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Interview with Xavier Boissel, author of "Paris est un leurre"

In 1917, the French army secretly launched a plan to build a replica Paris in order to fool German pilots and bombers. Here I talk to Xavier Boissel, author of a book on the subject. For more information on the book and the scheme, see the article Paris est un leurre: the true story of a fake Paris published on the Invisible Paris blog.

When did you first discover the 'faux Paris' project, and what exactly inspired the creation of this book? In 2006, I visited an exhibition at the Carnavalet museum devoted to aerial views of Paris taken in the fifties and sixties by the aviator Roger Henrard. In the catalogue for the exhibition there was a mention of this story of a "fake Paris" that had been planned during the First World War, but although I noted this at the time I didnt conduct any further research. Last year, Jerome Schmidt, from publishers Inculte, spoke to me again about this topic and suggested I write an essay to inaugurate their new Temps rel collection, which aims to lift the veil on utopian, forgotten or missing places (nb the next book to be published in this collection, in 2013, will be devoted to the "El Pocero Project," a postmodern city built during the Spanish real estate craze and now abandoned). You began with very minimal source material - all based on a single article that was published in a newspaper in 1920. Why, in your opinion, are there so few traces? Is it a military 'secret', or is it because the project never really existed? As well as the article that appeared in LIllustration, I also found some military sources, but they are indeed very thin on the ground. Since the publication of my book, a reader has introduced me to an article from the magazine La Vie du Rail dated 11 November 1968, which provides a detailed description of the system designed by Jacopozzi. We learn, for example, that the staff that responsible for the circulation of the false trains was entirely feminine. But the fact that little is known about this project is almost certainly due to military secrecy. As the goal of the fake Paris was to fool the enemy, it is entirely natural that it should be confidential. In addition, this decoy city was never operational and remained at a rudimentary stage as the armistice quickly interrupted work. According to the article, the person selected for the project was an electrical engineer, Fernand Jacopozzi, who later illuminated the Eiffel Tower and department stores across Paris. What is the significance of this choice? It was Fernand Jacopozzi himself who had the idea of this "nocturnal makeup" of the capital, and who proposed the idea to the French Chief of Staff. I find it fascinating that the person responsible for this task later illuminated the Paris of the "Roaring Twenties". First he conceived the lights of wartime, a fake Paris, lost in a pseudo blackout, and then later the illuminations of a festive city. We pass from diversion to entertainment, in both cases it is the city itself that is obscured, first by its military double, and then by its festive double, as Adam Roberts

paradoxically the over exposure of the twenties helped transform Paris into a shadowy city. The colour photographs of Fernand Jacopozzis light installations taken by Lon Gimpel reflect this impression. That the war served as a testing ground for this simulacrum is quite remarkable. You explored the identified sites to the north and west of Paris in drift mode, despite the fact that almost nothing from this project was ever built in these zones. Why was it important to visit the physical locations of a project that remained largely virtual? I was hoping to find some vestiges or traces of these facilities, without really believing that I would. More importantly though, I wanted to go there to get an idea of the field, just to see what the areas selected by the French Chiefs of Staff actually looked like. As the project was for a virtual city, it was important for me to get back to reality, to reappropriate the physical world. Finally, there is something poetic in this approach. By superimposing plans developed by Jacopozzi of the fake Paris on top of the places where I did my drift, elements that were bizarre and ironic arose in the very fabric of the land. In terms of methodology, this survey of the territory was necessary. I had to move from the percept to the concept, and it is from these drifts that I built my reflection. You said in an interview that "it is no longer Paris that seems to me imperative to walk the capital is petrified and museumised - but rather its margins. " With this project there was a plan to build a fake Paris in its suburbs, but do you think that today it is rather in the suburbs that we can find the real Paris? It should be noted that the suburbs in which this false Paris was planned were, at the time, still completely deserted areas - even rural - and completely unlike the places we see today. To answer your question, I would not say that we can find the real Paris in the suburbs, but rather that the real Paris became a "museum city", a city whose inhabitants are increasingly chased out to the periphery or provinces, and that in favour of a super-class, and of course, tourists. The ability to surprise, to dream, is less possible in the capital today, and it is perhaps in marginal areas that we need to look for these things. Your book focuses on the dichotomy between the true and the false. Whats more, your conclusion is that the real Paris no longer exists. However, by citing a Paris of Atget and Aragon, do we not risk falling into nostalgia for a city that never really existed either? Your question is very fair. There is a danger in this nostalgia for authenticity, this desire to actually live in the past that blocks any future prospects. I also note that this nostalgia for a picturesque Paris feeds the clichs and contributes to this chromo effect. The fake also existed in that Paris, and Walter Benjamin masterfully performed the archaeology. There is, however, a persistent feeling of having arrived too late in a world too old" to use the famous quotation from Alfred de Musset. Paris was always - in my opinion - a city where the negative could arise, but this is less the case today. However, this melancholy is like that of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal - intrinsically ambivalent. The postmodern destruction of Paris can indeed unleash a form of lament, but paradoxically, this victory against the real could create a new form of poetry and maybe a new chance to dream, in Paris or elsewhere...

Adam Roberts

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