Paris is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct atmosphere. The center of the city remains a beautiful and elegant area that is also the center of business and culture. However, over the past few decades, many Parisians have been complaining that the city has lost its soul, and that it's turning into Paris Ville-Musée (Paris the Museum). Rising housing prices have made it virtually impossible for anyone other than the superwealthy to live in central Paris, and more neighborhoods are becoming gentrified. For a city that is infamous for its revolutions and rebellions, many Parisians complain that the city has become somewhat sanitized.
As very few people can afford to live in the city center, you'll find much more life in the outer arrondissements. In recent years, there's been a shift toward the northern and northeastern arrondissements, which were traditionally home to the city's quartiers populaires (working-class districts). These neighborhoods tend to be edgy and dynamic, as prices are lower, rents are cheaper, and the nightlife is better. Here, you'll find a mix of students, artists, immigrants, middle-class families, and bobos (short for bourgeois-bohèmes, which means bourgeois bohemian). Who are the bobos? Usually liberal, the bobos are a creative and chic group, most of whom have a middle-class education and strong ambitions for success. Over the past decade, the bobos have been transforming the face of Paris, moving into the quartiers populaires and bringing with them chic boutiques, trendy bars, and organic restaurants. As more and more parts of Paris become gentrified, the bobos are now key players in the life and soul of the city.
Sadly, there are very few genuine quartiers populaires left in Paris. Since the 1960s, the city's working-class population and the majority of the region's immigrant population have been forced to live farther and farther outside of the city in the banlieues (suburbs). Northern suburbs such as St-Denis and Aubervilliers-La Courneuve are infamous for their sprawling housing estates (known as cites), poor transport connections, high unemployment, and high crime rate. Understandably, many young people living in these suburbs, particularly the children of immigrants, feel isolated and excluded from French society. These social tensions exploded in October 2005, when two teenage boys were electrocuted while hiding from police in an electricity substation in Clichy-sous-Bois. Their deaths sparked huge riots in the vast, run-down housing estates in the banlieues; the violence spread all over France, from Marseilles to Strasbourg, and lasted for several weeks. Since the 2005 riots, the banlieues have received a great deal of media attention but nobody is sure how to deal with what appears to be a profound sense of alienation. For young people living in these troubled suburbs today, little has changed. It remains very difficult to get a job in Paris if your address places you in one of the cites, and in some of the racially diverse estates in Clichy-sous-Bois, unemployment for those under 25 is as high as 40%.
However, some of the suburbs -- such as Issy-les-Moulineaux, Levallois-Perret, and Montreuil -- are quite nice, and many middle-class families have been leaving Paris for these more affordable locales. There are more than 10 million people living in the Parisian suburbs and only around 2.2 million in Paris. The banlieues are burgeoning, and many people believe that the solution to the museum-ification of Paris lies here. Consequently, one of the biggest challenges facing Paris today is how to better integrate the city into its surrounding suburbs. In April 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed an ambitious urban renewal project, Le Grand Paris, which aims to improve transportation and housing, while making Paris a greener, more sustainable 21st-century city. As part of this program, the city has accepted 10 proposals from various renowned architects -- including Jean Nouvel, Roland Castro, and Richard Rogers -- but has yet to decide on a specific plan of action. Ideas include a monorail-style metro running above the périphérique (the ring road that surrounds Paris, known as the périph) and green housing estates. This is an ambitious long-term project that will be implemented over the next decade, and the future of Greater Paris promises to be anything other than dull.
Sarkozy is not the only one with big ideas for the city's future. Paris's Socialist mayor Betrand Delanoë is experimenting with new social housing projects. Challenging a 1977 by-law that limits the height of buildings within Paris to 37m (121 ft.), he is convinced that tower blocks offer the best solution to the housing crisis. Several sites, including Porte de la Chapelle in the 18e and the Masséna-Bruneseau district of the 13e, have been chosen as potential locations for 50m (164 ft.) and 200m (656 ft.) towers. In addition, Delanoë is a keen advocate of the so-called Triangle, a 200m-tall (657 ft.) glass office building to be built at the Porte de Versailles in the 15e; the designers are Herzog and de Meuron, the same firm who did London's Tate Modern. Another key building project is the redevelopment of Les Halles. Architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti plan to cover the shopping center with a giant canopy and transform the surrounding area into an urban garden. Work started on le nouveau coeur de Paris (the new heart of Paris) in January 2011.
Delanoë, who became mayor in 2001, was the first openly gay mayor of a European capital. He was reelected in 2008, and despite his failure to win Paris's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, he is generally well liked and respected by Parisians. He's done a lot to improve the city, including implementing free Wi-Fi in many public places, and creating programs such as Paris Plage (a fake beach set up alongside the Seine in the summer) and La Nuit Blanche (an all-night arts festival in Oct). However, he's probably best known for his environmental initiatives. It was Delanoë who was responsible for both the highly popular Vélib' bike-rental program and the increase in the amount of bike lanes around the city. Encouraged by the success of the Vélib program, he recently launched another green initiative, the Autolib', which will encourage Parisians to rent rather than own a car.
Green is not just a popular color with the mayor. Paris is currently undergoing a bio (organic) revolution, and being green, organic, and ethical is very much in fashion these days. You can find the health food store Naturalia in nearly every neighborhood, and all major supermarkets now offer their own ranges of both organic and environmentally friendly products. Restaurants that offer organic dishes are becoming increasingly popular, and organic wine is also in high demand. Twice a year Paris hosts the Salon des vins des Vignerons Indépendants (the Independent Winegrowers's Tradefair).
Paris remains a food lover's dream destination and Parisians are as passionate about food and eating out as ever. The big trend in Parisian dining at the moment is the neo-bistrot. Known for an innovative approach to cooking and a relaxed atmosphere, the neo-bistrot serves high-quality French food at reasonable prices (usually under 50€ per person). Rejecting the formalities of Michelin-starred restaurants, the neo-bistrots try to be more casual. One French chef, Alain Senderens, even went so far as to reject his Michelin stars. Popular neo-bistrots include Frenchie in the 2e, Claude Colliot in the 4e, Le Comptoir du Relais in the 6e, and Jadis in the 15e. Another interesting, and perhaps surprising, trend is the rising popularity of Anglo-Saxon food. The Rose Bakery in the 3e and 9e, Bob's Juice Bar in the 3e and 10e, and Le Bal Café in the 18e, are all doing a pretty good job of introducing Parisians to the joys of British and American cuisine.
This Anglo-Saxon influence is not limited to food. Younger Parisians are a fairly international bunch, most of whom can speak English and are interested in traveling and working abroad. They are also interested in English music and culture. Despite the fact that at least 40% of the music played on the Paris radio stations has to be French -- thanks to a 1994 law passed to protect French pop -- more and more musicians are singing in English. Charlotte Gainsbourg, alternative rock band Phoenix, and electro-pop band Pony Pony Run Run are just a few examples of French musicians who sing in English.
Culturally, Paris still has a lot to offer. From opera houses to fashion houses and art galleries to theaters, culture remains an integral part of la vie Parisienne. Although the art scene is not as edgy or avant-garde as in London or New York, Paris remains an important city on the exhibition circuit, hosting several major exhibitions every year, as well as the FIAC (Foire International d'Art Contemporain) art fair in October. Many of Paris's museums and art galleries are world-famous and a must-see for visitors, but it's also worth going a little further afield to check out newer cultural spaces. The 104, a cultural center located in the former Municipal Funeral Service warehouses in the 19e, has a number of artists in residence and organizes events, and the long-awaited Cité de la Mode et du Design (Fashion and Design Museum), which is part of the Docks en Seine project in the 13e, is due to open in October 2011, just in time for Paris fashion week. Also worth a visit is the contemporary art gallery Mac/Val in the Parisian suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine.
Going to the cinema remains a popular pastime for Parisians, and there is at least one cinema in each of the 20 arrondissements. Compared to other capitals, you can still find a lot of independent, art house cinemas in Paris, and a diverse range of films are always on offer in the city. Filmmakers are as fascinated by Paris as ever -- look out for Woody Allen's new film Midnight in Paris (2011), with a cameo appearance by France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. French film director Luc Besson is planning to open the Cité Européene du Cinéma in the old EDF (Electicité de France) buildings in the troubled suburb of St-Denis. The complex, which is due to be completed in 2012, will include nine production studios, ateliers, boutiques, and restaurants, and promises to give the national film industry a huge boost.
Paris has a strong literary history, and today writers continue to flock here and be inspired by the city. Some of the most famous contemporary Parisian writers are actually writers who came to Paris from former French colonies, including Tahar Ben Jelloun (from Morocco) and Assia Djebar (from Algeria). In 2010, Le Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award, was given to Michel Houellebecq for his novel La carte et Le Territoire (The Map and the Territory); Houellebecq is one of France's most famous contemporary writers.
Paris's relationship with its suburbs, immigration, and national identity will undoubtedly be key issues in the 2012 French presidential election. Sarkozy is expected to run for a second term. The Parti Socialiste (PS) has yet to vote on their Presidential candidate but possible contenders are Ségolene Royale, who lost to Sarkozy in 2007, Martine Aubry, the leader of the Socialist Party, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (often referred to as DSK), the current managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Bertrand Delanoë. Although Paris is a city in a state of flux, these social, political, and cultural changes are undoubtedly injecting Paris with new sense of dynamism.
The New Parisians
Paris is often described as a melting pot, and the city is home to large numbers of immigrant communities. While some Parisians welcome immigrants and are keen to acknowledge the contributions that immigrants have made to French society, others have balked at the perceived drain on their resources and fear that immigrants are not prepared to integrate into French society.
Immigration first became a major political debate in the 1990s and since then it has become strongly associated with questions of national identity. Some would even go so far as to say that 21st-century France is suffering from an identity crisis. As a secular, republican state, France has always favored assimilation over multiculturalism. This is partly a result of the French concept of identity, which is based on the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. If all citizens are equal, ethnicity and religion must remain outside of the political sphere, and all citizens are thus divested of their origins. Consequently, it is illegal to collect ethnic-based data in France and there are no statistics about the children of immigrants. In theory, if you are born in France, you're French.
In practice, however, it's very different and many second- and third-generation immigrants don't feel French. In November 2009, Sarkozy launched a debate about national identity. At the center of the debate was the question "What does it mean to be French?" The debate received a lot of media attention and public meetings were held across the country. However, many commentators felt that the debate ignored the colonial legacy, and that the real but unspoken question was "Can one be black, Arab, Asian and still be French?" The debate is particularly pertinent in Paris because the majority of Paris's immigrant populations live on the other side of the périphérique in the banlieues. This means that there is a physical, as well as psychological, divide between Parisians and the Paris region's immigrant population. What is sure is that if Le Grand Paris or other urban renewal projects are to succeed, they must include these new Parisians. The debate continues.
Key to this immigration debate is the position of Islam in France, which is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe -- Muslims account for roughly 8% of the French population. In January 2010 the government began a campaign to ban the burqa (the veil that covers all of a woman's face). Sarkozy claimed that it was not welcome in France, a secular country that values gender equality. Once again, the campaign provoked an intense media debate and in May 2010 the burqa ban was approved. Any woman seen wearing a burqa in public risks being fined 150€, while husbands who force their wives to wear it face a fine of 15,000€ or even a prison sentence. Only about 2,000 women wear the burqa in France.
Recent decades have brought Paris long periods of relative calm, punctuated by seismic upheavals, like the Métro bombings and paralyzing strikes that both hit the city in 1995. More recently, the city went into a state of shock after the terrorist attacks on the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, not to mention the coordinated assaults on restaurant terraces, the Stade de France stadium, and the Bataclan concert hall in November 2015, and the attacking of Police officers on the Champs Elysées in 2017. France has been on red-alert levels ever since, with officials doing everything they can to reassure tourists that they can visit Paris in safety, a crucial issue in a city where tourism is one of the major pillars of the economy. If anything, they have erred on the side of caution; don’t be surprised to see soldiers in camouflage on the streets.
Random acts of terror aside, Paris is still Paris, and then some. The city has been looking slicker and cleaner in the last few years. Renovation of historic buildings is ongoing and a vigorous anti-dog-doo campaign has even made some headway on cleaning up the notoriously messy sidewalks. The city has continued to evolve, in large part thanks to mayor Bertrand Delanoë (in office 2001–14), whose dynamic and imaginative leadership gave the city a much-needed shot of energy. Paris feels younger these days, with refreshed public spaces, like the new and improved Place de la République and the delightfully pedestrianized banks of the Seine, which now include floating gardens, picnic areas, and yoga classes.
In 2014, Delanoë stepped down and his protégé, Anne Hidalgo, was elected Paris’s first female mayor. One of her top priorities is air pollution, which is an increasing problem in the capital, so much so that on particularly smoggy days, driving is restricted and the Métro is free.
Despite dour economic forecasts (which seems as interminably cloudy as the city’s weather forecast), on the surface at least the capital seems to be in the pink of good health. Paris has managed to carefully conserve its architectural heritage and its traditional way of life while making a serious effort to enter the modern world. Paris is, after all, the capital of France and the third-largest economy in the European Union, and a certain dynamism comes with the territory—even if it is framed in Belle Epoque swirls and Mansard roofs. Yet even if the pulse of life in the capital ticks faster than it once did, it still allows for aimless intellectual discussions in cafes, leisurely Sunday strolls through Parisian parks, and relaxed lunches over glasses of wine. And maybe it is exactly that gentle aesthetic that makes the city one of a kind. It is rare in today’s turbulent world to find an urban center that so harmoniously mixes tradition and modernity, without enslaving itself to either.
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