Craft shops have driven out more basic forms of life
The Paris of our dreams
Gentrified Paris is so charming it feels like a theme park. But the charmless, wonderful Hôtel-Dieu still cares for the sick in rooms that would cost a fortune if it were a hotel
By Benoît Duteurtre *
The tourists talk Globish in my local bakery. As soon as they enter, they stammer a few words of English to order their sandwiches. More voluble Americans will launch into long sentences in English with all the confidence of representatives of the world’s dominant culture. When I’m in the queue, I sometimes point out that we generally use French in France, so it’s polite to at least ask “Parlez-vous anglais?” They give me a stunned look. I can understand their surprise: everything has been designed to spare them such worries. The cafés tricked out as bistros display prices for “appetisers” and “French merlot” on slates. The tourist coaches have opted for signs in English. The visitor on a Paris+Eurodisney tour may have the impression, a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame, of being in an annexe of the global theme park.
But I mustn’t grumble too much. Living on the Ile de la Cité is a privilege, and I should accept its downside. So instead I play a game of spotting Italian, German and Spanish tourists from their behaviour, as they still retain recognisable cultural characteristics. But the transformation of the centre of Paris is speeding up. In all of Europe’s historic cities (Prague, Venice, Rome) there is a similar zone, devoted by day to visitors, in which actual accommodation, because of the rise in property prices, is being bought up by the wealthy few.
When I moved in to my apartment in 1988, the building was still relatively cheap and inhabited by retirees, students and young couples who stayed a year or two before relocating to more family-friendly pastures. Between the souvenir shops there was still a charcuterie, an optician, a chemist, a baker, a newsagent and La Colombe, a disused cabaret bar where Guy Béart made his debut in the 1950s. After I arrived, I saw the gradual transformation that replaced the brutal renovations of the 1960s: a metamorphosis of the area’s appearance which has refashioned it according to the rules of organised picturesqueness.
Back then, several bistros were frequented by the staff from the nearby Hôtel-Dieu, the city’s oldest public hospital, who came for the dish of the day or a coffee. One facelift followed another; the zinc counter-tops disappeared, and the dining rooms were reinvented as lounges where you have to ask to sit down and pay high prices for microwaved food. The new management doesn’t value the noisy and bibulous customers at the bar; they’re targeting an international market, prepared to spend their holiday money to obtain an illusion of Paris. There has been a recent invasion of neo-French décor that combines pseudo-Impressionist murals and checked tablecloths, with waiters dressed as 19th-century innkeepers drumming up trade outside. Prices have at least doubled. The charcuterie became a quick-bite restaurant, and then the brands moved in, led by Häagen-Dazs ice cream, while the chemist gave way to L’Occitane and its authentic Provençal perfumes (also available in Tokyo or Chicago, but even better when they come from France).
Continuous tourist cicuit
The second phase of the transformation, which began under former Paris mayor Jean Tiberi, widened the pavements to plant pink chestnut trees and banned coaches from parking. After a facelift for the buildings, which were cleaned one by one, our ordinary street became almost charming. Cycle-powered two-seaters pass, taking couples around the city. The banned coaches have been replaced by private minibuses, and limousines for affluent customers. Then came double-decker buses, modelled on London transport, which block the streets almost as much as the coaches did. One can fall back on water transport between the Eiffel Tower and the Jardin des Plantes, but it’s not like Venice where you can hop on a vaporetto; a Parisian cannot board with a metro ticket but needs a pass expressly for tourists
The redevelopment of the Rue d’Arcole created a continuous tourist circuit from Notre-Dame to the front of the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), which hosts an ice rink in winter, a wild garden in spring, and events celebrating air, blood, solidarity, sustainable development. On their way, signs invite visitors to visit the Tour Saint-Jacques or the Musée d’Orsay. The only incongruous element on this perfect walk (on which everyone speaks mangled English) is the dirty silhouette of the Hôtel-Dieu. It’s surprising that this charmless building, which hasn’t been renovated, retains its original function in the heart of the city: taking in emergencies, caring for the sick in rooms that would cost a fortune if it were a hotel. This is probably why the social services department dreams of transforming this “sad hospital” into an office complex or classy apartment block.
On the Ile de la Cité and the Ile Saint-Louis — where my building is now an exception — there are apartments with closed shutters, shut up for 11 months of the year by investors and owners who use them as a pied-à-terre. Since 1960 Paris has lost 600,000 inhabitants, mainly from the working and middle classes. Businesses have adapted. The brasserie where until recently you could eat late into the night now stops serving after the tourist wave has rolled by. A little further on, in Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile, all the shops are art galleries or home furnishings shops — as in “France’s most beautiful villages” where sophisticated craft shops have driven out more basic forms of life.
Every morning before the crowds arrive, cleaners with fluorescent overalls and green vehicles go over the theme park with a fine-toothed comb. The police are vigilant too. In the tourist season, a van full of policemen sits on the Petit Pont to stop roller-skaters giving improvised performances, though they are in the tradition of this ancient public space. But the huge banner ad that covers the Conciergerie is not considered obscene: the renovation of historic monuments gives Dior or Apple exhibition space in the heart of the historic city, their modern logos seeming to challenge the anachronism of the Hôtel-Dieu, draped with banners by the General Workers Union (CGT) calling for public services to be saved.
In this manufactured Paris, a few genuinely poor people attempt to recreate the medieval Court of Miracles. At the exit from Notre-Dame, a handful of Roma engage in a spectacular competition to convert their missing limbs into cash; lying on the ground, they hoarsely implore charity. Teenage girls in long dresses buttonhole you with little texts (in English of course) stating that they are political refugees from Bosnia. The number of accordionists is on the increase. Some of them, such as the old Romanian in a wheelchair who sits outside my building, know only three notes, which enable them to play La vie en rose and Sous les ponts de Paris in a loop. One day, in exasperation, I asked him if he couldn’t play anything else. He pointed to the Japanese couples who only pay for corny renditions of Edith Piaf — which reinforce the illusion that they are discovering a city of romance and an authentic, popular Parisian accordionist.
This Paris of sugary dreams, reinvented in the cinema and advertising, is full of contradictions. You realise this most in high summer when Paris Plage, the fake beach, sets up just opposite and the whole population become tourists and descend on it in search of a holiday feeling. A little further back, the cars, displaced by the closure of the quayside, form a permanent traffic jam, a sombre reality at the edge of the dream. They emit concentrated fumes, which fall on the unsuspecting crowds who have come in search of fresh air and the peace of the riverbank.
Benoît Duteurtre is a novelist and essayist
À lire : La cité heureuse (Fayard, 2007)
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