Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The world's most beautiful city just keeps getting attacked in the English language press.
Paris has been getting a roasting in the English language press recently. British columnists have seemingly lined up to damn the city with a variety of clichés, such as that it's snooty and unfriendly, populated by people who are "arrogant, snobbish, unfriendly and stressed out," or as CNN dubbed it, one of the world's "most hated" cities.
The real coup-de-grace came this month, when an already notorious Newsweek piece lambasted France as a "suffocating nanny state" populated with "navel gazers a la Jean Paul Sartre." Focused on the American writer's experiences of living in a French capital waylaid by "the heavy hand of socialism," the piece contained howlers such as stating that "a half liter of milk costs nearly $4 in Paris" (in reality, it costs around $1.80) and pushing France’s top income tax bracket up from 45 percent to a purely fictional 70 percent. Such was the furor around the article that Le Monde published a point-by-point rebuttal (translated into English here). But even the French press has weighed in with its own attacks on themselves. Last week, Le Figaro titled a story about London (only just) overtaking Paris as world’s most visited city with the headline: "London Dethrones Paris."
The French do seem a little shaken up by their negative portrayal. Last week, a clearly rattled French embassy in London went as far as to post a counterblast to a negative British article on the French economy, even though it came from a fairly obscure London-only financial paper. This week, Paris Deputy Mayor Anne Hidalgo struck back by calling London a “suburb of Paris” in a fairly mild rebuff nonetheless dubbed a “stinging attack” by the London press. But where does the wave of anti-Parisian and anti-French scorn (and internal self doubt) that Hidalgo is reacting to come from?
Certainly, Parisians have a reputation for being a little sniffy. Their nightlife isn’t what it was 30 years ago. And the French national economy is indeed a little shaky, though not disastrously so by current European standards. But Paris is still a peerlessly beautiful, interesting place that largely deals with its vast numbers of annual visitors with grace. I spent several summers after graduating college shepherding groups of American students around Paris as a tour guide, and I must say that, bar the odd creepy concierge, Parisians were very helpful and polite to them. If Paris's citizens are really so awful, then someone I never came across is clearly working overtime.
The city is also doing pretty well right now. Its already excellent mass transit network is expanding. It has finally given most of the Paris metro area its own overarching authority. Within the city, a plan to turn the expensive but somewhat soulless Avenue Foch into a pedestrian precinct and park seems like a good bet to enliven the area around the Arc de Triomphe, whose radial avenues have become so traffic-filled in recent years that they risk becoming the world’s most beautiful highways.
What's more, the city itself is considering uniting all its municipalities into one (according to favorable comments by Prime Minister Ayrault last week), a step that would no doubt cause uproar but also revolutionize the way the city organizes itself. Meanwhile, Paris is changing in a way no less dynamic than London or New York, as you can witness (not automatically with enthusiasm) in the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods like Pantin and Montreuil that lie outside the Périphérique Beltway.
Given the drip feed of actual good news from the city, I suspect that the real source for anti-Paris scorn is resentment at France's continuing resistance to Anglophone dominance. Americans sometimes take France's soft, sporadic resistance to its cultural seduction as a personal affront. In Britain, next-door and similarly sized, it exposes France's significant role as a competitor. This mix of pique and competitiveness can lead English-language commentators to be unfairly harsh on Paris. As the ultimate representation of French culture, I suppose it's only human to want to find worms in a golden apple so proudly, defiantly presented.
This competitiveness isn’t exactly new, of course. Lately, however, both Paris and London are fighting for a slice of a new pie that wasn’t so important in the past: the Chinese. The U.K. government has been wooing Chinese visitors and investors hard. Indeed, recent changes to British visa requirements may actually have been prompted by the realization that Chinese tourists were buying far larger numbers of designer handbags in Paris than in London. With Chinese investors pumping huge sums into the London property market last year – to sellers’ delight and everyone else’s consternation – the approach seems to be paying off. In this context, Paris’s and London’s relative prestige actually matters a good deal in deciding who gets the lion’s share of new visitors. As rivalry for this new pool of money reaches its peak, it’s perhaps less surprising that anti-Parisian commentary is getting a little sharp.
Still, if we scrutinized other European cities as harshly, they'd fare no better. Look hard at forward-looking, exciting Berlin, for example, and you’ll notice that since the millennium its new architecture has become the dullest and most conservative in all Europe. And if inner Paris is a museum city, a pretty stage set from which lower and middle income people are being harried by high costs, then so is London – just without the prettiness. Paris is too old, too big and too beautiful to be over, to be completely out of date or to fail. Its inhabitants are often damned wholesale as rude or stand-offish, but if anything, it’s they who deserve to be shown a little more warmth.