Grand Paris: is the French capital really in decline?

Image: Getty.

The rue Mouffetard in Paris's 5th arrondissement is a living portrait of Frenchness that is so delightful, in such a textbook way, that it is almost embarrassing. The cobbled street is lined with little independent fromageries and boulangeries. The cafes are filled with wood panelling, confit duck and people reading books about philosophy. There are grocers with gleaming pyramids of fruit, and aproned staff who emanate so much charm it seems scripted. Go on a Sunday and there really is a man playing an accordion.

My wife and I live in a small flat round the corner. It's affordable because she has been there for eight years and rent control laws prevent the amount we pay from mirroring the area's soaring prices (in London the same figure would get us a bedsit in Croydon). I regularly pop down to the rue Mouffetard for food and wine. It's a delight, and yet the Londoner in me, the one trained to always ask, "What's the catch?", is forever troubled. "Is this real?" he asks, frowning like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. "Like, really real?"

The fact that there are a handful of shops on Mouffetard selling Eiffel Tower golf tees and Champs d'Elysées tea towels means I can never just relax and enjoy the experience. I am on some level worried that I've spent a year and a half living like one of those visitors to London who think the locals shop for tea in Whittard's. Is there one cheesemonger for serving authentic people and another for tricking tourists? Being not quite of either category, how will I know which is which? Or is this, perhaps, the exact state of Paris in 2015, where tourist shops are as much a kind of standard neighbourhood business as a sofa warehouse in south London? In other words, is Paris just a kind of museum?

The city has for a long time felt more or less complete. What's left to do here?

This, I've come to realise, is the default opinion of the English-speaking observer from abroad: Paris, and France in general, may be pretty but it is also declining, backward-looking, irrelevant. The British and US media like to tell a story of French stagnation – economic, cultural and social. A New York Times piece from 2013 (Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse) offered a fairly typical list of things the anglophone press thinks the French are miserable about: "High unemployment and low hopes, the onerous taxes that drove Gérard Depardieu to flee, conflicts with immigrants, political scandals, Hollande fatigue, Germany envy, economic stagnation, a hyperelitist education system and cold, rainy weather."

A common thread in French-bashing is the idea that most of these troubles derive from an aversion to change: economic stagnation may well be temporary, or even overstated, but cultural stagnation is embedded in the national mindset. A classic example of this is the subject of food. "Isn't the food in Paris terrible these days?", I am often gleefully asked. The received wisdom is that what was once the greatest culinary city in the world has, through sheer arrogance and complacency, let itself be surpassed by the dynamism of New York and London.

Tourists at the Louvre. Image: Getty.

There is an element of truth to this. Paris has many, many beautiful places in which to eat terrible food and drink revolting coffee. But Paris's food scene is in fact more lively and varied than its global reputation allows. In the 18th arrondisement, for example, is Le Bal Cafe which, in serving – of all things – modern British cuisine, is emblematic of a Paris increasingly open to new culinary experiences. "It's a very new, very vibrant scene for restaurants," owner Alice Quillet tells me after lunch service (the restaurant is still packed).

"I think it's changed tremendously. It all started in the late 1990s on the back of the bistronomie movement, where some of the Michelin-starred chefs started going back to bistro food. Before all that it was very stuffy. Either you were a brasserie or a restaurant or a hotel restaurant and there were very set codes of what each should be. Bistronomie was the beginning of a different way for people to cook. Young foreign chefs who would previously only have gone to New York or London started coming to Paris and finding it interesting."

These include Australian chef James Henry of restaurant Bones, where ultra-modern French cuisine is served in a vaguely Brooklyn-style setting; Dai Shinozuka, the Japanese chef who took over neo-bistro Les Enfants Rouges in 2013; and Gregory Marchand, a Frenchman who trained in London and New York and whose restaurant's name, Frenchie, is what Jamie Oliver called him when he worked at Fifteen.

Quillet concedes that it would be easy for a visitor to Paris to come away with the wrong impression. "So many places, particularly the brasseries in touristy areas, have quite expensive menus and a lot of it's already premade and reheated. A lot of it comes from Metro, a wholesale food place. Everything is frozen."

I'm reminded of the British catering service 3663, which provided premade lamb shanks to many a lazy gastropub. In Paris, Quillet lays part of the blame for this practice on high labour costs. "If I pay a chef €1600, I pay double really because another 1600 goes into their retirement, pension, and everything that I pay in terms of social costs. Of course, it's great that any employee has this medical coverage and time off. It's a really good quality of life for my employees, but harder for owners."

The bistronomie movement started as a reaction to a flagging French economy: it made high-quality, traditional food available at cheaper prices; and has developed into something more adventurous in the form of the “neo-bistro”. It is these restaurants, rather than their luxury counterparts, that are now seen as the powerhouses of creativity in French food. As for international food, the good stuff is still rare in Paris but it is becoming more available.

Wander the streets of central Paris and you will spot some of the mainstays of Anglo-American foodism: a taqueria with a cocktail bar behind a hidden door ("It’s a joke in New York to have that speakeasy theme but in Paris it's like a revolution in the bar scene," says Quillet); and a scattering of gourmet burger joints, notably Blend, devised after Victor Garnier spent six months on a burger tour of the US. Have any French innovations taken off internationally? "The natural wine scene. It was a revolution in French wine, and now the big thing in New York is to drink obscure organic wines from the Jura."

Of course, winemaking in France belongs to a tradition that stretches back for millennia. While many modern food movements are a lot to do with 'rediscovering' and then fetishising this or that once-ubiquitous tradition, contemporary French food retains an unbroken connection to a great past. Perhaps that's why it tends to be less excitable about its achievements. "The whole modern British food movement," says Quillet, "is really people rediscovering techniques that their ancestors used.

The industrial revolution destroyed all the regionality of food in the UK but France has always kept that. In London now if you look at a menu it'll tell you the provenance of everything: "It's from this orchard in this area, blah blah blah." It's self-congratulatory." As far as Parisian food culture is concerned, whatever the horror stories about microwaved duck or margarine-laden croissants, there is still, day-to-day, a base-level respect for food that surpasses that of both London and New York. Excellent food markets are not fodder for self-validating Instagram updates; they're just a normal part of life.

* * *

When I talk to friends back in Britain about living in Paris, one of the most common responses is: "Oh, doesn't it feel really quiet these days? Isn't everyone leaving?" I never know what to say. "There are people walking around," I tell them. "There are a lot of cars on the boulevards." They shake their heads in disbelief, because of something they've read. It's not surprising, when a cursory Google brings up an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled, The French Flee a Nation in Despair. The Evening Standard calls this supposed great emigration 'L'exodus'.

But Paris is a far cry from Detroit. It has a stable population of around 2.2 million, up by around 100,000 since 1999. Include the suburbs and the population has risen from 10.9 million to 12 million. More difficult to prove or disprove are the headlines surrounding certain subsets: the super-wealthy avoiding Hollande's 75 per cent 'supertax'; or entrepreneurs absconding in their droves to escape stringent labour laws and rampant bureaucracy. With the former, I detect a soupçon of scaremongering: the tax was never implemented and has now been dropped. To look into the latter, I arranged to meet with Paulin Dementhon, the 36-year-old CEO of one of the biggest success stories in a sector that doesn't immediately spring to mind when you think of Paris: technology startups.

Dementhon's car-sharing startup Drivy allows users to rent cars directly from those who own them. "It's a proximity service which is going to be an alternative to car ownership," he tells me at his open-plan office on a quiet street in the 11th arrondissement. "If you live in any major city in France you can use it to find a car near home." Drivy is expanding into Europe. In 2013 it launched in Germany, and there are plans to launch in Spain by summer. Of the 20 or 30 companies around the world making a play for this kind of peer-to-peer car rental service, Drivy is one of the biggest, with around 400,000 members.

The British and US media like to tell a story of French stagnation 

"Paris doesn't have the size in terms of startups as San Francisco and London but it's picking up," he says. "Venture capital used to be really hard to raise but now it's accessible. You have more funds, more business angels. International funds are putting a foot into Paris. They have acknowledged that there are really large business opportunities here and not only small, local ones."

The biggest Parisian startup success is the ridesharing service BlaBlaCar, which recently made the headlines after raising $100m of investment. It currently facilitates 2m rides per month, has a presence across Europe, including Russia and Turkey, and has just launched in India. Another significant player is the Food Assembly, allowing people to buy food directly from local producers. "Even Silicon Valley giants like Air B&B and Uber have their number one operation outside the US in Paris rather than London or Berlin," says Dementhon: although he concedes: "You can explain that with Air B&B by the fact that Paris is the world's number one tourist destination so maybe it fits in with the 'museum city' idea."

When I mention the supposedly stifling labour regulations, Dementhon shrugs. "They apply more to large corporations. Really, it's very easy to create a business in France. The labour rules are not so hard. France is famous for having high taxes but actually, you have a lot of incentives when you are a small business, especially an innovative business." He sees the country's universities as being integral to its potential. "I think what is good for France is that we have very strong engineering talent. We have these famous grandes écoles which turn out very skilled engineers. These people used to leave to [go to] Silicon Valley and work at Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on. The goal, if all this takes off in Paris, is [to] keep more of these people in the country."

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The Obelisk at the Place de Concorde. Image: Getty.

Some of the most vehement advocates of the "museum city" hypothesis I've met – and the keenest to leave town – are recent graduates from these grandes écoles that produce much of France's top-tier elite. I ask Lex Paulson, an American professor of rhetoric at the grande école Sciences-Po, which has provided France with most of its post-war presidents, what he thinks. "Talking to students gives you a really interesting range of views on what kind of a city Paris is in 2015," he tells me. "One reaction is to say France is falling behind. And there's evidence for that point of view if you look at economic indicators and where young people are trying to move to. But there are plenty of counter-indicators as well, for example the amount of people from China and Africa who want to move here. A small part of that is the aesthetics and the romance but a large part of it is the fact that French society and French culture is invested in a kind of excellence. It's invested in education, and it's invested in architecture."

There's no denying the allure of older French architecture as you wander down the city's wide boulevards, flanked on either side by stunning apartment buildings with high windows and ornate balconies. If there's a downside to Haussmann's 19th-century renovation of Paris it's that the city has for a long time felt more or less complete. What's left to do here?

Barring a few patches of postmodernity on former industrial enclaves, there's a sense that any new architectural gestures, no matter how bold, must be seen to consolidate an existing masterpiece, or at least not ruin it. One of the most high-profile recent uses of the term 'museum city' was in the debate over the proposed Triangle Tower in the 15th arrondissement, towards the southern city limits.

The Herzog & de Meuron-designed glass and steel pyramid, set to tower over the surrounding area, was backed by socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, only to be rejected by the city council. "We risk becoming solely a city with a history," said flabbergasted architect Jacques Rougerie in response to the decision; "A museum piece with no outlook on the future." Look elsewhere, however, and you find a city that is careful about what it allows but is not completely averse to the new. There's the recently-opened Philharmonie de Paris concert hall, generally thought to be a triumph, despite the original architect attempting to have his name removed from the building (it's a long story). And there's the Louis Vuitton Foundation, a spectacular cultural centre designed by Frank Gehry, which opened last year.

Significantly, the Foundation is just outside the vast ringroad that encircles Paris, the périphérique; so it is not actually in Paris but in a rather well-heeled suburb. This is an important way in which the French and British capitals differ, not just physically but psychologically. London has no solid boundary to speak of. It gently sprawls into the home counties via its edgeland boroughs: Bromley, Dagenham, Redbridge. Paris, meanwhile, is tightly defined: you know when you're in and you know when you're out. The 20 arrondisements found inside the périphérique are Paris; the surrounding suburbs are not. It is the poorest of these suburbs that are on the frontline of economic troubles, with high unemployment and, since 2005, the threat of riots.

At a cafe in central Paris, I meet Frederique Reibell, who teaches 15- to18-year-old pupils in Seine-Saint-Denis, the somewhat notorious suburb immediately north east of the city (Time Out Paris calls it the department that "best fulfils the negative stereotype of the banlieue"). Reibell sees Paris's problems as being a lot to do with this psychological divide, the social segregation that has seen a small, beautiful city surrounded by all of the messy, lively and less-than-pristine stuff that it does not want to process. When I ask her what her students think of the city inside the ringroad, she says: "I'm not sure my students really go to Paris that much. They just stay in their neighbourhoods. When we talk about what will happen after they graduate, some think of going to Paris but they think it's a different world with different codes and social customs." It's hard to overstate the mental distance involved in making a few steps from banlieue to Paris and vice versa. People do not cross the frontier lightly; some don't cross it at all.

For Reibell, the notion of a museumified Paris is not necessarily wrong, and is closely linked to this psychology of "inside" and "outside". "Paris is a beautiful city with a lot of architectural history, a lot of culture, and a lot of tourists come here to find it. This is not necessarily negative. The issue that Parisians have to fight against is that the city is becoming a ghetto for the rich, and that the middle classes and the working classes are driven away because it has become too expensive. At the moment there's social segregation between Paris and some of the suburbs and it's something that politicians really have to fight against and change."

* * *

A guide to the new city region. Click for a larger image.

On 1 January 2016, Paris will, if all goes according to plan, ditch the psychology of the citadel and accept its suburbs as fully-fledged areas of Paris.The Métropole du Grand Paris is a new administrative entity that will in effect redefine the city, bringing into its fold the old banlieue districts such as Seine-Saint-Denis. Major transport links will underwrite this change. At a stroke, Paris will go from being a relatively tiny 22 square miles to a massive metropolis with an area comparable to that of Greater London.

"People in the poor suburbs will belong to the same city as people in the 7th arrondissement [where the Eiffel Tower is]," one of the project’s architects, Pierre Mansat, commented recently. "This is a profound change." Reibell sees the end of social segregation as the key to Paris remaining a globally relevant city: "If Paris can become more dynamic it will [do so] by being more socially mixed, and by being more open to foreigners."

Will the Grand Paris project do away with the dismissive notion of a "museum city"? Well, who knows. The trouble is, in most media assessments of the city's fortunes, there's no room for complexity. Any negative take on the capital – "The food’s not as good as it was! The economy's in the doldrums!" – becomes evidence of France's demise, rather than an example of a country's inevitable ups and downs.

These pieces tend not to mention Parisian Nobel prizewinner Patrick Modiano, or Parisian "rock star" economist Thomas Piketty. Last year, Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis, ranted that France is 'finished'. But what would that even mean? Doesn't French-bashing end up telling us more about those doing the bashing? "We look at the French as being self-consciously resistant to change and against Anglo-Saxon capitalism," said Lex Paulson of Sciences Po. "You have one of the largest countries in Europe that has built this really successful culture. But because we see the French as arrogantly resistant, there's a bit of nationalism in our response."


Seb Emina is editor-in-chief of The Happy Reader, a quarterly magazine about reading by Penguin and Fantastic Man, and author of The Breakfast Bible, a breakfasters' compendium published by Bloomsbury. He lives between Paris and London.

This article is published simultaneously as part of the “Stagnation” season of the Long + Short, Nesta’s free online magazine of ideas and innovation:


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.