To spot what has changed in Paris since the time this book was written, one should really have returned after a long absence. Instead of this, I have left the city for only short periods in the last ten years, and so I see it changing like the wrinkles on a beloved face that one observes every day. The city within the walls, the subject of The Invention of Paris, is now changing only slowly. Time is needed for a district of Kabyl cafés to be transformed into fashionable bars, for the Chinese rag trade to advance a street or two, or for what is called renovation to press the poor a notch more towards the Périphérique.
The physical transformations of Paris can be read as a ceaseless struggle between the spirit of place and the spirit of time. Take for example the nameless spot formed by the widening of Rue Mouffetard below the church of Saint-Médard. The ancient food shops, the market stalls, the immense trees that cast their shade onto the porch of the church, the remains of the little cemetery where the ‘convulsionaries’ danced on the tomb of Deacon Pâris in the reign of Louis XV (see p. 158), the two large cafés facing each other across the road – this whole panoply of eras, styles and events gives this place a spirit that cannot be compared with any other. Old Parisians are aware that under their feet flows the River Bièvre in its descent towards the Jardin des Plantes, and that this district was crossed by the main road towards Italy. As well as a spirit of place, therefore, the spirit of the time has also succeeded in making itself felt: the middle of Rue Mouffetard is occupied by an enormous floral parterre with a fountain at the centre. The combined action of the Voirie and Espaces Verts departments has attempted the impossible, to transform this area into one of those thousands of roundabouts that punctuate the roads right across France. For me, respect for the spirit of place has nothing to do with the sad idea of ‘heritage’, any more than distrust of the spirit of time means rejecting the contemporary. Over the last twenty or thirty years, some innovations have indeed managed to create a new spirit of place. I. M. Pei’s pyramid, for example, gave life to Napoleon III’s Louvre courtyard, formerly a dusty parking area for the museum staff, and not far away is a whole new quarter, with its good points and bad, organized around the Beaubourg centre. (I never say ‘Centre Pompidou’, as the late president had deplorable artistic taste – his office decorated by Agam – and besides he was opposed to the Piano-Rogers project, which was only adopted thanks to the stubbornness of the jury chair, the great Jean Prouvé.)
Conversely, I may say, the charm of certain places has evaporated in the last ten years without the historical décor having changed. On the Place Saint-Sulpice, the Café de la Mairie used to be an establishment where it was pleasant to drink coffee in the first rays of sunshine – this was indeed where I wrote those pages in my book that discuss this spot, as a homage to Georges Perec who wrote his Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien [Attempt to Exhaust a Parisian Space] there (p. 99). The setting is the same, but I avoid it now because of its clientele, made up of smart tourists and elegant ladies taking a rest there after doing their shopping in the hautecouture boutiques nearby. Easy to avoid, but then where to go? The answer is difficult, given how rare now are terraces on the historic Left Bank that are worth a visit.
Among the active agents of urban deterioration in these last ten years, I would give top marks to the Service des Espaces Verts. What they call ‘végétalisation’ runs rampant in every quarter, striking places that ask only to be left in peace. Along the line of the former wall of the Farmers-General (p.109 ff.), the Boulevards de Rochechouart and de Clichy (from Barbès to Place Clichy via Place Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge on Place Blanche) used to be divided by a central reservation that was used partly for parking, partly by the local kids as a football pitch, partly as somewhere you could drink a can of beer on a bench, but above all by Eastern European tourists emerging from the neighbouring sex shops and kebab joints. In sum, an undefined space, just what is needed to give the city some air. But the mairie is not fond of such spaces. Right along the length of these old boulevards, the Service des Espaces Verts has established plantations hemmed in by metal grilles, with plants of a particular ugliness that are found now throughout Paris, selected so that they never flower and get rapidly covered with an unpleasant dust.
Sometimes this végétalisation is effected by shrubs in tubs or enormous pots, as for example in the Rue des Rosiers in the old Jewish quarter of the Marais: in combination with the newly laid paving and its central gutter, these sickly stems have given the coup de grâce to this street, which ten years ago still kept something of its Ashkenazi–proletarian past.
But I shouldn’t exaggerate. These last few years have not known any disaster comparable with the destruction of upper Belleville in the 1960s, or the ravaging of the Bastille by the installation of Carlos Ott’s opera house twenty years later. They have even seen a number of successes, like the walkway on the old viaduct leading to the Bastille station, or Marc Mimram’s footbridge which cleverly links the Orsay museum with the Tuileries gardens. In point of fact, the very widespread impression that Paris has changed a great deal in recent years is quite correct, but what has changed is not so much the mineral and vegetable setting as the way in which the city is inhabited.
This development can be precisely located. On the Left Bank there has been scarcely any change. Apart from the great Chinatown of the 13th arrondissement, the population has remained almost uniformly white and bourgeois. The Blacks are street sweepers, the Arabs are grocers, the police are rarely seen and the historic streets are as clean as in the pedestrianized zones of the provinces. Everything is just a little older than when I started to write The Invention of Paris: the friendly beggar whose pitch had always been the five metres between the La Hune bookshop in St-Germain-des-Prés and the newspaper kiosk nearby now has grey hair and wears glasses to read the books that the bookshops pass on to him. Nothing happens anymore on the Left Bank, whereas in my youth we hardly needed to cross the Seine: the Right Bank was like a faraway desert.
Today the Right Bank is no more homogeneous than it was back in the insurrectional days of June 1848 or during the Commune. In what are rather ironically called the ‘beaux quartiers’ – let’s say west of a line that runs from Les Halles to the flea market via Rue Poissonière, Rue du Faubourg Poissonière and Boulevard Barbès – almost nothing has changed in ten years. The Batignolles, Plaine Monceau, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Auteuil and Passy slumber peacefully. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées has gone downhill – I wrote in the closing years of the last century how it evoked ‘the duty-free mall of an international airport, decorated in a style that is a mixture of pseudo-Haussmann and pseudo-Bauhaus’ (p. 121); this is still the case, but the airport is now more down at heel, and you can scarcely find a table to have a drink except in the chains of faux pizzerias, genuine fast-food outlets, or pseudo-1900 cafés.
Working-class Paris occupies the east of the city – the northeast to be precise. People often say that this is also getting gentrified, that the marginal, the poor, the immigrants are steadily being driven out by the irresistible advance of the ‘bobos’ (‘bohemian bourgeois’ – intellectuals, artists, designers, journalists, etc.) who cultivate their superficial nonconformism and benign antiracism in these quarters, while driving up the rents with the help of property speculators. This opinion needs some shading. It is true that certain places which formerly were little visited at night have become meeting points for a more or less gilded youth: the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, the surrounds of the Place Gambetta, Rue Oberkampf at its intersection with Rue Saint-Maur. At that very point, some fifteen years ago, I witnessed the start of this phenomenon: in this hidden corner, an old-established bougnat – the name once given to alcohol outlets kept by Auvergnats who also supplied wood and coal to the storeys above – had been transformed into a smart café, the Café Charbon, and in the wake of its success bars mushroomed to the point of invading the Rue Oberkampf and the Rue Saint-Maur a hundred metres in each direction. It is also true that streets that were very poor and dilapidated some ten years ago, like Rue Myrha or Rue Doudeauville to the north of the Goutte d’Or, have been gradually renovated, which leads to the expulsion of their vulnerable African population, often without documents or work.
But working-class Paris is resisting rather better than people say. The Chinese at Belleville, the Arabs at the Goutte d’Or, backed by well-established Algerian traders who own their freeholds, the Turks at the market of the Porte Saint-Denis, the Africans of the Dejean market (recently threatened, it’s true), the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis on the Faubourg Saint-Denis near La Chapelle – all these welcoming enclaves are holding their own, and even gaining some ground here and there. Besides, the presence in the same streets of Blacks, Arabs, and a precarious and proletarianized white youth, tends to create ties, particularly to face up to a police pressure that is much stronger than ten years ago. The expulsion by the police of the undocumented African hunger strikers who were occupying the Saint Bernard church at La Goutte d’Or aroused great indignation in 1996. Today it is lost in the flood of arrests, raids and expulsions that are the common lot of the working-class quarters of Paris. I am not claiming that these districts are in an effervescence like that of certain periods described in Part Two of this book. But solidarity and common action have gradually created a new situation, especially since the revolts of suburban youth in October–November 2005 forced the government to proclaim a state of emergency, for the first time since the Algerian war in the early 1960s.
These revolts had the effect, among other things, of raising once again the old question of how to put an end to the divide between Paris and its suburbs. This question will certainly seem very odd to English readers, long familiar with a Greater London that stretches almost to the sea. But Paris has always grown in a very different fashion from London: you will read how, from the wall of Philippe Augustus (1165–1223) to the Périphérique of Georges Pompidou (1911–1974), the city developed in concentric rings, like an onion, to the rhythm of its successive defences. It is a city materially and administratively closed in on itself that has now to be opened up, as has always happened in its history when the latest of its walls became too tight a constriction.
In the last few years, this opening of Paris towards the banlieue has been broadly achieved to the west, on a wide arc that runs from Levallois – formerly the domain of secondhand car dealers, and rich today in the headquarters of showbiz and arms multinationals – through to Vanves and Malakoff. Along this arc, both geographical and social conditions were favourable. The transition zone (between the ‘boulevard of the marshals’ and the Périphérique – see p. 223) is not disrupted, you can cross it on foot without risking your life. And the population on either side is homogeneous, white, and fairly well-off.
It is a different matter to the east of the city. Around 2000, I wrote: ‘It would need a Hugo to make the comparison between the Porte de la Muette with its pink chestnut trees, a sumptuous embarkation for Cythera, and the Porte de Pantin, an unbridgeable barrage of concrete and noise, where the Périphérique passes at eye level, with the Boulevard Sérurier beneath it engulfed in a hideous cutting in which the scrawny grass of the central reservation is littered with greasy wrappers and beer cans, and where the only human beings on foot are natives of L’viv or Tiraspol trying to survive by begging at the traffic lights’ (p. 224). The situation has hardly changed since then. The gulf between Paris and the banlieue remains a yawning one in this sector, for reasons that are political in the strong sense of the word. The present population of the former Paris ‘red belt’ (from Ivry and Vitry in the south to Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers in the north) is now for the greater part ‘of immigrant origin’, i.e., made up of Blacks and Arabs, the very people (or their relatives) who had been driven out of the city by renovation and rising rents. This process, moreover, is very much in line with the history of Paris, in which, ever since the great confinement of 1657 that locked up the poor, the deviant and the mad in the buildings of the Hôpital Général (p. 155), the combined action of town planners, property speculators and police has never stopped pressing the poor, the ‘dangerous classes’, further from the centre of the city. In these conditions, what is the point of making a Greater Paris here, why risk retrieving on the periphery those whom it took so much trouble to evacuate from the centre? At the request of the president of the Republic, the fine fleur of official architecture recently presented their projects for a Greater Paris, rather along the lines of gyroscopes or centrifuges: the question was to make the poor revolve around the city at a distance, preventing them from returning for any longer than their work as cashiers or night watchmen required.
Fortunately, thanks to the economic crisis, none of these plans will be realized. Greater Paris will be limited to a reorganization of police forces: last week, it was decided that the Paris prefect of police will have his authority extended to all the surrounding departments. But administrative decisions are one thing in the history of Paris, and what actually happens is something else, possibly very different. Already some years ago a new osmosis began to operate between the working-class quarters of the city – from Montmartre to Charonne via Belleville and Ménilmontant – and the old proletarian bastions of the adjacent banlieue – Gennevilliers, Saint-Denis, Aubervilliers, Les Lilas, Montreuil. On both sides of the line, for many young people, the way of life, the music and the struggles are the same. It is true that you have to take the Métro to get from one side to the other. But as Hugo wrote in Notre-Dame de Paris, ‘a city such as Paris is constantly growing’, and the bureaucrats in power will be unable to stop this growth.