“This is France, not North Korea,” snarled a bland-looking Frenchman after I’d pointed out that we were in the rather dingy non-smoking section of Le Sancerre, a modest little brasserie in the Marais. Still, he put down his lighter and Marlboros. Since I was a three-pack-a-day man until I went cold turkey on my fortieth birthday, I could feel his rage. An hour later I was in the Conciergerie and transported back to the heyday of the Committee of Public Safety, when the status of France, in the eyes of its enemies across the Channel and the Rhine, made the land of Kim Jong Il look as tame as the Democrats in Congress in Year Seven of Bush time.
The Conciergerie is at the west end of the Île de la Cité, where the cathedral of Notre Dame stands. Part of the Palais de Justice, it is most famously where suspects were taken during the French Revolution. In the early years following the fall of the Bastille in 1789, you had a sporting chance of walking out of the Conciergerie with head and shoulders still connected. A notice on the stone wall next to a bust of Robespierre said that in the Revolution’s first year only a third of the accused were found guilty. The place really picked up after the establishment in the spring of 1793 of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the installation of public prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, who bustled well over a thousand into eternal sleep (“Death is nothing but eternal sleep” was posted in all cemeteries in the Revolutionary period), including Marie Antoinette, Danton, Hébert and Robespierre, before the blade fell on his own neck in May 1795.
These days the Disneyfication of historical sites proceeds in lockstep with the construction of those worldwide boondoggles par excellence, “visitor centers” and “heritage” facilities. Not so in the Conciergerie, a heavy place. You can imagine being hauled in, dumped in a cell along with a passel of vicomtes and ducs, given your minute in court and not long thereafter taken to the door–there it was right in front of my nose–behind which was a horse harnessed to the tumbrel, with Madame Defarge and her knitting crew waiting for you in the front row, where the guillotine stood in what is now the Place de la Concorde, near the Crillon Bar.
It was a cold day in Brumaire when I visited the Conciergerie, and shortly thereafter the Métro train I was riding on went through a station called Guy Môquet. At one end of the platform there were vases of flowers forming a little shrine to young Môquet, the 17-year-old member of a group of twenty-seven Communists in the French Resistance who were shot by the Nazis on October 22, 1941, as reprisal for the killing of a senior German officer. Before he was shot Môquet wrote a famous letter to his parents and brother, saying he was ready to die, having “done my best to follow the way that you have laid out for me” (his father was a Communist deputy) and concluding, “I…kiss you with all this child’s heart of mine. Be brave!”