I traveled from Orange County to Paris to write a story about a French festival that inspired the Day of Music in Fullerton, called Fête de la Musique (see our story on the local event written by Scott Feinblatt).
Fête de la Musique is a city-wide summer solstice celebration of music that encompasses the entire city of Paris with musical acts setting up in any and every place they can—which sounds great. But unfortunately our French skills at the Weekly are sadly lacking, as evidenced by the fact that I came to attend La Fete De I’Humanite instead, a festival put on by the communist party of France held in a working class suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Not quite the same thing, but maybe it’s time to bring this one to OC as well. And we Commies at the Weekly would love it.
The first Fête de l’Humanité took place in September 1930. It was started to raise funds for the communist newspaper L’Humanité and about 1000 people attended. After a short break in the 1940s (due to the occupation), the Fete returned and has grown into one of the largest festivals in Europe, with hundreds of booths selling everything from regional French cuisine, handmade pipes, and pamphlets about the challenges to communism around the world. Drawing over half a million people over the course of a three-day weekend, La Fete De I’Humanite has hosted the likes of Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and this year’s headliner, rock-and-roll heavy-weight champion and last man standing, Iggy Pop.
As soon as we got off the train at La Courneuve, it was clear this was not going to be some small neighborhood street fair. The station was full of festival-goers, many young and sporting party-appropriate attire. But there were also swarms of families, seniors, and the general proletariat there just to enjoy a weekend of food, music, fairground rides and political discussion,all for the ridiculously low price of 35 Euro for a three-day pass. Communists and sympathizers from communes all over France, and in fact, all over Europe, converge onto this space to volunteer their time and efforts to advance their causes and keep the festival cheap and police-free. Once inside, we were immersed in the sights and sounds of a veritable festival village, with music coming from multiple stages, teeming crowds, and competing smells of food and weed in the air.
The food alone sets the Fete apart from any festival I’ve encountered stateside or elsewhere.
We walked past dozens upon dozens of food stands, with hawkers stir-frying noodles, grilling meats, and even shucking oysters. We stopped by a tent sponsored by “Las Communistes de Villeneuve-Saint-Georges” set up as a sit-down restaurant with tables dawned with checkered tablecloths. The staff, members of a small commune outside Paris, prepared the meals from scratch and patiently assisted some befuddled Americans through the ordering process. For 12 euro, we were treated to a full four-course meal, starting with charcuterie, a slab of rib-eye with a baked potato, a cheese course, and homemade tarts. One thing’s for certain—this sure beat the hell out of the sub-par hamburger I had at Beach Goth.
The dedication of the activists and workers who contribute their labor for free to ensure the success of this massive festival demonstrates that the French Communist Party is still a force to be reckoned with, despite declining popularity in recent years. In fact, three days before the start of La Fete, hundreds of thousands of people took to France’s streets to protest against new President Emmanuel Macron’s labor reforms which would weaken unions and worker protections.
This spirit of solidarity was very much present throughout the festival. Despite the enormous crowds, I did not see any fights break out, or any police presence—even at the main stage, where the masses were in a happy drunken frenzy from major acts such as popular French hip-hop group S-Crew, who capped off their rambunctious set by floating onto their sea of fans in giant plastic bubbles. And then, after the confetti was swept off the stage, the M.C. declared, in words even I could understand—”peace, love, unity, and Iggy Pop!”
With that, Iggy’s own crew of rock heavy-hitters took the stage, including the amazing Kevin Armstrong on the guitar who played with Iggy on his 1986 album Blah-Blah-Blah , as well as Bowie and Mick Jagger, Seamus Beaghen on keyboards and guitar who’s also played with Madness, Mat Hector on drums who played with Thomas Dolby and is currently on the Gutterdammerung tour, and one of the best bass players in the business, Ben Ellis (also on the Gutterammerng tour).
Without further ado, aside from the screams of the crowd that had swelled by the tens of thousands,the band launched into the droning intro to “I Want to Be Your Dog”, and like a bullet Iggy shot out from behind the amps in all his shirtless glory, blond mane flying in the breeze. After He then said a quick hello and then an appropriate “Bonjour, motherfuckers!” and went right into “Gimme Danger” to the delight of the overjoyed masses—I actually saw people crying with joy.
He fed this energy even further by plunging into the universally beloved “The Passenger”, and this being the 40th anniversary of the seminal Lust for Life made this moment extra special, which was a sentiment clearly shared by this massive French audience. Hearing a hundred thousand people sing the refrain “La la la la lalalala” in unison in a faraway land is truly awe-inspiring.
From that point forward, Iggy just machine-gunned out classics one after the other without mercy including “Lust for Life”, Some Weird Sin”, “Repo Man” a version of the Stooges’ “Sick of You” that included a little rolling around on the floor, along with “Search and Destroy’’and ‘TV Eye”, his latest hit “Gardenia”,and on and on, which you think would be more than enough, but then he encored with a Stooges medley that included “No Fun”, “1969”, and closing with “Real Cool Time”, which I have to say it was. This improbably magical moment and the communal joy shared by thousands of people in a French communist festival just goes to show that Iggy is a true man of the people.