THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS (Le Camp des Saints) By Jean Raspail CHAPTER SEVEN


Seven

“… in the four departments bordering the coast, under the command of the undersecretary, Monsieur Jean Perret, personal representative of the President of the Republic. The army will make every effort to protect all property left behind, insofar as its other duties permit. Government sources confirm that the President of the Republic will address the nation at midnight, tonight, with a message of grave concern …”

The ones who knew French turned down their radios and translated the announcement for the horde of compatriots piled on all sides. The cellar had never seemed nearly so full as it did that night. It housed the black rubbish men of the northern wards of Paris. With all of them crammed in together, eight to a double-deck bed, legs dangling over the edges, there was a feeling of solidity and strength that even they themselves had never noticed. Oddly enough for such talkative types, no one dared risk a word, not even the handful of whites that were part of the vast mass of black, among them one of those ragtag priests and a militant tough at war with the social order. Everyone was thinking, straining his mind to the utmost. It’s not easy to conceive the dizzying dimensions of something so unbelievable when you live in a strange city, down some godforsaken cellar, and the only time you get out is first thing every dismal morning, to pick up the rubbish along nameless streets.

“And if they manage to land in one piece, what then?” asked one of them, the one they called “the Chief,” since he had lived in France for quite some time. “What if they land, will all of you climb up out of your rat holes too?” The only reply was a long, meaningless murmur. None of those underfed brains worked fast enough to picture the possible chain of events. But something was building up inside, something slow to take shape, but powerful and solemn all the same. Then, from the dark recesses of one of the bunks, a voice boomed out:

“All depends. Will there be enough rats?’

“By daylight,” the ragtag priest replied, “they’ll be thick as the trees in a giant forest, sprung up overnight in the darkness.” That much they understood, and the murmur rippled with approval. Then they sat back, ready to wait …

There were others waiting too that night: the swill men, sewer men, sweepers from all the dumps the length and breadth of Paris; the peons and bedpan pushers from all the hospitals; the dishwashers from the shabby cafés; the laborers from Billancourt and Javel, from Saint-Denis and beyond; the swivel-hipped menials digging their pits around gas pipes and cables; the fodder for industry’s lethal chores; the machinery feeders, the Metro troglodytes, black crabs with ticket-punching claws; the stinking drudges who mucked around in filth; and the myriad more, embodiments all of the hundreds of essential jobs that the French had let slip through their delicate fingers; plus the ones who were coughing their lungs out in clinics, and the ones with a healthy dose in the syphilis wards. All in all, a few hundred thousand Arabs and blacks, invisible somehow to the ostrich Parisians, and far more numerous than anyone would think, since the powers that be had doctored the statistics, afraid of jolting the sleepwalking city too violently out of its untroubled trance. Paris was no New York. They waited now the same meek way they lived, overlooked and unknown, in virtual terror, whole tribes of fellow sufferers hiding away in the depths of their cellars or huddling together up under the eaves, happy to shut themselves off in infested streets, where grimy façades hid unsuspected ghettos as wholly unknown to the people of Paris as Ravensbruck and Dachau, once upon a time, had been to the Germans.

It was only among the Arabs that the thought of the unlikely confrontation brewing off the southern coast of France would occasionally take a vengeful turn. Nothing too concrete yet, only shadowy yearnings and suppressed desires, like the wish to see a French- woman smile, rather than dreaming of having to rape her; or being able to get yourself a pretty whore, instead of hearing her tell you, “I don’t go to bed with dirty Arabs”; or just being able to take a carefree walk through the park, and not suddenly see all the terrified females cluster around to protect their young, like mother hens ready to pounce. That evening, only the most fanatic envisioned a new kind of holy war, and one that wasn’t even theirs to wage. Still, in no time at all, the Algerian quarters all through Paris and the suburbs had been zoned off again into sectors. A certain Mohammed, the one called “Cadi One-Eye,” appeared to be in supreme command. By eleven that night he had managed to pass his first orders down the line to all the sector chiefs:

“The time for violence is over. Have them put away their razors, have them break their knives in two. The first one I hear of who spills any blood, I’ll see that he’s castrated.”

He was an Arab, and he knew how to talk to Arabs. And so they all obeyed him. Except, that is, for his schoolteacher wife, who was white and French. Indeed, his own razor was quick to disappear. It was hidden inside her right stocking, flat against the thigh. Élise had known what contempt was like. For all ten years of her married life, not one of its subtle barbs had escaped her. She cherished a dream of redemption by blood, and she wasn’t alone. Of all the French wives of ghetto Arabs—a scant thousand, perhaps—not a few had felt that burden of contempt. Among the Arabs, unlike the blacks, they were the only Western intruders. The clan loathed the stranger more as friend than foe; and if it accepted these Christian wives at all, it was only because it had swallowed them up, only because they belonged to it utterly, sex and soul, even more than Frenchwomen do to their Frenchmen …

There were some, though, who had a clear notion of just what a crucial struggle the next day would bring. They had closed their shutters, barred their doors, drawn the drapes in their rooms and offices, and sat clustered in silence around their radios, eager for news, waiting like everyone else for the promised address by the President of the Republic. They were the Third World diplomats and students—Africans, Arabs, Asians. On the verge of panic, with nowhere to turn, they had even stopped calling back and forth between their embassies, between their homes, so suddenly crushed by the turn of events, that they—the rich, the select, the leaders, the militant elite—no longer even bothered to keep abreast of each other. Which was all the stranger since, during the fifty days of the fleet’s dramatic odyssey over two oceans, they had been consumed in a frenzy of thoughtful reflection, issuing endless communiqués, holding press conferences, interviews, meetings, debates, one after the other, while the fleet pressed on and on, a mixture of fact and myth, a phenomenon so untoward that people would have to see it before they believed it. Then Gibraltar, finally, and see it they did! And suddenly all those eager devotees stopped wagging their tongues, their zeal turned to panic, and some—if the dark truth be known—had to hold back a flood of hate at the brink.

Closed, now, the West Indian bars, the Chinese restaurants, the African dance halls, the Arab cafés. In the light of other reports— from embassy guards, from worker and student informers—these signs all tended to kill any lingering doubts the police might have that the situation in Paris, eight hundred kilometers from the refugee fleet, was as grave as it was along the southern coast. Yes, a state of emergency should be declared here too, with the whole array of preventive measures, while they still had time. … 

The prefect of police called the Élysée Palace. He tried to get through to the Minister of the Interior. But all he was told was that the meeting was still in progress. … 

Three-quarters of an hour to go before the address, and the government still hadn’t made up its mind! The prefect, too, assumed that all he could do now was wait.

Could that be one explanation? …

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