The French foreign ministry archives used to be in the ministry building itself, at the fabled Quai d’Orsay. This meant that the security procedures were more intensive than for getting into most reading rooms: the first appointment had to be booked three weeks in advance (they were grudgingly flexible towards researchers from outside France), and readers were only allowed in once an hour on the hour. French PhD students would shudder, too, and tell dark stories of the reading room staff. I only went once, and that was for a meeting with the (very nice) archivist who looked after the image collections—he happened to have written his thesis on French mandate Syria, which is what I was doing at the time, so he just let me work away for a few hours in a high-ceilinged room full of photos, artworks, and, well, diplomatic junk. It was on the fourth floor, I think, but felt like a cellar because the windows were blacked out.
Those days are gone, though. In 2009 the archives moved into new, purpose-built premises tucked just inside the RER B line north of Paris, at La Courneuve. This is ‘north of Paris’ in the French sense, which considers anywhere beyond the inner ring road, the périph’, to be a grimy, distant no-man’s-land. (The relationship between Manhattan and the outer boroughs of New York City is comparable, but at least Manhattan is actually an island.) La Courneuve is no further from central Paris than Hackney is from central London, which I suppose means a very long way indeed, psychologically. It’s two stops north of Gare du Nord, if the train stops, which it often doesn’t. They’re rebuilding the station at the moment, and have been for months—there doesn’t seem to be much change from when I was here at the end of the summer. There are bright, cheerful posters up all over the hoardings showing what the rebuilt station will look like, and they’re populated almost entirely by bright, cheerful white people: a vision for the station’s future that doesn’t involve most of the people who currently use it.
At the archives, you no longer have to wait for a turnstile to open once an hour on the hour, but security is still pretty tight. The new building, which is also used as a training centre for diplomats, is part of a wider redevelopment programme for that bit of La Courneuve that also includes a new school, a sports centre—and flats that are obviously aimed at young professionals, a few storeys high with balconies and wooden bits: no risk that they could be mistaken for the social housing just across the railway line in the blocks of the Cité des 4000 that haven’t been demolished yet. For the time being, though, the archives still give the impression of being a fortified encampment in enemy territory. This is how French state institutions and their staff seem to feel when they’re in parts of France like La Courneuve.