately lit up. (Office employees all smoked furiously at that time.) Clearly, this gift of a cigarette was some kind of symbolic trick (a code?) intended to indicate that he had a job to do (organize my request for a work permit), and needed help from his friends.

I would not actually receive the desired document for another three months. During that time, IBM arranged a contact for me in London (since only a French consulate in a foreign land could actually instigate the issue of a work permit to a non-French individual), and it was planned that, as soon as this London contact received a consular request demanding my presence for an interview, I was to drop everything I was doing and jump onto an Air France Caravelle bound for London, enabling me to turn up at the consulate as if I had just taken the London Underground to get there. That trick—which necessitated no less than three return trips to London—enabled me to carry on working for IBM in Paris in spite of the fact that I did not yet possess a work permit. Obviously, everybody—both at the Paris prefecture and at the consulate in London—knew that I was playing a silly game, but we were obliged to behave like that in order to obtain the precious document in a manner that was superficially legal… which was finally issued to me on 15 May 1962.

Over the years, since then, I've often thought back to those first three months at IBM in Paris (where I would remain for another four months), and I've always wondered how a US company in Paris might have got around to employing a French fellow such as my guide, whose job consisted of leading me through the curious procedures that would enable me to become a regular employee in France. Well, it was only last Thursday, in the middle of the TV program about Papon, that I finally received a plausible but totally unexpected (and not particularly nice) explanation. At some time after being named Préfet de Police in March 1958, Papon called upon IBM France to develop a modern punched-card system (not yet using a computer, if I understand correctly) to handle the "management" of the tens of thousands of potential FLN activists residing in metropolitan France. In other words, for Charles de Gaulle and the French police hierarchy, IBM may have been considered as more than just an ordinary American business corporation. And there may have been vague reasons of one kind or another for treating foreign IBM personnel as VIP workers.

We must not, however, exaggerate. If the French authorities had really wanted to make it easy for me to work legally in France, they would have simply handed me a work permit, instead of expecting me to wander around in their red-tape world (of the Paris prefecture and the London consulate) for three months before issuing me a lousy temporary work permit. In any case, it's almost certain that many French visionaries (including de Gaulle) sensed that the intriguing computer phenomenon, represented ideally by IBM, would no doubt play a role in the industrial, scientific and economic future of France.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that the work for which I was employed by IBM Europe (programming the IBM 1401 computer), from 12 February 1962 up until 28 September 1962, had nothing whatsoever to do with the above-mentioned punched-card project carried out by IBM France with a view to controlling the Algerian population residing in France at that time. IBM was an emanation—as is well known—of the Hollerith punched-card company, whose most celebrated primordial exploit in data processing (as this activity came to be called) entailed the use of punched cards to process the results of the US census of 1890. So, there was nothing particularly exceptional in Papon's use of this same punched-card support, some 70 years later, to store data concerning people in France. As for Maurice Papon, he was finally condemned and jailed for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during the Nazi Occupation, and he was also stigmatized (but never actually pursued in a law court) for the murky aspects of his treatment of Algerians. But it would be an absurd deduction to imagine that there might have been anything intrinsically evil, a priori, in the above-mentioned IBM punched-card project. On the other hand, all this precise and well-organized police data concerning FLN suspects, placed conveniently at the fingertips of Papon, would have certainly made it easier for him to perpetrate evil deeds.

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