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Nicole and the tower blocks

Underneath the roof tiles, the beach
Nicole et les grands ensembles. Sous les toits gris, la plage
Christophe Meunier
Traduction de Sophie Heywood
Cet article est une traduction de :
Nicole et les grands ensembles

Résumé

Andrée Clair and Bernadette Després’ “Nicole” series is unique in the history of children’s picture books in France. Published between 1969 and 1978 by the communist publisher La Farandole, it is the only series for children which provides a positive image of large-scale council estates [grands ensembles]. This article sets the series in its context of the French publishing landscape of the 1970’s, and makes the connection between this series and the “triumph of modernism” discourse in the media and in state policy on modern urban council estates in the postwar period. In so doing, it analyses the novelty of the iconotextual narrative of the “Nicole” series, and sheds light on the ideological position-taking of both author and artist.

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Texte intégral

1“Down with shanty towns and down with sham towns. Urban development is a political act in the service of the people.” This slogan from the Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts [The people’s workshop of the fine art school] in May 1968 crystallized the growing discontent with urbanization and what were starting to be referred to as “Grands Ensembles” [large-scale high-rise council estates on the edge of urban centres]. Juvenile delinquency, boredom, depression, prostitution, spatial segregation and chronic under-investment: these were the symptoms of a new disease which had infected all cities in the 1960s according to L’Écho Régional March 22nd 1962, and which the paper famously dubbed “sarcellitis”, after Sarcelles, one of the most notorious council estates on the outskirts of Paris. This negative opinion of the “Grands Ensembles” was shared by sociologists and geographers, and even politicians, as evidenced in an internal memo from the National Housing Commission from 1975, which was entitled: “Grands Ensembles, big problems”.

  • 1 The French title contains a play on words with bouquet of flowers, and the large flower in the plot

2The few children’s picture books which sought to speak to their young readers about their environment all represented the contemporary urban landscape as austere, grey towers and charmless, uniform low-rises. The classic example is Claude Roy’s C’est le bouquet ! [That beats everything!1] illustrated by Alain Le Foll, and published in 1963 by Robert Delpire. In this book a giant flower pierces through the concrete slabs to grow up high in the sky, and the city-dwellers take refuge inside it, a far cry from their soulless apartments in the many towers that make up the city landscape. Similarly, the third picture book of the “Barbapapa” series created in 1968 denounces the great grey housing estates that are the enemy of dreams and imagination. However, alongside this critical vision of the “Grands Ensembles” was the series published by La Farandole, which sought to put forward an alternative interpretation. The six picturebooks of the “Nicole” series, produced between 1969 and 1978, were written by Andrée Clair, a very well-known author and communist activist, and illustrated by a very young Bernadette Desprès, who was just starting out in her career.

3The Nicole series probably represents another current born in the 1960s, but which comes to the fore of the French left and particularly the French Communist Party [PCF] after 1968: the so-called “second left”. In this article, we will consider how the series can be linked to this new current, and how it constitutes a break with the usual discourse on the “Grands ensembles”. To do this, we will first set out how the “Grands Ensembles” had hitherto been represented in French children’s picturebook prior to the late 1960’s. Then, we will discuss the ideology which underpinned the “Nicole” series in the collection “Mille images”. Finally, the representations and the particular socio-spatial discourse of the series will be analysed.

400,000 neighbours!

  • 2 “Quarante mille voisins”, Cinq colonnes à la Une, Radiodiffusion de la Télévision Française, 2 déce (...)

4“In a few years’ time, when you want to cross the Parisian suburbs, it will no doubt be by helicopter. And everywhere, you will fly above towns like this one. We call them ‘Grands Ensembles’. We call them ‘villes-dortoirs’ [commuter towns]. They allow families to live far from the troubles and the unhealthy climate of big cities. They exist all over the world. Urbanists and sociologists dedicate many volumes and congresses to them.”2

  • 3 Housing Priority Area

5These words were pronounced by Pierre Tchernia, a journalist on the French television programme, Cinq colonnes à la Une [Headline news] in 1960. He was flying above Sarcelles and wanted to present this particular urban phenomenon, one that was without any real precedent in France, when we consider the swiftness of its expansion and the vast size of the building projects. The Ministère de la Reconstruction et de l’Urbanisme [Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism] was the driving force behind these mechanized, standardised and prefabricated constructions which responded to the urgent need to build large amounts of housing due to the housing shortage after the Second World War. A lot of bills and housing programmes were put to the vote, such as the Basic economic housing program in 1955 and the decree of December 31st, 1958 which set up the Z.U.P. (Zones à Urbaniser en Priorité3) on the edges of big cities. Between 1953 and 1978, 300,000 dwellings per year were built with very low rents. More than six million dwellings were created in total.

  • 4 Yves Lacoste, “Un problème complexe et débattu : les Grands Ensembles”, Bulletin de l’Association d (...)

6The television show, Cinq Colonnes à la Une, was filmed five years after the beginning of the first housing site, and we can detect a sense of encroaching doubt in the journalist’s tone: “They allow families to live far from the troubles and the unhealthy climate of big cities”, he says. These constructions, ordered by the Government, using very modern methods of construction, must improve the lives of their inhabitants. Incidentally, what should he call this sort of building? The journalist hesitates: “grands ensembles”, or “commuter towns”? In 1963, the French geographer Yves Lacoste tried to provide the first definition: “The Grand Ensemble is an autonomous housing unit, composed of collective buildings, constructed quite quickly, according to a global programme of over 1,000 dwellings.”4

  • 5 Raphaële Bertho, “Les grands ensembles”, Etudes photographiques, 31, printemps 2014, [online], uplo (...)
  • 6 cf. Raphaële Bertho, op. cit.

7The term “collective buildings”, refers to an architecture composed of both low-rise and high-rise buildings erected over large areas and belonging to a same large housing programme, with the aim of providing low-cost housing. Raphaële Bertho underlines that, in the early 1960’s, “as the glorious achievements of a forward-facing Nation, [the Grands Ensembles] became the symbols of the great power of state planning.”5 This is the “great power” that we can observe in the first few minutes of Cinq Colonnes à la Une when Sarcelles is seen from above. The observer dominates the human creation, building and planning. The genius of the architect-urbanist is brought to the fore in these opening images of the television show, a very frequent representation6 in the narrative of “triumphant modernism”. Raphaële Bertho explains this way of presenting this “new urbanism” of the Grands Ensembles by the state:

  • 7 Dominique Gauthey, “Les archives de la reconstruction (1945-1979)”, Études géographiques, n°3, Nove (...)
  • 8 Raphaële Bertho, op. cit.

8The grands ensembles are represented like the anticipation of a city, thought out and planned for Man, ideal cities where we find the importance given to the Sun, to space and to greenery in modernist credo. We can observe this vision in the photos exhibited at the Salon des Arts Ménagers in the 1950’s which were the vehicle par excellence of this ‘total planification of happiness’7 as communicated to the populace. The public was greeted by a vision of children in playground inside these ‘radiant housing estates’.8 Children had a very important place in these modern projects which were built for them, as the most numerous section of the population at the beginning of the Baby-Boom.

  • 9 Louis Caro, “Psychiatres et sociologues dénoncent la folie des grands ensembles”, Sciences et Vie, (...)
  • 10 L’Humanité 5th November 1963.

9Nevertheless, from 1959 onwards, the “Grands Ensembles” came under fire. In Science et Vie, Louis Caro devoted a whole article to the of gangs of youths that were gathering inside the Grands Ensembles9. Between 1962 and 1963, Sarcelles and other estates became the targets for substantial criticism, after one high rise dweller threw himself out of a window. The media began to talk of “sarcellitis”, a strange disease which threatened to infect all the inhabitants of Sarcelles and of all the Grands Ensembles. For instance, some journalists tried to define it in 1963 in the PCF’s newspaper L’Humanité: “Sarcellitis is total disillusion, isolation from social life, insuperable boredom, driving sufferers to nervous breakdown in minor cases, to suicide in serious cases.”10 Henceforth, the “Grands Ensembles” were no longer considered to be wonderful places for the children who lived there, indeed it was increasingly felt they would do better to grow up somewhere-else, far from the shadow of concrete towers and low rises.

  • 11 Claude Roy, Alain Le Fol, C’est le bouquet ! Gallimard, 1979, p.9.

10At this same time, children’s publishers began to be interested in the subject, and small publishers in particular. In 1963, Robert Delpire published a story written by Claude Roy and illustrated by Alain Le Foll: C’est le bouquet ! Two children, Claudelun and Claudelune, live on the tenth floor of a tower block in a “Grand Ensemble made up of 2,000 buildings with a total of 200,000 apartments”11 close to Paris. The family, who had previously lived in the centre of Paris, had been victims of the postwar housing shortage and had settled in the suburbs, in buildings designed by a “great Architect”:

  • 12 Ibid., p.14.

11(quote)The Architect, with his sliding ruler, his set square and his bottle of Indian ink, the Architect had thought of everything. He had imagined garbage-chutes and bottle-chutes, dust-chutes and children-chutes. But he hadn’t made provision for the people, and the people got bored surrounded by all this concrete, this glass, and this wind, in all these large apartment blocks that looked exactly the same and which seemed like fly traps, piled up high in the sky.12

Ill. 1: Roy, Cana, C’est le bouquet ! (1963), p. 10-11. © Gallimard

12Claude Roy’s description of the “Grands Ensembles” draws on all the tropes commonly found in attacks on these big grey constructions: sadness, monotony, excessive functionalism. Alain Le Foll’s illustrations play with the opposition between the grey human constructions and the organic, multicoloured vegetation. This opposition is developed throughout the narrative, at first with the Mocking Bird who watches the family as they move in, and then when the great plant grows up and up, having been accidently sowed by one of the two children.

  • 13 Ibid., p.14.
  • 14 Ibid., p.15.

13At the beginning of the story, the tower is portrayed like an instrument of torture, a punishment meted out to both children. The Mocking Bird wonders: “What on earth have they done to deserve to be locked in these People-Cages?”13 Later on, when the Mother wants to calm her children who are are getting bored inside the apartment, “she put them in the children-chute and they went to go and be bored by themselves in the air-conditioned sandpit.”14 In the end, the fraxilumele, a marvellous multi-coloured plant, grows over the towers and creeps all over the Grands Ensembles. They become the most delightful playground where children and adults can get together and have fun.

14We find this same opposition between the grey of the concrete and the colours of dreams and enchantment in a picturebook published in 1979 by Père Castor, Fleur de béton [Concrete flower], by Michel Gansel and Monique Touvay. In this book, after school three young boys living in a Grand Ensemble want to visit a friend of theirs who is sick and bed-ridden. To try and cheer him up they make him a big multi-coloured flower.

Ill. 2: Gansel, Touvay, Fleur de béton (1979), p. 4-5. © Père Castor/Flammarion

15In Paris in 1968, Talus Taylor, a biologist from San Francisco, met in Paris a young French architect, Annette Tison. Together they came up with (on the tablecloth of the Brasserie Zeyer), a bright pink polymorphous character whom they named Barbapapa. He was born from a seed planted into the ground. The first picturebook was published in 1970 by the new publisher École des Loisirs. Two years later, Barbapapa, the head of this multicoloured family, has to escape from his downtown area because of bulldozers. He is then housed in a Grand Ensemble where he can’t stand the boredom and crowding. The Barbapapa family decides to leave the city and goes to settle in the countryside.

Ill. 3: Tison, Taylor, La Maison de Barbapapa (1972), p. 8-9. © Le Dragon d’or

16These three children’s picturebooks are fairly representative of the few picturebooks that evoke and represent the Grands Ensembles between 1960 and 1970. The discourse is always the same: the need to get children away from the “sarcellitis” that is unavoidable in such big, grey and sad constructions. This type of discourse continued even after 1968. However aside from this rare production by small publishers and the silence of the main children’s publishers such as Hachette, we have only found there one series in which the discourse on the Grands Ensembles is both very favourable and politically engaged.

Beneath the concrete, the beach!

17Nicole au quinzième étage [Nicole on the fifteenth floor] is the first adventure in a series of six books, published by the Communist press La Farandole in 1969. Nicole and her family have just moved into an apartment located on the sixteenth floor of a tower block. The little girl is delighted with her new surroundings and spends all day long at the window, watching the city from the sixteenth floor. The second picturebook in the series, Nicole et l’ascenseur [Nicole and the lift] (1971), celebrates the diversity to be found within the nineteen floors of the tower block. Nicole dans le grand pré [Nicole in the big field] (1973) and Nicole et l’étoile de mer [Nicole and the starfish] (1978) show that among the Grands Ensembles we can find green spaces where children can have fun and commune with nature. In Nicole ne voit plus rien [Nicole can’t see anything] (1975), a black out, an unforeseen turn of events in modernism, plunges the district into darkness. Finally, Nicole et Djamila [Nicole and Djamila] (1976) is devoted to the discovery of otherness among the inhabitants of the Grands Ensembles, in which most of the immigrant populations that came to France to work on the reconstruction projects had been housed since the middle of the 1950’s.

18These six picturebooks covered almost ten years. The series stopped in 1978 and its end coincided with the end of the construction programs of the Grands Ensembles. All the picturebooks paint a very positive vision of life in these modern areas. No illustrations show greyness or sadness. In fact, it was quite the reverse, and each image reverberates with very bright colours. The illustrator, Bernadette Després, never drew the outlines of the buildings in black or grey but in golden yellow or blue.

19All the books in the series, which was part of the publisher’s series “Mille images” published by La Farandole, were devoted to the happiness of living in the Grands Ensembles. One could be forgiven for thinking that this part of an overall political ideology celebrating the improvement of the life of the proletariat. But this was not the case. Other picturebooks published by La Farandole at the same moment maintained a very critical discourse about the Grands Ensembles.

Ill. 4: Garonnaire, La Tour part en voyage (1974), couverture. © La Farandole

20For example, La Tour part en voyage [The tower block goes on holiday] by Jean Garonnaire in 1974, tells the story of the inhabitants of a tower who decide to uproot the block from its foundations and move it to the countryside, in the middle of a wood and flower meadows. We can find again in this story the opposition city/countryside, mankind/nature, which seems to be the main thread running through children’s literature of this era when it discussed the phenomenon of the Grands Ensembles. We could make similar observations for the cover of Grégoire et la grande cité [Gregory and the big estate] (1979) by Jean-Pierre Serenne and Sylvia Maddonni: the contrast between the Grands Ensembles in the background and the flower-filled fields in the foreground is only too clear.

Ill. 5: Serenne, Maddonni, Grégoire et la grande cité (1979), couverture. © La Farandole

21So there was no ideological line in La Farandole on this subject, just as there was no ideological line about it inside the French Communist Party. The members’ opinions on the Grands Ensembles were very divided. L’Humanité, the official newspaper of the French Communist Party, was one of the first newspapers that talked about “sarcellitis”, while the young communists in May ‘68 argued that urban policy had to be placed at the service of the people, rather than dictated by the government. The Nicole series was unusual in the landscape of children’s literature in the 1960’s-1970’s and it owed its ideology to the militantism of its author, Andrée Clair, more than the ideology of the publisher or a political party.

  • 15 Sébastien Jolis, “Du logement au cadre de vie. Mobilisations associatives et vie sociale dans les g (...)

22As Sébastien Jolis has shown15, the PCF changed its mind on the Grands Ensembles following May ’68. This change in approach was made official on 25th November the same year, following the national study day on social and cultural infrastructure. Thus, although some people continued to question the state’s financing of large collective housing projects, minimising the place granted to socio-cultural infrastructure, others, from the “Second Left”, who had been opposed to totalitarianism and colonialism, argued for a management which involved the ZUP inhabitants, a sort of re-appropriation of the Grands Ensembles through culture and the inhabitants themselves. The work of Andrée Clair and the Nicole series must be read in the light of this division within the PCF.

23Andrée Clair, alias Renée Jung, was born in 1916. She grew up in the suburb of Paris where her father was a postman and her mother a housewife. She studied ethnology at the Sorbonne and then left for Brazzaville where she found a job as an assistant ethnologist. She stayed in Africa for several years, teaching French and literature in nine West and Equatorial African countries. A Communist militant, she contributed to the development of the trade union movement in Africa. In 1949, she had to return urgently to France to avoid being arrested by the French army. She went back to Africa after the declarations of Independence and, from 1961 to 1974, she was President Hamani Diori’s cultural counsel in Niger. Forced once more to return to France after Diori’s overthrow, she moved first to Paris then to Dreux, where she died in 1982.

  • 16 Andrée Clair, “Pourquoi et pour qui j’écris ?”, Enfance, tome 9, n°3, 1956, p.75.

24She started writing for La Farandole in 1957. The publisher had been set up two years previously by Madeleine Girard and Paulette Michel, the wife of Jean Jerome, one of the leaders of the French Communist Party. Clair wrote novels and picturebooks for children, more often than not set in Africa: Eau ficelée et ficelle de fumée (1957), Aminatou (1959), Dijé (1961), Les Découvertes d’Alkassoum (1964). Andrée Clair was an activist who was committed to social justice. In 1956, in an issue of the review Enfance, she wrote: “Why do I write? To restore things to their rightful place. For whom do I write? For children, because…”16 She went on to explain that it was this “rage” that pushed her to write, to denounce falsehoods:

  • 17 Ibid., p.76.

It is no joke to feel ashamed of the colour of your skin. It is no joke to discover that everything you believed in is false. The rage poured out of me. I had to tell people about what Africa was really like; the education system, the permanent racism, and everyday life. I had to tell the truth. This truth was so hard to find here, for those who only read “good books”. How else could I do this other than in writing? And who else could I write for except for children? I had been misinformed. I wanted to tell the truth.17

25The Nicole project was born from this same passion to explain to children. When I interviewed the illustrator, Bernadette Després, she recounted how the first volume of the series, Nicole au quinzième étage, had been created in response to Claude Roy and Alain Le Foll’s C’est le bouquet ! Andrée Clair felt compelled to present a different perspective on the Grands Ensembles. She considered C’est le bouquet ! to be bourgeois literature for children who didn’t know anything about Grands Ensembles, and would probably never even visit one.

  • 18 Ibid. p.76.

26“When writing about something, I think it is crucial to be accurate […] about its geography, ethnology, environment, and atmosphere,”18 Clair wrote. When she had the idea for the character of Nicole and her first adventure, the publisher La Farandole made her meet with a young illustrator who had been working for them for four years, Bernadette Després. She had the same goal as Clair: to depict children’s lives in a more realistic manner, and never to lie to them. On their first meeting, Andrée Clair took Bernadette Després, who had grown up in the VIIth district of Paris (a well-off part of the city), to discover the Grands Ensembles. Andrée Clair had a good friend who lived on the sixteenth floor of a tower block in Orleans, in the working-class Argonne district. She took Bernadette Després there, and showed her the city of Orleans from the top of the tower. Bernadette Després made sketches of the apartment and took notes. Andrée Clair supervised her illustrator’s work to ensure it was as faithful to reality as possible, although she did at one point ask her to remove a reference to religion, by changing Orleans Cathedral into a fortified castle.

  • 19 Andrée Clair, like all the children’s authors who published with La Farandole, was a “realist” auth (...)

27Andrée Clair deployed both seriality and realism19 in her stories to get her young readers hooked and to share her values with them. As early as 1956 she had expressed this idea:

  • 20 Ibid. p.78.

I am against wars (of oppression, of conquest) and for resistance. I am against racism, stupidity, meanness, and spite. I am for beauty, gaiety, friendship, dignity, and lucidity. For joy and enthusiasm. For what is simple and sane, real and human. This is the direction in which I want to lead my readers.20

28This ideology is both social and spatial because it is linked to place in the Nicole series: the Grands Ensembles. Bernadette Després’ work was therefore very important because she had to create an iconotext in which the textual narrative works interdependently with the pictorial narrative.

Children’s Paradise

29In the iconotextual discourse of the Nicole series, three major points are argued in favour of the Grands Ensembles: they improve people’s standard of living, there are important benefits to living with different people, and they promote a sense of its inhabitants’ equal right to the city. These are the three arguments that we will now develop by analysing some excerpts from the series, and which are revelatory of the turning point represented by 1968.

Ill. 6: Clair, Després, Nicole au quinzième étage (1969), p.2-3. © La Farandole

  • 21 Andrée Clair, Bernadette Després, Nicole au quinzième étage, La Farandole, 1969, p.2.

30“Since last week, December the 4th, I live on the fifteenth floor. Before that, we lived in a flat with one room and a kitchen, on the first floor, at the far end of a courtyard. It was very small and we never saw the sun.”21 This is how Nicole au quinzième étage begins. From the first double-page, Bernadette Després plays with oppositions: the seclusion and smallness of the little house on the left-hand page contrasts with the height and space on the right-hand page. Living in the Grand Ensemble is a conquest of space: the five people in Nicole’s family (her mother, father, big sister and young brother) are now going to live together in three rooms and a kitchen.

Ill. 7: Clair, Després, Nicole au quinzième étage (1969), p.4-5. © La Farandole

  • 22 Ibid., p.5.

31This conquest of space continues on the following double-page. On the left-hand page, Nicole is looking down on the train line and main road in her new district. On the right-hand page is a view from above of the apartment, which allows the reader to see how the apartment is laid out: “Our apartment has three rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a corridor, a dryer, and cupboards. What a lot of room!”22 The apartment is functional: the bedrooms, dining-room and kitchen all face outside, and are organized around windowless rooms like the toilet, bathroom, landing, and utility room. The apartment follows the guidelines as set out by the architects of the Reconstruction such as Auguste Perret: they must be comfortable (receiving a decent amount of sunshine, and with separate bedrooms for children and parents), they must be modern (with fully-equipped kitchens, running water, and electricity) and finally, adaptable (their thin walls allow for reorganisations of the space). And tower blocks should have the all-important lift that serves all the floors.

  • 23 Ibid., p.6.
  • 24 This colour is very visible in the original drawings, becomes a rather bright orange in the printed (...)

32“We have our own bedroom. Each one of us has our own bed. Luc, my very little brother, sleeps in dad and mum’s bedroom. In the evening, we eat in the dining-room. At midday, dad eats at his factory. Luc enjoys his baby food and his fruit, then mum, Janine and I have our lunch in the kitchen. It is bright. In every room, there are large windows. When it is sunny, the sun is everywhere”23 At several points the text underscores the increase in space and the improvement of the living standards for this working-class family. The omnipresence of the sun can be found again in Bernadette Després’ drawings. The illustrator often used golden colour.24

Ill. 8: Illustration 8: Clair, Després, Nicole ne voit plus rien (1975), p.8-9. © La Farandole

  • 25 Andrée Clair, Bernadette Després, Nicole ne voit plus rien, La Farandole, 1975, p.6.
  • 26 Andrée Clair, op. cit., p.77.

33In Nicole ne voit plus rien, a blackout plunges the whole tower block into the dark. Modernity has its limits! “But… there is no electricity. Oh!... it’s just a blackout. That’s all! Now she knows this, Nicole isn’t frightened that much anymore.”25 In this story, Nicole, who is home alone, must overcome her fears by looking through the window, and continuing to do her homework. The incident is presented in an optimistic way. For Andrée Clair, this represented an important life lesson. She declared in 1956 how “for me, optimism, gaiety, and energy are all forms of courage.”26

34For Andrée Clair the Grands Ensembles are also spaces for social mixing, where diversity and discovery of otherness are possible. Nicole et l’ascenseur is a very good example. In the tower block where Nicole lives, the lifts are out of order. Nicole’s mother, who is on her way back from the market, has to go up the sixteen floors on foot carrying shopping bags and a baby. When she reaches the eleventh floor, she drops the bags and all the shopping inside falls down the stairs. This accident becomes a wonderful occasion for the inhabitants of the tower to help each other. Most of the picturebook takes place in the stairwell which is built around the lift shaft. Bernadette Després turns this long spinal column of the tower into a multigenerational space where the inhabitants meet and help each other.

35The discovery of otherness was crucial for Andrée Clair. The Grands Ensembles are places that allow the meeting with others. This is the theme of Nicole et Djamila, published in 1976. One evening, Nicole’s father arrives at home with a little girl named Djamila. His father had an accident at work and her mother is on the maternity ward, having just given birth. Djamila is going to stay with Nicole’s family for a bit. The two girls, who seem to be about the same age, are going to share the same bedroom.

  • 27 cf. Yves Gastaut, “La flambée raciste de 1973 en France”, Revue européenne des migrations internati (...)

36We have to place this picturebook in its historical context. It was published in 1976 at the moment when France witnessed an important growth in racism. With the economic crisis of 1973, unemployment had increased and the Government put a stop to immigration by closing its borders27 and deporting people. There were racist confrontations in Paris and Lyon, between communists and nationalists. In Grasse and in Marseille, during the autumn and summer of 1973, racist attacks against Algerian workers killed fifty people and injured about three hundred others.

37I have already noted that Andrée Clair’s great hatred of racism and human stupidity. We can find in this fifth picturebook of the series what Andrée Clair said in 1956:

  • 28 Andrée Clair, op. cit., p.76.

I don’t emphasise differences that may be visible, but are superficial, such as skin colour, hair colour, the sort of house you live in, or food you eat. Instead I quietly point the similarities: what makes us happy or sad, our everyday problems and worries. I emphasise the warmth of the heart, of thought, of art. […] Explain. Always explain.28

Ill. 9: Clair, Després, Nicole et Djamila (1976), couverture. © La Farandole

38On the cover, Bernadette Després highlights the things the girls have in common, rather than what makes them different: both are shown smiling and playing with dolls in Nicole’s bedroom with numerous toys scattered all over the floor. Nothing in the picture indicates that the little black-haired girl is Algerian. The closeness between the two girls is echoed in the closeness of their two dolls.

Ill. 10: Clair, Després, Nicole et Djamila (1976), p.8-9. © La Farandole

  • 29 Andrée Clair, Bernadette Després, op. cit., 1976, p.9.

39Cultural differences are downplayed. The large picture on pages 8-9 depicts a dinner scene: Djamila’s father has been invited to eat with them by Nicole’s parents. They appear to be eating a shepherd’s pie. In a speech bubble above Djamila’s father’s head, Bernadette Després has drawn a meal at Djamila’s home: “We haven’t celebrated Karim’s birth yet. This Saturday, we are having some friends round. My wife would like you to join us, and so would I.”29 This cultural exchange is illustrated in the speech bubble showing the guests are sharing a couscous. According to Bernadette Després, Andrée Clair insisted on representing the Algerian family sitting on chairs rather on the floor so that nobody would laugh at them.

40To close this analysis of the Nicole series, there is one final aspect that is perhaps less obvious at first glance, but which emerges more clearly once we read it in the context of the end of the 1960s. The series seems to redefine the city. From the top of her tower block, Nicole sees the city sprawling, extending beyond its ancient boundaries. The suburbs where she lives are expanding with the development of the Grands Ensembles. This is a phenomenon that could speak to children generally, as it was taking place nation-wide. Such fundamental changes as the industrial city extending its tentacles, depicted in the picturebooks of the series, were described and analysed by the philosopher Henri Lefebvre in 1968, whose book sounded a warning note to readers.

  • 30 Henri Lefebvre, Writing on Cities, Blackwell Publishers, 1968 (2000), p.71.

41Le Droit à la ville [The right to the city] was published in March 1968. In his book, Lefebvre described the process of “implosion-explosion” that was taking place in the cities of the major industrial countries: “People are moving to distant residential or productive peripheries. Offices are replacing housing in urban centres.”30 In place of the term of “city”, that he used to speak of industrial cites before 1945, the philosopher preferred the term of “urban fabric” or “the urban”. This new reality spoke of the breaking up of the traditional city with the advent of new satellite towns, industrial parks and large council estates on the peripheries leading to the progressive encroachment of the town into the surrounding countryside. Lefebvre warned of the potential dangers of this “capitalist” urbanisation that subordinated the rural to the urban, and which prevented its appropriation by its inhabitants. Such a model created little islands of poverty on the margins of the urban centre and reinforced the centralisation of wealth. For Lefebvre, the inhabitants of peripheral areas, devoid of all the conveniences of urban life, would be deprived of their “right to the city”. Is this the idea developed in the Nicole series? No.

  • 31 Nicole et le grand pré (1973), Nicole et l’étoile de mer (1978).
  • 32 Sébastien Jolis, op. cit., p. 42.

42On the contrary, we might argue that, through the various adventures of Nicole in her council estate, Andrée Clair is calling for a “right to the city for all”. When Nicole’s family lived in their humble two room flat at the end of a courtyard in the centre of the city they were to all intents and purposes denied all the innovations that modernisation offered. Living on a large council estate on the outskirts finally allowed them to gain access to the services of the city. The estate on the urban periphery is not disconnected from the city centre: the public transport systems (bus, rail) are regularly represented in the stories. The link with “nature” is always maintained. In two of the picturebooks of the series,31 Nicole spends her free time in an outdoor activities park [centre aéré] located close her home: le Grand Pré. Andrée Clair based this centre on the centre aéré of the town of Saint-Pierre-des-Corps (Indre-et-Loire), Les Grands Arbres [The large trees]. This centre had been created in 1964, on the banks of the River Loire, just a few metres from the tower blocks that dominate the area, and it still welcomes children from the town in its large tents set up in the middle of a large, shaded meadow. They formed part of a landscape of infrastructure which partisans of the “Second left” used to argue for a different understanding of the Grands Ensembles after 1968. By focusing attention on quality of life, they defended “improvements in the living conditions, by rejecting the idea of the divorce between the inhabitants and their housing in the grand ensemble.”32

Ill. 11: Clair, Després, Nicole et Djamila (1976), p.3. (détail) © La Farandole

43Finally, Bernadette Després often depicted the view from the window in the kitchen or Nicole’s bedroom: either of the city centre, the chateau and the surrounding old town, or of the rail station and the factories. These views are echoed in the few pictures on the walls of the flat, representing town and country-scapes. This view of the city is omnipresent in all the picturebooks and is the sign of a sort of appropriation of the city by the family. Unlike the pictures in the frames however, the city centre is real, easily accessible and within reach.

44The council estate is not a space without life or soul. In the hands of Andrée Clair and Bernadette Després it becomes a part of the city, an outgrowth that is perfectly connected to the rest of the urban fabric. It is the space that gives the working-classes the right to the city. In short, it is the socio-spatial argument that underpins the six volumes of the Nicole series. This intentionality, as we have seen, was not an editorial imposition, but was that of the militant and politically engaged author, whose aim was to promote realism in the name of a certain number of values such as tolerance, the right to happiness, and the improvement of living standards for all.

45Very few books for children have been written about the phenomenon of the grands ensembles, and when they have done so, it has almost always been to portray them in a negative light and warn about their dangers. The Nicole series appears to be something of an exception, and its originality lies in its desire to speak to children and, in so doing, to the adults that they will one day become, or to their parents. For Andrée Clair, to write for children is to help them to grow up.

  • 33 Andrée Clair, op. cit., p.76.

46Speaking of her book Moudaïna ou Deux enfants au cœur de l’Afrique [Moudaïna or two children at the heart of Africa] (1952), Andrée Clair wrote: “something of the books we read as children always stays with us. Readers of this book will maybe think a little more carefully about black children than they would have done if they had not read this book. This is one small victory gained against racism and stupidity. Because never have two monstrosities gone together more clearly than these two.”33

  • 34 Marie-Claude Monchaux, Écrits Pour nuire, Paris, UNI, 1985, p. 123.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 54.

47The Nicole series sought to “speak truthfully” to children. “Speaking truthfully” and “showing society truthfully” and children’s surroundings, was interpreted by certain conservative criticis to be evidence of subversion in children’s literature. In 1985, for example, in her pamphlet Écrits pour nuire, [Harmful Writings] Marie-Claude Monchaux led a campaign against what she called the “deliberate degradation of children’s books since 1968.”34 She accused publishers such as La Farandole of depriving children of their “sacred right to dream.”35

  • 36 Ibid., p. 54.

I want them to have islands, and childish loves that blossom in the most beautiful colours of life, because they have the right to hope for this, not just the rights they have by the means of the trade unions. […] But no, from the age of eight years old, this right is denied to them, these young readers! Your life, little one, is this little council house, these little emotions, these little encounters, these little love stories, this ambience that smells of chip fat, and these single mothers, and these poor little verses about your right to strike.36

48The post-68 nature of this debate is evident. For Andrée Clair, by contrast, there is no sense that she is depriving children of their right to dream. Simply, she argues that people living in concrete tower blocks, with racially mixed, diverse populations, are also able to dream.

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Bibliographie

Corpus :

CLAIR Andrée, DESPRÉS Bernadette, Nicole au quinzième étage, Paris : La Farandole, 1969.

CLAIR Andrée, DESPRÉS Bernadette, Nicole et l'ascenseur, Paris : La Farandole, 1971.

CLAIR Andrée, DESPRÉS Bernadette, Nicole dans le grand pré, Paris : La Farandole, 1973.

CLAIR Andrée, DESPRÉS Bernadette, Nicole ne voit plus rien, Paris : La Farandole, 1975.

CLAIR Andrée, DESPRÉS Bernadette, Nicole et Djamila, Paris : La Farandole, 1976.

CLAIR Andrée, DESPRÉS Bernadette, Nicole et l’étoile de mer, Paris : La Farandole, 1978.

ROY Claude, LE FOL Alain, C’est le bouquet ! Paris : Delpire, 1963.

Critical biography:

BERTHO R. (2014), “Les grands ensembles”, Etudes photographiques, 31, [en ligne], mis en ligne le 8 avril 2014. Disponible sur : http://etudesgeographiques.revues.org/3383

BOUJU M.-C. (2010), Lire en communiste. Les maisons d’édition du Parti communiste français 1920-1968, Rennes, PUR.

BUSQUET G. (2007), “L’idéologie et l’espace urbain dans les années 1960-70 : le cas du discours du Parti socialiste unifié”, in L. Viala et S. Villepontoux (dir.), Imaginaire, territoires, sociétés. Contribution à un déploiement transdisciplinaire de la géographie sociale, Montpellier.

CLAIR A. (1956), “Pourquoi et pour qui j’écris ?”, Enfance, tome 9, n°3, p.75-78.

DUFAUX F. (2004), “La naissance de grandioses ensembles ? Le regard distancié des géographes français sur la métamorphose urbaine des années 1950-1960”, In A. Fourcaut (dir.), Le Monde des grands ensembles, p.62-73.

GASTAUT Y. (1993), “La flambée raciste de 1973 en France”, Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol.9, n°2, p.61-73.

GAUTHEY D. (1997), “Les archives de la reconstruction (1945-1979)”, Etudes géographiques, n°3, mis en ligne le 13 novembre 2002. Disponible sur : http://etudesgeographiques.revuez.org/97.

JOIN-LAMBERT O., LOCHARD Y. (2005), “L’invention du cadre de vie dans la France des années 1960 et 1970”, in A. Chatriot, M. Chessel et M. Hilton (dir.), Au nom du consommateur. Consommation et Politique en Europe et aux Etats-Unis au XXe siècle, Paris, p.295-311.

JOLIS S. (2013). “Du logement au cadre de vie. Mobilisations associatives et vie sociale dans les grands ensembles (1968-1973)”, in Hypothèses, n°, vol.16, p.33-43.

KAËS R. (1963). Vivre dans les grands ensembles, Paris.

LEFEBVRE H. (1968), Le Droit à la ville, Paris.

MEUNIER C. (2016). L’espace dans les livres pour enfants, Rennes : PUR.

PIQUARD M. (2004), L’Edition pour la jeunesse en France de 1945 à 1980, Villeurbanne : Presses de l’ENSSIB.

TELLIER T. (2007), Le Temps des HLM, 1945-1975. La saga urbaine des Trente Glorieuses, Paris.

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Notes

1 The French title contains a play on words with bouquet of flowers, and the large flower in the plot.

2 “Quarante mille voisins”, Cinq colonnes à la Une, Radiodiffusion de la Télévision Française, 2 décembre 1960, 14 min 21 s. Available on the INA website: http://www.ina.fr/video/CAF89007746

3 Housing Priority Area

4 Yves Lacoste, “Un problème complexe et débattu : les Grands Ensembles”, Bulletin de l’Association des géographes français, 1963, n°318-319, p.37-46.

5 Raphaële Bertho, “Les grands ensembles”, Etudes photographiques, 31, printemps 2014, [online], uploaded 8 April 2014, https://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3383.

6 cf. Raphaële Bertho, op. cit.

7 Dominique Gauthey, “Les archives de la reconstruction (1945-1979)”, Études géographiques, n°3, November 1997, uploaded 13th November 2002, http://etudesgeographiques.revuez.org/97.

8 Raphaële Bertho, op. cit.

9 Louis Caro, “Psychiatres et sociologues dénoncent la folie des grands ensembles”, Sciences et Vie, n°504, September 1959, p.30-37.

10 L’Humanité 5th November 1963.

11 Claude Roy, Alain Le Fol, C’est le bouquet ! Gallimard, 1979, p.9.

12 Ibid., p.14.

13 Ibid., p.14.

14 Ibid., p.15.

15 Sébastien Jolis, “Du logement au cadre de vie. Mobilisations associatives et vie sociale dans les grands ensembles (1968-1973)”, Hypothèses, n°16, vol. 1, 2016, p. 33-43.

16 Andrée Clair, “Pourquoi et pour qui j’écris ?”, Enfance, tome 9, n°3, 1956, p.75.

17 Ibid., p.76.

18 Ibid. p.76.

19 Andrée Clair, like all the children’s authors who published with La Farandole, was a “realist” author. This current sought to “integrate social realities in their texts […] with great emphasis laid on pedagogy, and particular care for the quality of both the texts and the images” (cf. Marie-Cécile Bouju, Lire en communiste. Les maisons d’édition du Parti communiste français 1920-1968, Rennes, PUR, 2010, p.248. and Michèle Piquard, L’Edition pour la jeunesse en France de 1945 à 1980, Villeurbanne: Presses de l’ENSSIB, 2004, p.60-77 et 87-91.)

20 Ibid. p.78.

21 Andrée Clair, Bernadette Després, Nicole au quinzième étage, La Farandole, 1969, p.2.

22 Ibid., p.5.

23 Ibid., p.6.

24 This colour is very visible in the original drawings, becomes a rather bright orange in the printed version.

25 Andrée Clair, Bernadette Després, Nicole ne voit plus rien, La Farandole, 1975, p.6.

26 Andrée Clair, op. cit., p.77.

27 cf. Yves Gastaut, “La flambée raciste de 1973 en France”, Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol.9, n°2, 1993, p.61-73.

28 Andrée Clair, op. cit., p.76.

29 Andrée Clair, Bernadette Després, op. cit., 1976, p.9.

30 Henri Lefebvre, Writing on Cities, Blackwell Publishers, 1968 (2000), p.71.

31 Nicole et le grand pré (1973), Nicole et l’étoile de mer (1978).

32 Sébastien Jolis, op. cit., p. 42.

33 Andrée Clair, op. cit., p.76.

34 Marie-Claude Monchaux, Écrits Pour nuire, Paris, UNI, 1985, p. 123.

35 Ibid., p. 54.

36 Ibid., p. 54.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Ill. 1: Roy, Cana, C’est le bouquet ! (1963), p. 10-11. © Gallimard
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 312k
Légende Ill. 2: Gansel, Touvay, Fleur de béton (1979), p. 4-5. © Père Castor/Flammarion
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 260k
Légende Ill. 3: Tison, Taylor, La Maison de Barbapapa (1972), p. 8-9. © Le Dragon d’or
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Légende Ill. 4: Garonnaire, La Tour part en voyage (1974), couverture. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Légende Ill. 5: Serenne, Maddonni, Grégoire et la grande cité (1979), couverture. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 308k
Légende Ill. 6: Clair, Després, Nicole au quinzième étage (1969), p.2-3. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 216k
Légende Ill. 7: Clair, Després, Nicole au quinzième étage (1969), p.4-5. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 256k
Légende Ill. 8: Illustration 8: Clair, Després, Nicole ne voit plus rien (1975), p.8-9. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Légende Ill. 9: Clair, Després, Nicole et Djamila (1976), couverture. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Légende Ill. 10: Clair, Després, Nicole et Djamila (1976), p.8-9. © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 288k
Légende Ill. 11: Clair, Després, Nicole et Djamila (1976), p.3. (détail) © La Farandole
URL http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/docannexe/image/1987/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 190k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Christophe Meunier, « Nicole and the tower blocks », Strenæ [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2018, consulté le 22 mai 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/1987 ; DOI : 10.4000/strenae.1987

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Auteur

Christophe Meunier

Docteur en géographie
Professeur d’Histoire-Géographie, ESPE Centre Val de Loire, Université d’Orléans
Membre associé du laboratoire InTRu, Université François-Rabelais, Tours

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