Think of a Parisian, what do you see? A sallow, penguin-suited waiter? A young, Chanel clad woman catwalking her tiny dog? A bespectacled older gent wrapped in a red scarf, cognac and copy of Le Monde?
Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be far from how many Parisians see themselves. Few cities have a tighter branding. But with Paris now at the heart of the biggest urban development project in Europe, how long can, or indeed should, this image remain?
Le Grand Paris, the project launched in 2007 by then president Nicolas Sarkozy, is set to make its first tangible impacts next year with the extension of the line 14 metro to the northern suburb of St Ouen. And it has a more ambitious goal than merely altering the entire physical landscape of the city. It is an attempt to change what Paris is in people’s minds.
The promised 120 miles of new high-speed metro track, ringing and crisscrossing the capital, is directly designed to overcome a single manmade barrier: the Périphérique, Paris’s infamous ring road that currently divides the 2.2 million Parisians living within its bounds, from the almost 10 million who do not.
The new metro lines planned as part of Le Grand Paris project. Image: Hektor/Wikimedia Commons.
It’s difficult to emphasise, as someone who has lived ten years in this city, what a shift this would entail. For while the Paris centre has the semblance of a medieval citadel – primly regulated, the streets smug with excitement at their own importance – many of its suburbs retain the haphazard energy of a temporary encampment outside a city walls. Though each suburb has its own distinct vibrancy, bristling with unexpected architectural delights and fierce local pride, taken together as compared to the centre, they are another world.
In trying to expand beyond the Périphérique, the architects behind Grand Paris are fighting the city’s ghosts. There were once fortifications where the orbital now runs, themselves surrounded by a 250-metre-wide no-building rule. When the fortifications fell out of use in the 19th century, the area became a magnet for ad-hoc slum housing, which, until the Périphérique was built in the 1950s was referred to as the Zone. It is this semi-mythical sounding frontier that the planners need to cross.
Yet so profoundly has this ring road scarred the mental geography of Paris, it begs the question what will happen to the identity of the city if they succeed. And more broadly, how hard is it in general to shift are our perceptions of what any particular city is, what it means to the people who live there, and to the wider world? We’ll always have Paris, sure – but in thirty years’ time, if the Périphérique falls, what kind of Paris will we have?
Trying to answer these questions, it’s worth looking to history. After all, Grand Paris is just the latest in a number of large-scale rebrandings that Paris has had in the last couple of centuries. Back in the early 1800s, though still a centre of culture, the French capital had more of reputation for slums than boulevards. Back then, the capital was, according to social reformer Victor Considerant, “an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate”. So much for honeymooning down by the Seine.
The renovations of Baron Haussmann, begun in the 1850s, utterly transformed Paris’s physical appearance, and character, at least in the sense that it was made easier to travel between city districts. This started with the building of several boulevards that were to make up the grande croisée de Paris, the great cross of Paris, opening two channels of communication on a north to south and east to west axis. The boulevard cafés and the boulevardiers followed. Eternal as it now seems, perhaps it was only then our modern concept of Paris and Parisians was born.
The boulevards and streets built by Napoléon III and Haussmann during the Second Empire are shown in red. Note the cross at the centre. Image: Dimitri Destugues/Wikimedia Commons.
Regarding the changes we can expect today, there are already profiteering rumbles that, in the shadow of Brexit, Paris can benefit from London’s anticipated decline. In so doing, it will perhaps become more like London itself: dissolving the Périphérique will let turn Paris into archipelago city of connecting hubs, rather than one where the gravitational mass of the centre has all the pull. Districts such as La Défense, Gennevilliers, and Saint-Denis are all already getting more investment to coincide with the improved transport links, which will allow this vision to take form.
Perhaps too, Paris will become more renowned for its multiculturalism: already more than 40 per cent of central Parisians have at least one foreign parent, but in its northern suburbs, this number is over 60 per cent. With these suburbs more integrated into the whole, surely also their burgeoning reputation as an incubator of football talent will become an essential aspect of Paris’s global reputation. More world class footballers have come from Saint Denis’ quatrevingt-treize postcode in recent years than almost anywhere else on Earth. Grand Paris can be the town of Mbappé as much as Molière.
By the time the year 2030 comes around, when the Grand Paris project should be nearing completion, perhaps a Paris still defined by its ring road will feel as old fashioned as one defined by its old city walls. Ask to think of a Parisian then, while the waiters and the boulevardiers may remain, it is likely a more diverse picture will come to mind: the descendants of Algerian and Senegalese families; international business associates, footballers, and entrepreneurs. These people live in Paris now, of course, but are no so visible, not so “on brand”. The Grand Paris project at its best, could, along with further opening the city to the world, open it more to its own people as well.
There is also another possibility, however: that the essence of Paris is more intractable than town planners want to believe. And for all the excited talk of synergies in the Grand Paris plans, it will prove easier to move bodies than minds. Indeed, despite the reported squalor and cramped streets of the 19th century, look at the contemporary sources: it’s clear Paris had some essential Paris-ness long before even Haussmann came along. This is not to do with a particular person-type or architecture, but something less tangible: an atmosphere, and certainty of its own value.
“Paris is the world,” once claimed the writer Pierre de Marivaux in 1734, “the rest of the earth is nothing but its suburbs.”
Perhaps. But in the future, let’s hope those suburbs will start a little further out.