No bistro open? Never mind. Eric Hazan receives us at home, a flat with walls covered in books and paintings, opening onto a small paved courtyard, a stone’s throw from the Belleville Métro station. To accompany the coffee, he has gone to the local bakery to get some croissants. ‘It’s neither bad nor great,’ he says, ‘12 out of 20.’ Perhaps that’s the mark he gives to the whole city... The elderly editor and ultra-left writer both adores and abhors this indomitable capital. Take Belleville – a poor and cosmopolitan neighbourhood, but threatened with gentrification. In his own street ‘three galleries have opened, with shabby works… It’s disturbing’. He wants to improve the city. The intersection between his street and the Boulevard de Belleville, for example, why not make it a real square and name it after Frantz Fanon, the Martinican author of The Wretched of the Earth? At the same time, streets whose names speak ‘an urban dishonour’ should be renamed, he says, citing the Avenue Mac-Mahon – ‘capitulationist general and notorious moron’ – or the Rue Thiers.
During the lockdown last spring, Eric Hazan was trapped in his flat. ‘I was seized by a frenzy of writing,’ he says, as his antique Italian metal coffeepot begins to gurgle. The result was a small book, Le Tumulte de Paris, a delightful wander through the streets of the capital, illustrated with photos taken by his daughter Cléo, and published by his own company, La Fabrique. ‘When I publish elsewhere, my two partners give me nasty looks,’ he says. The stated aim was very positive: ‘I wanted to defend Paris against those who see it as a museum city, stagnant and gentrified.’ He won’t change his mind. At 84, Hazan is a Paris pedestrian who smiles as much as he grumbles. The Left Bank, where he lived for a long time, has become ‘a dreary shop-window’, he describes. The ‘greening’ advocated by the City Council? ‘It’s taking places that don’t need anything from anyone and disfiguring them.’ As for the new Métro entrances, they look like scrap metal, ‘conceived by designers from the prison administration’, says a man nostalgic for the art nouveau originals.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
For all that, the publisher of L’Insurrection qui vient (2007) has not become a grumpy reactionary. ‘When I was 15, I was lucky enough to have Communist friends,’ he recalls, taking his first sip of coffee, ‘and I was enveloped by their fraternity, their cheerfulness, their enthusiasm. It is to them that I owe my political commitment, which was the complete opposite of that of my parents, Le Monde readers who unthinkingly voted for the Socialist party.’ Today, he still believes in communism. ‘A perfect word,’ he says. ‘We just have to extract it from the carapace of Stalinism.’
Similarly, quote Robespierre and you will see the editor suddenly enthuse for this hero. ‘He was in all the right battles, he took a stand against war, against the death penalty, for citizenship for Jews, and found it painful to lead the Terror.’ Now Hazan is convinced that the reign of the bourgeoisie that began with Thermidor is coming to an end. His diagnosis: ‘Capitalism is sick. It is at the root of global warming and the pandemic, which will sweep it away.’ Then ‘everything will become possible again’, he hopes. Including the return to Paris of ‘the excluded, the congested, the despised’ – all those driven out by the rise in property prices.
Paris is Eric Hazan’s fundamental anchorage. ‘More than anything else, I am a true Parigot!’ No other identity defines him better. French? ‘As a little boy, during the War, I was forced to hide. I didn’t go to school. So France is not my mother,’ he remembers, curling up in his armchair and hugging himself. Jewish, then? Hardly any more. ‘My parents were Jewish. My father came from Egypt, my mother from Romania. But I never set foot in a synagogue and, unfortunately, I don’t speak Yiddish. All I have left from this history are jokes and Central European dishes.’
A little more, no doubt. For this history shaped him. A student at the Lycée Louis-Le-Grand at the end of the War, he dreamed of becoming a historian. But ‘in good Jewish families, you had to be a doctor or a lawyer,’ he says. ‘My father pushed me into medicine, one of those professions you can take with you if you have to leave in a hurry.’ Eric went into medicine, became a heart surgeon, operated. Went on to head a department at the Laennec hospital. He has fond memories of this, especially of the large table at which ‘children of all colours’ had breakfast together. And the incredible dedication of the nurses. ‘They deserve to be paid the same as university professors!’
At 45, however, he abandoned all this. ‘I still remember that night, when I stopped in my car at a Denfert traffic light. I suddenly said to myself: I can’t do this any more, be forced at two in the morning to cross Paris for a sick person who’s acting up. I’m not going to go on like this for another twenty years!’ The way out was quickly found. He took over his father’s publishing house, Fernand Hazan, which specialised in art books. And here the communist who was so critical of his parents found himself in the unexpected role of heir and boss.[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
Eric Hazan gets up for an orange juice to moisten his lips, which are dry from his medication. ‘I tried to be an attentive, respectful boss, so that the company would no longer resemble the capitalist enterprise it was,’ he continues. ‘And I created a series of big books there that I’m quite proud of.’ He takes two books from his shelves and places them on the small table next to the croissants: Marville’s photos of old Paris, and Yiddishland by Gérard Sylvain and Henri Minczeles. However, the hard law of capitalism eventually took its toll. The cash flow ran out, and he decided to sell the business to the ‘ogre’ Hachette in 1992, shortly after the death of his father. This was both a heartbreak and a relief. He bounced back by creating La Fabrique, a very small structure where his political dream finally came true: ‘We operate as a trio, on an equal footing. I have already passed on my shares to my partners.’ And this time, the publisher of titles such as Le Capitalisme patriarcal (Silvia Federici) or Figures du communisme (Frédéric Lordon) is quite profitable.
It took a few more years before, at the age of 60, Hazan ventured to start writing in his turn, with The Invention of Paris (2002). Some twenty books followed this success, many of them on the capital and the revolutions of yesterday and today. After Le Tumulte de Paris he has just started a new manuscript, still top secret. The only thing to note is that it is not fiction. ‘I don’t know how to invent,’ says this insatiable reader of thrillers.
No imagination, really? Yet his book is full of ideas for the City of Light. A small museum of Surrealism, for example. Transform the deserted Bourse into a large public library. Or blow up the Hôtel-Dieu and the police headquarters, that ‘ugly building full of bad memories’, and build a new district in its place. A message to Mayoress of Paris Anne Hidalgo and police prefect Didier Lallement.
Le Monde, 3 April 2021
Translated by David Fernbach