WILL SELF: Multicultural man... on electric scooters
PUBLISHED: 18:00 07 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:10 09 June 2019
2019 John van Hasselt - Corbis
The New European's new columnist on why Paris' embrace of solo-powered vehicles is only the continuation of a cultural fixation.
You'll see the first of them as you step out from the main doors to the Gare du Nord - there they are, one or two, abandoned and looking a little mournful, clustered around the pediment of the ridiculous Angel Bear sculpture - a molten-looking bronze confection, intended to express the threat of global warming. (And you thought British public art sucked dog shit through a straw!)
Then there are a few more clustered by the coffee drinkers and beer sippers outside the Zinc du Nord, the café opposite the station. You've seen similar vehicles in London, for the most part being ridden by young men with experimental facial hair, who look as if they're en route to buy moustache wax - or marijuana.
Then, as you proceed through the storied streets of Paris, you not only see more and more of the things parked willy-nilly on pavements and in roadways, you also constantly have to avoid people zipping promiscuously around on these trottinette électrique, or 'electric scooters' as we less euphoniously dub them.
The scooters are blazoned on their steering columns with jazzy-sounding names: 'Flash', 'Bolt', 'Bird' and 'Lime'; while the handlebars feature prominent Q-codes, which, once scanned, will allow you to enjoy caroming through the City of Lights at speeds up to 15mph, easily fast enough to eliminate scores of the hapless elderly, or the touristically incapable.
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Downtown, in the vicinity of the Louvre, Les Invalides, or others of the prime sites, the trottinettes appear in almost ludicrous profusion: small herds of the horned vehicles, standing erect on their kick stands. Anne Hidalgo, Paris's socialistic mayor, and the originator of the 'Paris réspire' ('Paris Breathes') policy, has turned a blind eye to the surge in dockless scooters, presumably on the grounds that along with car-free days, and barring the hated diesels altogether, they help to make the notoriously smoggy city a little more breathable.
For me, the onset of unrestricted scooting takes my breath away - no, really: having supper on a warm late spring evening at the Café Drouot, in the 9me arrondissement, I saw an Amazonian young woman in flapping chador and hijab, riding one at speed; a half-hour later I was in the Marais, observing two young gay men sharing a single scooter, with predictable intimacy.
In some ways Paris's embrace of these - for the most part - solo-powered vehicles, is only the continuation of a cultural fixation. When I first visited the city in the 1960s and 1970s, the cobbled streets resounded with the percussive two-stroke engines of VéloSoleXes, hefty-looking bicycles equipped with a 49cc engines poised above their front wheels, that could be lowered into contact with the tyre to produce the most direct of drives. It's these vehicles that beat out the frenetic jazzy rhythms of the Nouvelle vague - and the Nouvelle roman, for that matter. After all, what could be more existential that the solo rider, buzzing through the streets of Paris, en route to some passionate assignation.
But a half century on, the Left Bank is no longer the cockpit of intellectual and political ferment; so we ask: is it the inherently kidult nature of French contemporary culture that accounts for this mass outbreak of scooting? Surely not - for when it comes to middle-aged men wearing shorts and playing computer games, we Britons are surely second to none? Indeed, I'd hazard that we have just as high an absolute number of the chronically immature as the French do - our problem, as I see it, is that we lack a sufficient density.
Lime has started depositing electric bikes on the streets of London - and Uber's dockless bike operation, Jump, has arrived simultaneously in London as well as Paris. The legal status of electric scooters as road vehicles is ambiguous here - but besides that, bikes, whether electric or not, would seem to have a greater range, which is what's required in our rather more sprawling cities.
In central Paris you've only to cast a copy of Le Monde des livres aside in order to hit a young man who'd think nothing of paying 500 euros for a hand-tooled leather satchel, so he'll look comme il faut on his trottinette; whereas round my manor in souf' London you often see tearaways who've torn the locks of the dockless Mobike and Ofo bikes, pulling wheelies on these garish Chinese wheels - as nice a riposte to globalisation as a gilet jaune's Molotov cocktail.
Walking into town the other evening, I chanced upon a yard in Vauxhall full to twice head height with Mobikes that've been withdrawn from London's meanly untrendy streets - the sight put me in mind of an exchange an urbane friend of mine once reported he'd had with a fellow boulevardier, chanced upon in the purlieu of Sloane Square: "Where," said my friend, "is the nearest place to here where we can sit in the open air, have a good coffee, and watch the world go by?" To which his interlocutor succinctly replied: "Paris."