Is “Paris Syndrome” actually a real thing?

Image: Getty.

On reading most definitions of “Paris Syndrome”, it’s easy to assume it’s an urban myth – and a xenophobic one at that. Defined generally as a kind of mental disorder which takes hold of tourists who visit Paris and are disappointed by what they see, it's also one which apparently afflicts Japanese people in particular: in 2006, the BBC reported that 12 Japanese people were struck down with it that summer, and in some this resulted in full “psychiatric breakdown”.  In 2014, Bloomberg straightfacedly ran a piece noting that this “epidemic” was now affecting Chinese tourists, too. So what gives?

The roots of the syndrome, and our cultural obsession with it, seem to lie in the 19th century, when the author Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen name Stendahl) claimed to be suffering from something called “Florence Syndrome”. He wrote of visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce:

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call "nerves."

Florencian hospital staff still report incidents of tourists with elevated heartbeats and fast breathing after visiting various beautiful sites in the city.

This, however, is essentially the opposite of Paris syndrome, as it resulted from the wonder of the art and architecture in the city. The Japanese tourists who allegedly required psychological treatment after visiting Paris in 2006 were reported to be disappointed by the city, not impressed by it.


A news report at the time noted that the visitors came with a “deeply romantic vision “ of the capital, its culture and art, and the “beauty of French women”. Bloomberg claims that Chinese people arrive “expecting to see a quaint, affluent and friendly European city with smartly dressed men and women smelling of Chanel No. 5”  after seeing films like Amelie or An American in Paris. 

In reality, the thinking goes, the city’s “scruffy streets” and “unfriendly locals” are so shocking that visitors experience psychological problems as a result.

So do we – and Japanese people in particular – really have such an idealised vision of Paris? It was notable in the wake of the Paris attacks that much of the outpouring of sympathy and grief centred on a version of the city that would be virtually unrecognisable, or at least fairly meaningless to its residents  a "culture of baguettes and wine", the "city of love". It's idealised despite the fact that, in most ways, it's pretty much the same as other European capitals. 

There's also a chance that "Paris Syndrome" is little more than "tourist syndrome". Culture shock is a recognised phenomenon, and it’s true that Japanese visitors may face more of a language and cultural barrier visitors from other European countries; they're also more likely to visit Paris than anywhere else in Europe. Many of the symptoms described by Stendahl and modern reports reflect those of heatstroke, or over-exertion – it’s easy to forget that walking around an unfamiliar city for a full day is much more draining than what we'd be doing at home.

Then there’s another possibility: the not-uncomon phenomena of inexplicable psychological reactions which repeat within a certain group, like the case of the fainting cheerleaders in the US. It’s impossible to know whether the 12 Japanese who needed treatment in 2006 knew one another – but it’s notable that similar statistics don't emerge every year, though there were reports of 20 cases of Paris syndrome in 2011. 

Paris Syndrome, a 2014 novel by Tahir Shah, uses the phenomenon as its theme and title. In it, a character becomes obsessed with the French capital throughout her childhood and young adulthood. and finally goes there – only to be gripped by the syndrome, “rampage” through Louis Vuitton, and moon a sales clerk.


I haven’t read the novel in full, but it seems a clever satire on our interest in the phenomenon, as well as an exploration of the aspects of it that seem real. In one scene, a psychiatrist is asked on the news what causes Paris Syndrome:

“Obsession,” he said, mouthing the syllables thoughtfully. “An extreme obsession with Paris. An intoxicated sense of awe at its architecture, its customs, and its general jooie de vivre. Paris Syndrome is a manic inability to make sense of it all…. Paris Syndrome is among the most misunderstood and most dangerous of all psychological conditions.

Here, Paris syndrome seems to be the fixation and elevation of a thing until it can never really satisfy. The use of Paris seems basically incidental: tantrums among children on Christmas morning are an obvious parallel.

Perhaps it's simply a case of expecting a lot from a holiday, and reacting badly when it doesn't happen. Throw a long distance from home and an unfamiliar culture into the mix, and we have our explanation. 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.