I had walked this route so many times over the years, first as a graduate student, then as a frequent visiting researcher. The little bookstore is still there, but I had to resist the urge to buy “Libération”, a daily ritual of my younger years. I had after all already read the morning news on my iphone. I was again making my way to my alma mater, l’Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI). My last visit to its Jussieu location was fourteen years ago, just before the work to remove the asbestos began.
Never mind how many years separate you from your student days, or how many talks you have given on the lecture circuit, you can’t help but get nervous before giving a talk at your alma mater. Today was no exception. Former classmates turned professors look much older now, but the students still look as young as ever.
“The university is finally back to Jussieu”, I said. “Only the third of it, and this is after 11 years of work cleaning up the asbestos and billions of dollars in expenses,” my friend responded. We reminisced about our “guerre contre l’Amiante”. We remembered how asbestos’ dust used to fall on us from our offices’ ceilings before they were eventually sealed off with … duct tape, and how the movement to “free the university from asbestos” had started.
It took several years of protest and collective activism before the government agreed to do something about it. It didn’t help that influential scientist, socialist politician, climate change denier, and serial “gaffeur”, Claude Allègre, kept opposing the removal of asbestos, describing it as harmless and dismissing the growing concern as a form of “psychosis created by leftists”.
It was not before news that asbestos may have been at the origin of at least 22 deaths of campus personnel, in addition to 130 others with serious health problems, that the government initiated a mega-project for cleaning it up. Many had advocated for the destruction of the Jussieu campus, but some thought that its architectural type, though well know to be a miserable failure, must be protected. A couple of buildings were rented by the government at Chevaleret, in order to house the faculty in a temporary move that eventually lasted a dozen years.
Now they are back –at least some of them, including the mathematicians of Paris VI, and the same –now old– man is also back making “crêpes au jambon et fromage” on the Place Jussieu. Let’s hope they still taste as good as in 1973, when they were the only thing I could afford for lunch.