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Paris: Has the city of light lost its lustre?

A spotlight shines from the Eiffel Tower at sunset, in March 2021 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Parisians are angry at the state of their city, from the rubbish in the streets to unsightly cycling schemes and fears of crime. Long-term resident JOHN LICHFIELD asks what hope there is for perhaps the greatest city of all

When I visited Paris for the first time in July 1964, aged 14, I was shocked.

The buildings, even the Louvre, even the Arc de Triomphe, were larded with soot like those at home in Macclesfield. The buses, with rear verandas and square tops, looked as though they had been retrieved from a museum. Was this the city of light and legend?

By the time I returned to Paris to work in June 1978, it had been transformed. The principal buildings and most boulevards and avenues had been scrubbed clean (by edict of the relatively new mayor, Jacques Chirac). The buses were modern. The streets were tidy, except for the universal presence of dog-s**t.

The way to tell a Parisian from a tourist, it was said in 1978, was that tourists looked up at the elegant buildings. Parisians looked down, scanning the pavement for the next dog turd.

In the late 1970s, there were still parts of central Paris which had a gritty Edith Piaf charm – and a film noir depravity. Prostitutes, distressingly young and distressingly old, stood shoulder to shoulder like chorus lines along both sides of the Rue Saint Denis.

I left Paris two years later but came back, to stay, in 1997 by way of Brussels, London and Washington.  By then the grittiness had receded from the central city to the outer arrondissements. The heart of Paris was shiningly beautiful but somehow tame, a kind of “Parisland” for tourists,  matching Disneyland 45km to the east.

My three children grew up as Parisians; they attended Parisian schools. They helped my wife and I to make Parisian friends. I came to love the city deeply most of the time and detest it occasionally.

Over the last 24 years I have watched Paris change again – not generally for the better but not always for the worse. It has become dirtier, more violent in places and more segregated socially. It has become smaller (a 75,000 drop in population in a decade) as even well-off families migrate to the suburbs or provinces to avoid high rents.

The nature of Paris, its survival as one of the world’s great cities – maybe the greatest of all cities – is currently the subject of a heated debate. There is nothing new about that. The future of Paris is always under heated debate.

This time the argument has taken a new form – an intensive campaign on Twitter and other social media with the hashtag “saccageParis” (‘Paris pillaged or trashed’). The campaign accuses the city’s Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo of allowing the city to be sullied by filth and graffiti. She is also accused of desecrating its classic vistas with garish, plastic street furniture for bike lanes and crude pop-up terraces for cafes and restaurants.

People also complain (with good reason) that parts of Paris have been overrun by open-air crack markets and by migrants and homeless people sleeping in the streets.

At the same time, the city has revisited its own extraordinary, shape-shifting history by triumphantly refurbishing a museum entirely devoted to Paris – the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais. Observers of peak-Frenchness will note that the reopening was delayed when the staff went on strike on the first day.

What was an endearingly muddled old museum, shunned by tourists, has been transformed into bright, elegant, mile-long stroll through seven millennia. You start with a neolithic canoe (a very early Bateau Mouche?) discovered during building work in the 12th arrondissement in eastern Paris. You conclude with the Bataclan terrorist attacks in 2015 and the Notre Dame fire in 2019.

The museum (which is free) is a reminder that the city has re-invented itself scores of times. It is also a reminder that each re-invention was deeply resented – by some. The museum was founded by the Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann, the prefect who remodelled Paris in the 1850s and 1860s to create the uniform, elegant look that distinguishes the French capital from the beautiful muddle of, say, London or Rome.

Haussmann’s efforts to bulldoze much of medieval Paris were excoriated by his contemporary critics including the novelist and poet Victor Hugo. Their anti-Haussmann pamphlets would have made even Twitterati blush.

So what about the new changes, or outrages, being visited on Paris? Has the city of light really become the city of flight and fright? Oui et non.

Madame Hidalgo is no Haussmann. She is not  trying to flatten Paris and start again. But she also lacks Haussmann’s sense of direction and style.

Some of her alleged offences are deliberate – a drive towards a largely car-free city which is welcomed by many Parisians and detested by others.

Paris has become cleaner atmospherically. The foolish 1970s decision to run de facto motorways down the lower quays of the river Seine has been reversed. The problem with Parisian dogs – or rather with some of their owners – has been much improved, if not entirely solved by Hidalgo and her predecessor.

At the same time, she has presided over a series of blunders and unnecessary provocations which have put political cobble-stones in the hands of her enemies.

Paris has become a bikeable city for the first time. And yet Hidalgo also allowed the destruction of the ground-breaking  bikes-for-hire-on-every-corner scheme created by her predecessor and mentor Bertrand Delanoe (and copied by Boris Johnson). Her replacement bike-hire scheme was initially calamitous and is still poor.

She has introduced many new bike routes during the pandemic – known as “Covid lanes”. Was it necessary for them to be so ugly? The Place de Concorde for instance is littered with plastic, yellow and white bollards which look like rotting teeth.

Many of the lanes, following the main Metro routes, are to become permanent. Hidalgo promises that the plastic lane markers will be replaced by something more elegant. Her record on new street furniture is, however, poor.

The classic, two-sided  Paris street bench – created in 1860 by the architect Gabriel Davioud – has been supplemented in places by what look like random piles of railway sleepers. A well-intentioned “greening” scheme to allow people to plant flowers at the foot of trees in the street has frequently degenerated into clumps of weeds.

Hidalgo’s decision to allow a proliferation of new café and restaurant terraces was also sensible but poorly implemented. Of all cities in the world, Paris may have been the most obviously diminished by Covid lockdowns. Paris without cafes and restaurants spilling onto the street was like a building with the lights turned off.

When outdoor carousing returned, it made good sense to allow new or extended terraces, swallowing up pavements and parking spots. The makeshift terraces are, however, an obstacle to pedestrians and look like children’s rafts nailed together from spare pieces of wood.

They are also, we are now told, likely to become permanent. Hidalgo’s team promises that they will be style-policed. As we have seen, her team’s sense of Parisian style is suspect.

Is Paris also becoming more violent? Yes. Violent crimes increased by 46% in the six years up to 2019 – often drug related. But the violence is mostly confined to the poorer areas in the north and east of the city. Polls suggest that 65% of Parisians feel their city to be safe.

In international terms, it is safe. Paris area has an annual homicide rate of 1.2 murders per 100,000 people (a little lower than London), compared to 18.6 per 100,000 in Chicago.

In sum, defining the changes to Paris is not easy. I have observed several conflicting Parisian trends in the last two decades.

The city is becoming dirtier in some ways but cleaner in others. It is more dangerous (in parts). Large parts of the city are also becoming richer, duller and less socially diverse.

Younger, educated Parisians are moving east and north into what were working class areas. Reasonably well-off families are being pushed into the suburbs – or beyond – as Paris rentals are inflated by rich foreigners and tourists. Post-Covid that will doubtless resume.

The Parisian school population is falling – a 12% drop in  primary school enrolment in the last five years. The city’s population has fallen in a decade by 75,000 – the size of a large provincial town – to 2,175,601. Over 30,000 apartments in Paris are (or were pre-Covid) used for short lets to visitors (something Hidalgo wants to restrict further than she already does).

I can see in the families of my own friends a tendency for young, educated, ambitious Parisians to flee the capital for other thriving French cities where property prices are lower.

My friends Henri and Victoire have six children. The three oldest are living in Paris and struggling to get by in small apartments. The three younger ones have moved to Bordeaux and Nantes.

What remains unresolved is the relationship of Paris proper – the densest urban area in Europe – with its sprawling banlieues, stretching 30km or more beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, the ring-road which surrounds the city like a moat or medieval city wall. Some of the poverty and violence of the banlieues has seeped into Paris in the last 20 years; more families have left the city proper for the leafier parts of the banlieues and beyond.

The two remain largely different worlds. Unlike, say, London, Paris turns its back on the suburbs which house, not just violence and misery, but the workers who are essential to its survival. During the worst of the Covid pandemic, Paris white-collar workers, like me, were able to shelter at home. The manual workers poured into the city everyday on crowded public transport and paid a high price in infections and deaths.

Paris also pays a price for its separation from the energy, creativity and entrepreneurship which exists in the banlieues, alongside the drug gangs and the religious radicalism.

Will we always have Paris? Yes. But it will not be the Paris of 2021 just as it is no longer the Paris of 1964.

The new exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet suggests that there is something essential in the Parisian character – a strong Parisian gene – which passes down from one iteration of the city to the next: a querulousness, a corrosive sense of humour, a love of style.

For that gene to survive, there has to be a large middling group of Parisians of whatever race – not just the super-rich and the desperate. In the medium or long term, it is the demographic issues which present the biggest threat to the survival of Paris – not garish bike-lane markers or a rise in petty violence.

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