The surburban town of Croissy, Paris has its own emblem: a standing oval showing a twisted snake, and two unicorns on hind legs either side, topped with an intricate golden crown. Its signification of grandeur looks awkward placed on road signs to industrial estates and to Disney Land Paris. As if misplaced, the sign overlooks the ubiquitous landscape of modern commerce rather than the grounds of an aristocratic family.
Yet there are a few chateaux still present, permanently caught between restoration and dilapidation, and encroached upon by the highways and the American chain restaurants that so often accompany them. At night, the light from red neon signs falls on the mottled windows of the chateaux and is reflected in the water of their moats.
In between the chateaux and the buffers of rye that surround them, old landfill sites have been landscaped to replicate pastoral idylls. This adherence to a pre-industrial vision of the countryside in the midst of late capitalism is a sardonic comment on European notions of beauty, completed by the open manholes that pierce the façade, letting out methane.
Corporate warehouses proliferate from the highways. Clad in mirrored glass and crowned with removable branding, their structural details hint at higher architectural ideals, but are not quite bold enough to lessen any potential practical function. Private security guards and their dogs patrol their exteriors, which constantly reflect the surrounding pastoral idylls of the old land fill sites.
Croissy has a population of about two and a half thousand, and a mayor who refuses to build high-rises; nothing makes it past four storeys. But if Romanies and undeclared migrants are included, the overall population must be higher, and the daytime population higher still, as workers flood in to man the buildings each day, eat at the chain restaurants, and then return home.
Six months into my stay in Croissy I started to notice – and document – the strange formations of boulders that had begun to appear. I was seduced by the silent mechanism that was installing clusters and then constellations of these rocks in car parks and on grassy verges during the night.
I paced quickly from one sight to the next, from boulder to boulder, stopping suddenly every now and then to capture a certain viewpoint, just as I had in Fontainebleau. The thing about boulders standing alone or in clusters is their incongruity, the now-vanished force that have moved and deposited them. In Fontainebleau I initially thought about glaciers, but that gave way to a nagging need for a more complex explanation. Back in Croissy I could look it up and see it was a matter of silication and erosion, of new-formed cement-like rock having the sand washed out from underneath it by numerous, relentless rivers.
Likewise in Croissy, the initial awe of the spectacle gave way to a sense that there was a more complex reason for the boulders to be here, more than a piece of aberrant landscaping or a blunt way to block up unwanted space. Sure enough, when I followed the boulders to their end, I found the Romani camp. Where the boulder’s territorialisation ended, the Romani’s could begin.
I had surely known from the beginning that the boulders had arrived in the night as a way of forcing the Romanies out by means of occupation, but I disregarded it, thinking it too ridiculous. If such intolerance continued, and was carried out in this way, every car park, loading bay, and highway would need to be eventually blocked as a means of making it impossible for the Romanies to settle anywhere.
Without its car parks, loading bays and lay-bys, the local buildings and complexes would no longer function, and no longer be able to pay taxes to the mayor for his schemes. Croissy would cease to be. The flowerbed roundabouts and the emblems would eventually rot and fade away, leaving vague breezeblock floor plans and communities of boulders to be pondered upon by future photographers.
I was fascinated by the Mayor, and how he must have become convinced of the viability of such a scheme. How did the idea germinate? What kind of a person allows himself to be captivated by such a thing? Perhaps he hoped that the sheer spectacle of it would divert attention away from its actual purpose.
Myths about the Mayor abound and occupy the talk of the workers and residents of Croissy, and he does nothing to disabuse them. Once (the story goes), a man entered the Mayor’s office and threatened his secretary with a shotgun. The Mayor walked in and the man threatened him too. It’s said that their dialogue went as follows:
Mayor: What are you doing?
Man with gun: I haven’t had a job for eight years! In eight years you haven’t found me one job and now you want to cut my credit?
Mayor: Well, what use is it threatening me or my secretary with a gun? Who’s going to employ you now? Do you want to go to prison?
Man with gun: I want you to find me a job right now, and if you don’t find me a job I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’ve had enough.
Mayor: Ok, I understand. What’s your name?
Man with gun: (reluctantly) . . . Marcel
Mayor: Okay Marcel, come in to my office, without your gun, and we will talk this over, and if you put down your gun and come in to my office, I give you my word, I will not have you arrested.[Marcel looks the Mayor over while weighing his proposition, eventually lowers his gun, and putting it on the secretary’s desk, follows the Mayor into his office, where they sit down facing each other over a heavy wooden table.]
Mayor: As I understand, you haven’t had a job for eight years. So tell me, what is it you really want to do?
Marcel: (pause) I want to be a chauffeur.
Mayor: A chauffeur? To whom?
Marcel: (another pause) To a governor or a member of the French Parliament. Someone with a high position in the state.
Mayor: Ok Marcel, leave me your details and go home, and I will see what I can do about getting you a job as a chauffeur.
Marcel: You won’t get me arrested?
Mayor: I gave you my word.
Afterwards the Mayor put in a few calls with his contacts in Paris. Two days later the man is working as a chauffeur to a high diplomat, where he has remained for the past five years. The mayor has been known to tell this story to prospective real estate byers arriving in Croissy, and laughs at the story, and his own singularity, and says afterwards that he looks after each and every one of his constituents, and makes sure they are happy.
Meanwhile the boulder plan carries on in strength, and the absurdity of Croissy continues. Two days ago I stopped by one of the numerous Interemarche supermarkets for some general groceries. In an annexed part of the car park, a Romani family had set up their small caravan adjacent to their transit van, and were preparing dinner on a foldaway picnic table. The father figure of the group was brushing the tarmac around the table and the eating area, instructing his young son how to do so at the same time while the mother figure sliced potatoes into a pot on a camping gas stove.
Walking back beside a fresh promenade of boulders I thought about the tarmac sweeping, how that was perhaps the only patch of tarmac in Croissy that had been cared for in such a human manner, though doubtless it too, soon to have boulders dumped all around it as a different means of sanitisation, of brushing aside.
The family’s well-looked-after transit van seemed to suggest they were more used to being on the move, unlike the people of the settlement established at the end of the boulders’ territory, which was made as much from pieces of board and tarpaulin as from caravans and cars. That was the kind of settlement the government of France started breaking down in 2010 in the first round of well-publicised expulsions that the new government has continued today. After the settlements have been broken down attempts are made to repatriate the residents, who are sometimes offered €300 to return to Romania or Bulgaria, and sometimes asked to sign forms saying they will never return to France, never return to Croissy, its flowerbeds, idylls, and boulders, and its lost and fading emblem keeping watch over the highways, and everything the highways bring.
Photography by Jack Burton