A Bloody Kiss

By Katherine Trout

Marcel giving the famous “French kiss” to one of his products – a severed pig head.


PARIS, FRANCE – “I am going to show you the French kiss!” isn’t the exclamation most American visitors would expect – or hope – to hear from a Frenchman yielding a bloody knife in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the most dangerous spots in Paris.

But Marcel, the butcher at Pore Frais Boiton Rabain, is a friendly guy.


Marcel and his fellow butchers hard at work.


Waving a small group of Americans over to his shop, Marcel is true to his promise and plants a big “French kiss” on the snout of a bloodied pig head. Pleased with the shocked laughter erupting from his audience, Marcel flashes a toothy grin and hands the head off to the young butcher behind him – who promptly begins whacking the head with powerful chops. He stoops down to pick up a chunk of ear that has flown onto the ground.

This market in Seine-Saint-Denis, nicknamed the neuf trois or 93, is anything but a tourist hub – the suburb is known for its unpredictable violent outbreaks and growing impoverished immigrant community. Booths ranging from bargain produce to 2-euro lingerie and 4-euro hijabs form a maze around the streets for Sunday shoppers. Alongside these merchants, butchers like Marcel add a gastronomic flavor to the marketplace.

A few booths away from Marcel, at the Chevaline Lambert, is the fifty-two-year-old Claude. But unlike Marcel, who is one of many pork butchers at the market, Claude specializes in selling a unique product: horse.

Claude has been slicing up horse meat for 12 years. His boss who works across from him at their other booth has been in the business for 41.

Trays of horse meat at the Chevaline Lambert.


The American troupe passes by his booth. They turn up their noses after they hear the English translation of the word cheval. Claude quickly reassures, “I have the best meat!” He rattles off his favorite reasons to buy – and eat – horse: it has loads of iron, no fat, and can be safely eaten raw.

But Claude senses doubt in his visitors. He reaches down and tears off a chunk of raw, ground cheval. He offers it to a young American girl. “Try it!” Despite his coaxing, she manages to spit out the words, “No, no! Merci, monsieur.” Amused at her fear, he proves his point himself. He pops the bloodied meat into his mouth like candy and wipes his bloodstained hands on his white apron.

Multi-faith Community in Seine-Saint-Denis

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

The Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis is a hallmark of ethnoreligious pluralism. It has the highest proportion of immigrants of any suburb in France. Almost a quarter of the population hails from North Africa, and an addition quarter from sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world. At the Saint Denis Market, barrels of cardamom and couscous outnumber baskets of croissants. Toward the market entrance, a family barters with their spice vendor in mixed French, Spanish, and Moroccan Arabic. Outside, Swahili-speaking vendors sell discounted everything – track pants, hookah pipes, fake pearl earrings, mattresses. A woman donning a blue floral hijab stands with her husband and two-year-old son, who flashes a sign as big as he is that reads famille syrienne: SOS. Some passersby throw them a euro. Others pretend not to notice. Nearby a man wearing a khamiis, an ankle-length white tunic traditionally worn by Somali Muslims, chants alhamdulillah, the Qur’anic phrase meaning Praise be to God.

The market is one facet of Seine-Saint-Denis. Just a few blocks away looms the Basilique Saint Denis, a Gothic church that reflects France’s deeply Catholic roots. The warmth of the market is lost on the basilica. Its winding corridors are freezing and dimly lit. The people there are different, too. As Princeton Professor Florent Masse notes, many visitors to the basilica come from neighboring suburbs to tour. Unlike Seine-Saint-Denis, those suburbs are affluent, and full of traditional Catholics. Professor Masse points out the “conservative” garb of a family nearby. The girl of about seven toys with her floor-length dress. Her father smooths his long-sleeved checkered shirt. They concentrate on Louis XVI’s memorial statue. “They still love all the old kings,” says Florent, “and they don’t go to the market.”

But on the underground level of the church, the market’s culture resurfaces. A temporary photo exhibition called “Mater – Reines de France” represents female migrant residents of Seine-Saint-Denis as Mater dolorosa figures. They appear at once pure and tough. They lie in jeweled cases, draped in white. But their faces are wrinkled. Their eyes pierce the viewer. According to their placards, many of the women are Muslim. But the artist, Arilès de Tizi, has attempted to integrate them into the history of Seine-Saint-Denis. So in the depths of this basilica, one finds a rare convergence of the borough’s disparate cultures.


Restoring Saint Denis

By: Katie Petersen

Amid the famous Gothic architecture and stained glass Christian scenes of the Basilica of Saint Denis, something is missing. Some things, actually. High on one window, a wooden board panel replaces a piece of the colorful story. On the opposite wall, an entire rose window is substituted by translucent white glass. Outside and high above the heads of ogling tourists, the left tower is nowhere to be seen.

Some window panels are being repaired because the glass itself is damaged (most are from the 19th century, with some dating back to the 12th, according to PhD student and Saint Denis tour guide Elliot Boulate). Some, like the rose window panels, have been temporarily replaced because their supporting structures have become unstable.

When asked if the tower and stained glass panels will be restored and reinstated soon, Boulate is not optimistic. He is clearly passionate about the history of the church, but says, “Even if we have a very dense historical monument and very old, we are not one of the top tourist place in Paris, so we don’t have a lot of money for that.”

He gestures to a statue of Charles V in the corner as an example: “We thought for years that the lions at his feet had been destroyed. In fact, they have been discovered again; it was in a private collection in the UK and it will be sold at Christie’s [one of the world’s leading auction houses] next summer.” At first, this sounds like great news. “But we don’t have any money to buy them,” Boulate laments, “so it probably will be the British museum that will be the acquirer for those lions.”

A lack of funding stems from a lack of traffic, Boulate explains, so “we are trying to attract more and more people.”

To that end, while some of the classic pieces like stained glass windows and Gothic towers are missing, the church has been creatively bringing in other attractions.

A recently introduced art exhibition, entitled “Mater: Reines de France,” or Mother: Queens of France, features local Saint Denis women draped in silky, white fabric as modern reinterpretations of the classice ‘mourning mother.’
Additionally, Boulate shares, the church organizes a classical music concert in June dubbed the “Festival of Saint Denis” and hosts guided school tours to raise revenue.


For the sake of preserving history, the curators of the Basilica of Saint Denis are looking to bring new life to a final resting place for French royalty.

An Attempt to Reinvent Seine-Saint-Denis

By: Miriam Friedman

The different styles of Saint-Denis: a  revealing outfit beside a long modest dress, and a student standing in the mirror in between. Photograph by Miriam Friedman

Stepping off the penultimate subway stop on Metro line 13 means entering a different world from the traditional picturesque Paris. This is Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, colloquially referred to as “the 93.” This is a place that tourists do not usually frequent, a place where the smell of garbage permeates through the air instead of that of buttered croissants. It is a place unlike the central area near the Eiffel tower, one where people dress in tattered t-shirts and sneakers instead of dresses and heels.

Seine-Saint-Denis has long been a unique suburb. But although people of various nationalities and religions have been living in the area for years, it has only recently begun to take pride in its diversity. The juxtaposition of shops that cater to different religious sects, and the emergence of exhibits that promote inclusion are a testament to the new self-worth of the district. Saint-Denis is attempting to recreate its image in a way that preserves its history, while embracing its modern heterogeneous culture.

To a first-time visitor, the outside Saint-Denis seems like a place wrought with contradiction. Clothing stores across the neighborhood sell a mixture of modest and conservative garments; merchants display short red party dresses and long black skirts beside each other for an equal fare of three Euros. While some people in the market dress in mini-skirts and short sleeve shirts, others cover their bodies with burkas.

But the inside of the suburb’s central Basilica, the Basilica of Saint Denis, is homogenous. Though its welcome book is filled with long messages written in both neat calligraphy and carelessly messy script, all the notes have one thing in common: they are all written in French.

Amandine Deochampo, a worker in the Basilica. Photograph by Miriam Friedman

In recent years, the Basilica has seen a decline in international tourism. One of the church guards, Amandine Deochampo, 26, insists that this is because of “terrorism.” Many of the terror plots have been hatched in this area. She says that with the rise in violent attacks, tourists are more reluctant to go to “non-essential” sites with reputations for being unsafe. Suddenly the 1,700-year history of the Basilica is forgotten, replaced by excursions to local cafes in the center of Paris. This is something the Church is trying to change.

The “Mater” exhibit in the basement of the basilica stands at the height of this ideal. According to the 26-year-old museum manager Eliot Boulate, it was put on display “to promote the diversity within Saint Denis.” The mothers are faces of different women who live in the district. In the description on a panel in front of these portraits, the artist, Ariles de Tizi, explains this is a payment to “women and martyrs of exile,” a tribute to the fringe members of society; it is a welcome to the previously excluded personalities.

Since Boulate began working at the museum eighteen months ago, the Mater exhibit is the second one that has come to tell this tale of inclusivity. Last year, the church had a collection of religious robes made of fabrics from countries across the globe. The piece was well received, which prompted the board of the basilica to sponsor more long term projects of this kind. There are plans for another two similar exhibitions to come to the church caverns in the next year.

Today, the Basilica has informational brochures in six languages, and many signs throughout the building are translated into the most common four (French, English, Spanish, German). Aside from these translations, the cathedral is also creating incentives for more people to visit. It offers free guided tours to people with low incomes, and discounted tours to international students during the summertime. It also has more security than it did in the past. The staff hopes that this will elevate the dirtied status of the city, and encourage more people to visit.

These efforts show a Saint-Denis that is struggling to reinvent itself. But despite these attempts, the suburb is still wrought with high unemployment, drug crimes, and terrorism. Though it is cultivating a new identity, it still has a long road ahead.

The Warriors of the 93

A sign depicting a Bengali barber shop in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis
Photo by Anhar Karim

“The camera. Make sure you keep it close,” said the police officer in French. He then stomped away with his partners, all thickly-clad in body armor and holding machine guns. There stood Paris’ mighty warriors, bravely marching through what everyone else knew to be a high danger zone.

In the suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis, a bustling outdoor market and indoor food store breaths with hundreds of people as its oxygen. And if you follow the crowds through the market, you’ll quickly discover why so many make their daily pilgrimages here. In the corner, an Arab woman covered in hijab grabs onto the hand of a small boy as she pushes through the walkways. At the other end a black man peers into the glass for a look at the sauerkraut, perhaps imagining tonight’s dinner. And then, a white Frenchman, the kind one would find in the background of a film set in Paris, passes through to get to the Caribbean food shop. Here is a place where passersby collect ingredients for their next meal and spend the hours before it comes time to prepare it. Here is a place as familiar as home.

But it is also one of the most feared areas in Paris.

This place, infamously referred to as “the 93,” is not only home to a crime rate nearly double the national average, but also to a very low rate of successful criminal investigations. And so, while you move past the bearded man telling you to stop by his high-end baby fashion store and after you stop to take a look at the neckwear sold by the man claiming he imported everything from India, you cannot help but notice the four armor-clad police officers marching through the streets with jaded, blank faces. They creep through as foreigners in their country, unable to realize the joviality of the space around them. They are a reminder of the danger of this place, and looking upon them can make any visitor momentarily forget the otherwise joyous atmosphere.

This area is, objectively, a very dangerous one. However, a concentration of a few bad people need not discount the culture of everyone around them. Upon a normal visit on any afternoon, this market greets you with smiles, discounts, and bags full of fresh food. It is a little square of happiness locked away deep inside Paris. But the police force chooses not to see any of this. Instead, upon seeing a young tourist pointing her camera at the wonder of colors and cultures around her, one officer comes over and makes it clear that she should guard her camera from the thieves that surround her.

And just like that, this whole amazing world is reduced to a visitor clutching the camera in her pocket.

The Sacred and the Profane

Enter the Basilica of Saint-Denis, located in the Paris suburb of the same name. The cathedral was constructed to honor the first Bishop of Paris, who died a martyr’s death in 250 AD. It serves as a final resting place for much of French royalty. Walk past the rose windows and cross-ribbed vaults that bathe the cathedral in weak afternoon light. Step down the stone stairs into the basilica crypt, past the recumbent royalty buried in the basilica’s vast tombs, to find contemporary photographs of the basilica’s new “queens of France.”

On prints affixed to plexiglass shaped to match the curved cathedral windows, six color photographs show women draped in ivory sheets. These women lay in repose; their hands open in their laps, their stares fixed heavenward. Many of the women are young, some bedecked in jewels and gleaming red nail polish, some unadorned, the fabric folds echoing the draped shape of a hijab.

These modern Madonnas are the work of the artist Arilés de Tizi. His art exhibition, called Queens of France, is part of his cycle of exhibitions on “the mothers of exile,” meant to link the two emblematic locations within the neighborhood of Saint-Denis: the basilica, and the open-air market hall of Saint-Denis, located just a few minutes away from the church.

The church is a refuge from the frenzy of the market, a meeting space of languages and predominantly North African immigrant communities of the neighborhood. De Tizi attempts to link the two spaces through portraiture. The six women in his exhibition are women from the neighborhood of Saint-Denis. Though photographed to resemble the Virgin Mary, the new queens in de Tizi’s portraits are immigrants and exiles, some here in France illegally.

Like much of his work, this exhibit aims to link the sacred and the profane, uniting these two spaces of Saint-Denis by representing figures from the market hall in lavish religious iconography. The central figure, “Ama,” is the grandmother of de Tizi. Her portrait is positioned at the center of the six, the only woman who wears an actual dress instead of an elaborately folded white shroud.

On a wall behind the portraits, a video plays on loop. The video features the women of the exhibition as they share their stories of war, religion, and the memories of the countries they had to leave.

“I came to France because I had to work,” says one of the women whose likeness is rendered in the installation. “I was only twenty years old. It feels like they stole my youth.”

“I do everything I can to be a good citizen,” says another. “You can’t turn your back on this country that gave us a chance.”

For those who now find their likenesses resting in the basilica, many did not feel as if they could have entered the basilica and crossed this cultural threshold. The church is open to all who can pay, but French culture can feel inaccessible to those who do not share its history.

“I would never have thought I would be visiting Saint-Denis,” one of the women says. “I’ve always had an image of a mosque, a basilica as a closed space. The Basilica is a place of peace; I feel my spirit has a certain rest.”

Black Beauty as a Business in Seine-Saint-Denis

Today, the class toured the Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the four departments that make up the Greater Paris region established in 1968. The area, historically working class,  is home today to a large, diverse immigrant population. As we walked from a large indoor food market to a plaza of clothes vendors, an interesting phenomenon appeared. On a single block between the Rue de la République and the Rue des Boucheries stood two hair-product shops, a barbershop, and a salon all oriented towards clientele of African descent.

Though it was almost 5pm on a Sunday afternoon (a time when most Paris businesses close early,) both the barbershop and salon were full. A greeter outside the barbershop, “Salon de Coiffure Afro-Americain”, was busy saying hello to acquaintances who walked by. He had only enough time to tell us that the store had been open for “awhile”, five years, before his boss called him inside.

Down the street and to the left, similar businesses line a pedestrian avenue. Posters of black women modeling hair extensions or natural hairstyles decorate shop windows. One store has been open for six years; another across the street has been open for nearly ten. Both carry similar products – sprays, deep conditioning creams, beeswax for dreadlocks. Many of these items come from overseas.

An employee of a store called Princesse started working there part-time as a student eight years ago. He is now a full-time employee. He explained that many immigrants from the Antilles islands in the Caribbean come to this area to do their shopping. About four years ago, competition spiked for Princesse as many similar businesses popped up around them.

Though mostly black employees staffed the barbershop and salon, none of the workers at any of the hair-product stores were of African descent. Nor were any of the owners. An employee explained he had gotten the job because the owner was a friend. One shop owner chose to open up a store that markets itself to an “Afro Antilles” clientele because his father had owned a similar business. They emigrated from India as a family in 1985.

Black immigration to Paris spurred a phenomenon of black-oriented businesses. Yet though the market has produced many options for black Parisians seeking beauty products, (albeit in a specific corner of the city,) it has not provided them with employment in or ownership of many of these businesses. Though these stores meet a significant consumer need specific to black Parisians, they do not economically empower the demographic they rely upon to buy their products.

In the Basilica of Saint-Denis, close quarters tell a story of power

As you squeeze through the narrow grid of funerary statues lining the chilly halls of the Basilica of Saint Denis, you might find that what you hear does not match what you see. Look up, and the audio tour’s grandiose descriptions like “royal necropolis” and “sacred burial ground” do describe the ornate stained glass windows flooded with light. Look down at your hips, though, and you’re crammed between tombs lined in rows, so orderly and sterile that they are more evocative of hospital beds than the final resting place for royalty from centuries ago.

The Basilica, built in the mid-eighth century, was an attractive piece of real estate much sought-after by over one hundred individuals lucky enough to be buried on its sacred grounds. (Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris in the third century, supposedly picked up his head after being decapitated, and walked six miles to this very location as his final resting place.) Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, forty-three kings, thirty-two queens, sixty-three princes and princesses, and ten great officers of the crown were buried there, among them Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France in the sixteenth century. Despite a close call in the French Revolution when the Basilica and its monarchical symbols were nearly completely destroyed, the Basilica was restored, and seventy recumbent statues now populate its halls.

For corpses of such royal status, commemorated by statues of such fine precision, one might expect the tombs to be raised above eye level against the backdrop of a cathedral. Anything would beat this arrangement: a tourist, taking a photo of a statue in front of her, mistook the one behind her for a table where she carelessly dropped her bag!

But the grid of statues is not an accident of poor museum planning. Its accuracy in reflecting French monarchical and sculptural culture comes not just from its form, but in part from this strangely compact layout.

In their no-frills layout, the individual statues gain status. Abbot Suger, who supervised the construction of Basilica Saint Denis, wanted desperately to make prominent the link between France and Charlemagne. Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor in the ninth century who led the spreading of Christianity in Europe; so if Suger could show how France and Charlemagne were connected, then he could show that France was the true heart and home of Western Christianity. The Basilica, in every detail from its ceiling height to floor plan, reflects Suger’s strategy to connect the French back to Charlemagne and to the bible. The statues are an instance of such a design detail with theological weight: royal bodies lined up in order of their reign were highly-visible proof of how the French monarchy stretches back to Charlemagne.

Strength came in numbers for the French monarchy as it sought legitimacy as a Christian power. Each monarch, though deprived of the status comes from an individualized effigy, gained status when part of the theological lineage that would give the French more status as a nation. What better proof of theological lineage than physically mapping it out, statue by statue?

Perhaps the Basilica’s 2017 crowd might threaten to dilute the statues’ meaning, when the occasional wide-hipped tourist bumps into a king’s feet. However, that the cathedral still preserves the meaning it held to visitors of centuries past, through both its objects and its layout, is an uncommon feat when so many of the world’s treasures live unhappily out of context behind museum glass. The grid of kings is, it seems, still a powerful sight indeed.

The grid of funerary statues in the Basilica of Saint Denis (Photo by Alice Maiden).

Listening to Vibrations from the Stones of Saint-Denis

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

Dealing with mediums is not included in the job-description of a docent of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. But after four years of working in Saint Denis, Amadine Deschamps, a 26 year-old archeologist, is accustomed to managing all the different kinds of tourists who wander inside.

“There are personne fou who come to listen to the vibrations of these stones,” says Amadine, pointing to the tomb of Charles Martel, a French prince buried in the abbey. “They think they can enter into communication with the dead.”

Most days, though, Amadine only has to handle the children that pinch the toes of the effigies carved on the tombs.

When Amadine graduated from Sorbonne University with a Masters in archeology, she looked for jobs that would “make her dream”. Yet, in France such “jobs of culture” are difficult to come across. Saint-Denis was an appealing opportunity for Amadine, as it allows her to pursue her passion in material culture, while still earn a decent living.

“We are not your image of a sleeping old man in a chair,” says Elliot Boulate, another docent.

The team of docents of the Basilica is young. The average age is 33 years old. These urban intellectuals stand at odds with the aging population that usually characterizes the workers of religious spaces around the city.

Elliot’s story is in a similar vain to that of Amadine’s. Planning to do a PhD in medieval studies, Elliot needs to save some money before continuing with his education.

“I am lucky that I get to spend my weekends surrounded by royalty,” Elliot says, referring to the more than 70 tombs of noble French men and women found in the Basilica.

These academics have found refuge from the burdens of unemployment within the basilica. Working in Saint-Denis is not just any temporary job. The Basilica offers a wealth of intellectual stimulation for its youthful safe-keepers. The supervisor of Amadine and Elliot allows them to study and engage with the Basilica in whichever way they like.

“I have the entire history of France right here!” says Amadine. “I keep uncovering new secrets all the time.

The New Queens of France

By Iris Samuels

In Seine-Saint-Denis, a poor suburb of Paris, contradictions are everywhere. Its market is a festival of sights, sounds and smells. It offers everything from Algerian dates to three-euro party dresses. In a vast glass-and-steel building from the 19th century, vendors sell pig heads alongside traditional pastries. Outside, the streets are teeming with shoppers. Interspersed are beggars carrying signs that read “Syrian Refugee, S.O.S.”

The French elections are less than two months away, and volunteers are handing out flyers advertising the different candidates. The leading candidate, Marine Le Pen, is expectedly missing. She has built a campaign on the promise to radically reduce France’s immigration, and in Seine-Saint-Denis, this hits close to him.

Seine-Saint-Denis is a short metro ride from the center of Paris, but a world away. Unlike the neatly cultivated streets of the Marais, or the inviting shops of rue des Martyrs, Saint Denis is rough around the edges. More than a third of the residents are born outside of France, and many of them are immigrants from North African and Muslim countries.

But the suburb, or banlieue, as it is called in French, is also home to the Basilica of Saint Denis, where most French royalty were once buried. The bodies have since been removed, but the regal aura remains in the Basilica’s dark crypt and colorful stained-glassed windows. which symbolize a society of power, opulence, and exclusion.

Now, the crypt of the basilica is playing host to an exhibition by artist Arilès de Tizi, titled Queens of France. Set against the backdrop of stained-glass windows, full body images of women draped in white satin adorn the walls. They are all current residents of Saint Denis, and come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. In the images, the women’s faces, hands and feet are visible, displaying hints of modernity in an ancient space: neatly manicured fingernails, silver rings, leather watches.

The work of Arilès de Tizi on display in the Basilica of Saint Denis. (Iris Samuels)

At the entrance to the exhibit, a video screen displays testimonies of the photographed women. One of them, an immigrant from Morocco, says on life in France, “I have gotten used to it here an I don’t have any connection to Morocco. My children were raised here.” Still, she often feels rejected in a society that strives for homogeneity.

The women in de Tizi’s art are a reflection of the shoppers at the Saint Denis market. De Tizi himself was born in Algeria, and come to France in 1990s, when his country plunged into a civil war. His portraits remind the basilica visitors of a new French identity – more colorful, vibrant and complicated than Marine Le Pen is willing to accept. Le Pen, the leading candidate, is effectively denouncing the diversity that de Tizi’s work celebrates.

France’s future is on the line, and one of the biggest questions remains – are the new queens of France truly welcome?