Poor, restive French town once housed Nobel prize creator

SEVRAN, Valentin Bontemps- It's one of the poorest suburb towns in France, riddled with unemployment, drugs and violence. But more than a century ago, Sevran was a peaceful, leafy village where Alfred Nobel once tested explosives.
The Swedish inventor of dynamite who is best known for the prizes that bear his name worked in the town northeast of Paris at the end of the 19th century, says Daniel Mougin, a local expert on Sevran's history.

At the time, the Seine-Saint-Denis department to which Sevran belongs -- the poorest in France -- did not exist.
And the town itself counted just 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 50,000 now, many of whom live in high-rises that sprung up several decades ago.
"Parisians came here to enjoy the countryside, at the weekend. There were farms, it was very green," says Camille Maille, who works at the town's archives department.
Nobel himself had his base in the French capital. Born in Stockholm in 1833, he had led a nomadic lifestyle across Europe since the 1870s after inventing dynamite in 1867.
"Alfred Nobel was based... in a luxury house on Malakoff avenue", an upmarket area in Paris, says Mougin.
"To conduct his experiments, he needed a more peaceful place, easily accessible from Paris."
- 'Merchant of death' -
So it was that in 1881, he chose the Sevran chateau at the heart of a tree-lined park where he had a building constructed to set up his laboratory.
"Most of the time, he would do a return day trip from and to Gare du Nord," says Mougin referring to one of Paris's main railway stations. "But he sometimes also slept here: there was staff to look after the house."
And it was in his little laboratory that the chemist and businessman developed one of his main inventions -- ballistite, a propellant made from two high explosives including nitroglycerine, and a precursor of cordite.
"His choice of Sevran was not innocent," Mougin says. Since 1865, the town had been home to the national gunpowder factory, owned by the war ministry.
Nobel is sometimes referred to as the "merchant of death", a nickname he got from a French newspaper that mistook the death of his brother Ludvig for his.
Headlining his obituary "The Merchant of Death Is Dead", the newspaper wrote: "Dr Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by finding a way to kill the most people as ever before in the shortest time possible, died yesterday."
In 1890, the bachelor millionaire left Sevran and died in Italy five years later, bequeathing his fortune to the creation of the now famous prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace.
Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity laid the basis for the creation of the atom bomb, famously said Nobel's act of philanthropy was to "relieve his conscience".
- Hub of drug trafficking -
More than a century later, things have changed radically in Sevran.
The second youngest town in France, it witnessed spectacular urbanisation in the 1960s with the construction of estates to house immigrants.
Since the Kodak and Westinghouse factories closed down in the 1990s, unemployment has been a huge problem, with 40 percent of young people currently without a job.
Violence is so rife in Sevran -- considered a hub of drug trafficking in France -- that Mayor Stephane Gatignon in 2011 called for UN peacekeepers to come put some order in town.
"It's true that Alfred Nobel doesn't really fit with the image of the town," Gerard Duhamel, a retiree, says smiling.
And in the town centre, many residents are not aware that Sevran was once home to the famous inventor.
"I've lived here for 21 years but I didn't know. No one ever told me about it," says Hubert, a postal worker.
The chateau has now become the town hall. Nobel's laboratory is still there, its broken windows boarded up, used as a shed by local authorities.
In 1996, the town tried to revive the Nobel flame by inaugurating a monument in memory of the Swede, who already has a road and primary school named after him.
"There should maybe be more," says Duhamel.
"Nobel in Sevran, that's amusing."

Saturday, August 2nd 2014
Valentin Bontemps

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