A picture taken on July 14, 2017, in Paris, shows an aerial view of the Louvre. PHOTO: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images

We'll always have (some version of) Paris

The French capital's traditional reputation is being ripped up—again
October 11, 2017

Despite its traditions, Paris has an appetite for rebellion—just recall 1789, 1848, 1871 and 1968. That sense of constant upheaval extends to the physical appearance of the city itself. It’s easy to forget that the linear uniformity of the Parisian boulevards is itself the result of radical 19th-century bulldozing. This is the city where they put up the initially baffling and controversial Eiffel Tower at the centenary of the revolution and, at the bicentenary, slammed a glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre’s immaculate neoclassical precincts.

Then and now, the French aren’t as sentimental as they might seem. Paris is tired of being admired as timeless, classic and rather proper, while its peers, London and Berlin, power ahead as zeitgeist-defining hotbeds of creativity. The capital has set about reinventing its image as global, open and quirky (rather than Gallic, static and traditional.) What’s more, with Brexit dampening the spirits of the British capital, Paris could stand to gain from the losses of its sister city (and historic sparring partner).

The new Parisian sense of dynamism stands as an example of what can be achieved in a modern, ambitious city. Where London spent three years and nearly £50m on a “Garden Bridge” across the Thames that was never built, Paris is running competitions for ideas about how to make better use of the Seine and the city’s under-used spaces. There’s even a public initiative called “Subterranean Secrets of Paris” which is gathering ideas for how to reinvent the city’s car parks, viaducts and former metro stations. City Hall has launched a scheme allowing citizens to propose —and vote on—new projects, from kiosks to rooftop gardens.

This civic renewal comes about after three horrendous years of terror attacks in Paris. The state of emergency in place across France is felt most keenly in the capital and armed soldiers patrol the city’s main tourist attractions. And yet, a decade after losing out to London, Paris has secured its long-awaited Olympic Games, which will take place in 2024. Politically, the city is on the up too, thanks to a reforming mayor, the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, and Emmanuel Macron the new president who, while dipping in the polls, remains popular with Parisians who admire his dynamism.

More than anyone, Hidalgo embodies Paris’s new confidence and she is seeking to shift the character and purpose of the city and to expand its borders beyond the restrictive Périphérique, the busy roar that wraps around central Paris. While it limbers up for big events like the Expo 2025 and the Olympics, City Hall is looking at the small interventions, collaborations, and at ways to improve the quality of life. This is how a modern city should work, and grow. The new, forward-looking Paris that is now emerging, holds lessons for other cities and governments—especially in Brexit Britain—of what can be done when politicians are able to raise their eyes from the deadening challenges of the present to contemplate those ideas that will shape the future.

*** Hidalgo, a Cádiz-born daughter of an electrician and seamstress, is deeply committed to reducing air pollution and increasing social diversity. She eschews French politicians and instead courts the company of other progressive mayors from Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti to London’s Sadiq Khan. In her view, cities are the world’s pioneers. With the anti-labour reform movement, Nuit Debout, limbering up for a fight and the all-too-familiar urban triumvirate of gentrification, globalisation and pollution, Paris has its share of problems. Yet there is a feeling of real change in the city. Paris is building towers again. It is even tackling some of the widely acknowledged mistakes of the past with major projects to overhaul the widely disliked tour de Montparnasse and the city’s architectural bête noire, Les Halles.

Much of this sense of change is down to the sheer force of Hidalgo—whose taboo-busting approach extends to water. City Hall has turned to the Seine’s potential as a transport artery and tested a flying eco-boat taxi service called Sea Bubbles, this summer. They’ve also set about cleaning the river, pledging that the Seine will be wholesome enough to swim in by 2024, despite the litany of upstream factory pollutants and detritus that currently deter nearly all Parisians from bathing. (A dip today is discouraged by a €15 fine). Plan “Nager à Paris” has already made good the Bassin de la Villette (an artificial lake created in 1804) which now hosts a floating, open-air pool deemed clean enough to swim in this summer. In August, Paris even opened a naturist area at the Bois de Vincennes. The plot between the Allée Royale and the Route Dauphine is designed to represent the two million French naturists and their desire to be in fresh air.

Parisian urban values are being rewritten. Soon the city’s low-rise skyline, considered sacrosanct by so many citizens, will see a new 180-metre totem. In 2020, the triangular tower by Herzog & De Meuron will be the first high-rise inside the city’s Haussmann-dominated ring road since 1974, when the city flung up the much-loathed Tour Montparnasse. The latter is about to be revamped by Nouvelle AOM, a consortium of three French architectural firms using €300m (£266m) of private money. Their scheme is designed to integrate the monolith into the neighbourhood with transparent glass and lush planting which Jean-Louis Missika, Deputy Mayor of Paris for urban planning and architecture, says will allow Montparnasse “to recapture the hearts of the people of Paris.”

The French capital is tackling its demons—that includes a 7.2 per cent unemployment rate, which while lower than the national figure is still high for a modern European city. Projects such as Station F, the largest start-up campus in the world funded by telecommunications billionaire Xavier Niel, are redefining the identity of the city. There are now more than 100 incubators in Paris. The president’s reforms are already changing things for the city’s business community, says Roxanne Varsa, Station F’s Director. “Macron has now launched the Tech Talent Visa for people who simply want to come and work for start-ups in France,” says Varsa. “Lots of entrepreneurs from around the world tell us that they are really excited by what is happening in France.”

Macron’s election may have provided a bounce effect, but Paris was already becoming a more bilingual, international (and rather less French) city before he took office. Areas such as the 9th and 10th arrondissements are home to Australian coffee shops, British-run restaurants and cafés. While some complain of “Brooklynifaction,” the city has taken on a global multilingual attitude.

*** Yet as autumn closes in, there’s one subject that really keeps conversation lively at dinner parties on the Île-de-France: cars. Hidalgo is taking aim at the traffic that trundles over its cobbles. Everyone from artists to financiers and their personal trainers has an opinion about her plans for the city’s roads. The mayor is accused of deliberately snarling the traffic to punish commuters. It’s civic asphyxiation, they cry! Anti-car pathology, sectarianism, and a socialist autocracy!

It’s true that Hidalgo has declared war on the automobile. She has closed the Rive droite express route, known as the Georges Pompidou, and opened a park for pedestrians, boules and outdoor tango. Work has begun on another roaring major artery (the Rue de Rivoli) which will be overhauled with a four-lane cycle route. City Hall has said it will ban diesel vehicles by 2025 and become carbon neutral by 2050. All this to the consternation of conservatives and car lovers such as the motoring club The 40 million Drivers Association, who (in late September) launched a campaign named “Dis-le-à Anne” (“Tell Anne”) encouraging people to call Hidalgo’s number and register their grievances (thus jamming City Hall’s switchboard). Hidalgo responded by blaming the operation on the “fachosphére.”

The French mayor is wrestling a cultural behemoth: the entrenched hierarchy that puts the car at the top of the mobility pecking order. She is attempting to disentangle the city’s identity from its traffic. Somehow spluttering Citroëns zooming along boulevards as Parisians sip coffee in pavement cafés (inhaling toxins) are part of the mythology of Paris. Even the drivers—for the most part, bolshie, unrepentant and reluctant to stop or even slow down on zebra crossings—have become part of the city’s story.

Hidalgo’s approach to cars is uncompromising—she doesn’t try to sell her policies to Parisians, but simply refers to her election promises and the urgent need to act for future generations. Parisians cite the Jacobin-style revolutionary diktat to describe her method of governance—a way of imposing an outré policy of radical change. Indeed, Hidalgo ignores calls for greater consultation and ploughs ahead with a plan to double bike lanes (from 430 miles to 870 miles by 2020) deeming car ownership “archaic.” The position as Elected Chair of the C40 (a club for the world’s largest cities) has only bolstered her resolve: Paris will become a blueprint for the post-car city of the future.

Much of this bold urban planning was designed to woo the International Olympic Committee’s Evaluation Commission of the city’s sporting eligibility. (The 10km swim of the triathlon, for instance, has been earmarked for a stretch of river near the Eiffel Tower.) A hopeful-sounding figure of €6.6bn has been mooted for the event, which will include the construction of an Olympic and Paralympic village and aquatics centre in the deprived environs of Seine-Saint-Denis.

There’s no doubt that Paris will enjoy the fortnight of Olympic limelight and venues such as the Grand Palais will surely make beautiful backdrops for the fencing finals. Skateboarding in Tuileries and beach volleyball in the Champ de Mars anyone? (Here’s betting Macron is already planning his opening ceremony.) Yet unlike London, which battled hard for the Olympics, Paris was virtually handed the event and is using the event as a way of fast-tracking its goals. Cycle lanes to the Olympic venues will be carved out to the suburbs in the name of the Games—avoiding outpourings of vitriol directed at Hidalgo’s office. A vision of greater Paris will emerge with an electric Grand Express Tramway connecting the banlieues to the city centre.

*** Of course, as Paris has its moment, London is starting to feel the effects of Brexit. Parisians are curious whether the British vote to leave the European Union will tempt the 300,000 French Londoners back to Paris. So far, the evidence of returnees is anecdotal; everyone from estate agents to economists have examples of friends who have been nudged into a move back to Paris by the prospect of Brexit and Macron-led France. Roxanne Varza says many applicants to Station F cite Donald Trump, high Silicon Valley prices and Brexit as reasons for choosing France.

Many Parisians are reluctant to openly jostle for post-Brexit spoils. The “Choose Paris” initiative claims to be in the spirit of co-operation. They’re wise to be cautious given the cities’ close, symbiotic ties. Paris and London have become transnational suburbs. They loom large in each other’s imagination—after all, Orwell was down and out in both. Of course there are the opportunists. Last year, La Défense business district promoted its offering (which is soon to include new property built by architects Portzamparc and Nouvel) under the not-so-subtle slogan “Tired of the fog? Try the frogs!”

French humour aside, it’s clear the city’s diplomatic kudos has already undergone a lightning turn-around. “Two years ago—and even more recently than that, France was a country which people tended to commiserate with. We were losing it. We were in ultimate decline,” says François Heisbourg, Chair of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who meets me for citron pressés on Boulevard Saint-Germain. “With Brexit, the baton was passed to the British. The country that is the object of commiseration is now the UK.”

While Heisbourg describes the near-instant shift in diplomatic morale, he insists other challenges will be much more hard won. He was part of Macron’s election campaign and has since advised the new administration on counter-terror organisation. Macron is currently under fire from human rights groups over a proposed bill that will enshrine special police powers in law—but will transition the country away from the state of emergency. (And then there’s Opération Sentinelle, a French military strategy with 10,000 soldiers on patrol and 4,700 police.) For Paris, a change back to civilian norms is crucial; not least because tour groups baulk at the official state of emergency and take their business elsewhere. How can Paris really lead the way as a city, when highly-trained squadrons are pacing the pavements with their fingers on the triggers of semi-automatic weapons? “In theory, [the state of emergency] should be lifted in November,” says Heisbourg who explains that it is a politically reactive subject—and that troops on the street are popular and reassuring. “[Macron] is very sensitive about the need to move away from where we’re currently stuck, but getting unstuck is really difficult,” adds Heisbourg. “I hope he will have the gumption to lift the state of emergency—and to accept to live with the consequences of a terror attack, which may happen some time after [it is] lifted.”

*** Even here, pedestrianisation has a new political frontier. “Now, after Nice, London, Levallois, and Barcelona, assaults with motor vehicles are the new blinking-red light,” says Thomas Vonier, an architect and security expert who practices both in Paris and Washington DC. “Temporary vehicle blockades now surround the Eiffel Tower, awaiting more permanent measures. Steps are being taken to block vehicle access all around the city, just about everywhere crowds gather.”

Paris is integrating security into its urban fabric. Roadblocks are disguised as lush 18th-century planters. Tourists now pose atop the line of impenetrable concrete cubes that sit outside the Louvre as if they were built to be podiums for selfies. In September, work began on a 2.5-metre-high bulletproof glass fence that will wrap around the Eiffel Tower to replace the metal grille that’s currently there. The city is taking a clear-eyed look at its future and realising temporary metal detector gates must become integrated, permanent design features.

Vonier doesn’t consider Paris especially radical—but simply returning to form. “Many large cities are experiencing deadly pollution, near-constant states of congestion, rising levels of anger and frustration, spiralling living costs, growing insecurity, and inequity of mobility,” he says, “These all dictate the need for new design approaches. In some cases, that will mean a return to roots—to past ways of city life. And the Paris of Haussmann and Alphand, conceived just before the advent of the internal combustion engine, wasn’t all bad.”

Hidalgo has been labelled an extreme ideologue, yet some of her biggest projects are simply reversing the grand urban developments of the last century. The city’s river-side express routes, or voies sur berges, were built on the orders of Georges Pompidou in the late 1960s—long before our cities became gridlocked with cars. As Vonier points out, these banks were never meant for vehicles. It was Pompidou who oversaw the destruction of the sensational pavilions of the Les Halles, Paris’s famous covered food market, on a morning in August 1971. Emile Zola immortalised this complex, beautiful, social and commercial phenomenon in his third novel Le Ventre de Paris. The photographer Robert Doisneau captured portraits of the butchers, fishmongers and florists. It was a Gaullist vision of modernity—and a technocratic approach to urban change. (It’s rather chilling to think that Pompidou’s protégé, Jacques Chirac, who later served as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995 and as France’s president, earned the nickname “Le Bulldozer.”) Arguably, this gastronomic city has been searching for its soul ever since the wrecking balls moved in.

France has always been Paris-centric. But will the capital’s progressive urban reforms risk setting it adrift from the provinces? It’s clear there is already something of an urban-rural schism in the country. You only have to look at the results of last year’s presidential election: Marine Le Pen won just under 10 per cent of Parisian votes but in more agricultural areas such as Aisne, in Northern France, as much as 53 per cent. (Macron, on the other hand, secured 89 per cent of the capital’s ballots in the final round.) Many French provincial cities are in sync with the capital’s urban reforms. “Fantastic things, especially in terms of urbanism, are happening in other French cities, Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseille, to name a few,” says Alice Cabaret. “I think the tension, or disconnection lies between Paris and its (poorest) suburbs.”

Cities are so often chastised for being nostalgic. But in Paris’s case its transformation could turn out to be a root-and-branch restoration of civic values—a return to a time when the flâneur was king and its famous cafés weren’t competing with major auto-routes. Parisians are right to be wary of grand projects backed by egotistical politicians. Yet the crusade to restore basic urban rights—clean air and water—doesn’t appear to share the folly of any of Pompidou’s schemes. Will Parisians swim in the Seine in six years’ time rather like they did in 1920s? According to Étienne Thobois, Paris’s Olympic tsar, salmon are returning to the river: there are already twice as many species of fish as in 1990, 24 to be precise. But many Parisians remember the words of Chirac, who in 1988 declared he would bathe in the Seine within five years. He never did. That may just make Hidalgo all the more determined to take the plunge.