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19 June 2024

A reckoning for the Parisian elite

The French capital, once a seat of global power, has entered a new era of political and cultural upheaval.

By David A Bell

There is something about Paris that brings out the would-be anthropologist in foreign writers. Parisian life has customs, codes and rituals that can seem mysterious and off-putting at first encounter. But they are decipherable, and the writers who have broken through and made sense of them (or think they have) not only feel a sense of accomplishment, but also an irresistible urge to explain Paris to others. I speak here from experience.

Simon Kuper is better placed than most English-language journalists to explain Paris authoritatively. Like illustrious predecessors such as Janet Flanner of the New Yorker (whose “Paris Journal” appeared for more than 50 years), or Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times (author of the classic La Séduction: How the French Play the Game of Life), he has lived in Paris for decades. He has raised children there – by far the best way to integrate into a foreign culture. And his position as a columnist for the Financial Times has given him access to circles of Parisian life that usually remain closed to outsiders.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Kuper writes highly readable and amusing prose, drawing engagingly on his own Parisian experiences. Occasionally, his tone becomes a little glib: “Every moment of their lives, even at family breakfast or in bed, Parisians must obey the rules.” And readers who remember his wife Pamela Druckerman’s article in Marie Claire about how she gave him a Parisian ménage à trois for his 40th birthday may find the book disappointingly reticent (Druckerman herself has memorably written about French child-raising methods, drawing on the couple’s own experiences). But overall, Kuper is a charming guide, with a particularly good eye for the telling quote.

He captures the odd grumpiness of the French with this line from the writer Sylvain Tesson: “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.” And there is no better motto for Paris than this from the film director Sacha Guitry: “To be Parisian does not mean being born in Paris, but being reborn there.” Incidentally, according to recent figures, four out of five people who die in Paris were not born in the city.

The book’s greatest value, though, is as a portrait of the astonishing changes that Paris has undergone in the 21st century. It has been a “global city” for hundreds of years, but, for most of that time, principally in the way its influence radiated over the rest of the globe. Today, more than ever before, the polarity has been reversed, with Paris absorbing strong influences from elsewhere.

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The change may not seem obvious to casual visitors strolling through the city’s beautifully preserved central arrondissements, but, as Kuper notes, Paris stretches far beyond these small districts. The formal city limits enclose only a relatively small area within the Périphérique ring road, which amounts to just one-fifteenth of the area of London. This densely populated inner Paris has 2.15 million people. But nearly five times as many live in the metropolitan area beyond le périph, in neighbourhoods ranging from swanky Neuilly-sur-Seine and Saint-Germain-en-Laye to the decrepit housing blocks of Seine-Saint-Denis and Clichy-sous-Bois. Counting these other areas makes Paris a genuinely global city, with large North African, sub-Saharan African and Asian populations (exactly how large remains uncertain, as the French Republic refuses to collect statistics on ethnicity).

Until recently, the inner Paris sealed itself off from the despised banlieues, or suburbs. Many Métro lines ended at the city limits, and the Périphérique itself served as a daunting physical barrier. But since 2000, both the municipal and national governments have thrown themselves behind a plan for “Grand Paris”. They aim to create no fewer than 68 suburban Métro stops, alongside 200km of new track.

Most of the new infrastructure for the 2024 Olympic Games belongs to the banlieues. And as part of an effort to reduce Parisians’ dependence on their cars, the Socialist Party mayor Anne Hidalgo plans to cut lanes from the Périphérique, and even to cover some of it with gardens. Hidalgo has also worked mightily to encourage Parisians to get on their bikes, with dedicated bike lanes in the city growing from three miles in the 1990s to more than 150 today. Once, the idea of commuting to central Paris by bike from suburban Montreuil or Clamart would have seemed almost suicidal. Thousands now do it every day.

Even with these changes, Paris remains a highly segregated city – the lasting heritage of Napoleon III and his prefect Baron Haussmann, whose ambitious building projects in the 19th century demolished working-class neighbourhoods and forced their inhabitants into the banlieue wilderness. But one thing does bring Parisians of all classes together: football, a subject to which Kuper, a former sports columnist and father of avid young athletes, devotes instructive chapters. Although the French state is often accused of neglecting the banlieues, it has spent millions building sports facilities there, at which thousands of children from central Paris neighbourhoods, including the young Kupers, have spent countless weekend hours. One sign of the resulting cultural exchange, as Kuper notes, is the way French youth slang has drawn increasingly from Arabic: wesh (“hey”); wallah (“I swear”); belek (“watch out”); and zebi (“f***”).

Kuper acknowledges that the banlieues have also nurtured generations of resentful young Muslims, who feel at home neither in the culture of their ancestors nor in the country of their birth, and have sometimes turned to violence, even terrorism. He vividly describes the Bataclan theatre massacres of November 2015, which took place all too close to his Paris apartment; and he recounts his feelings of vulnerability as a Jew, especially when a canteen for elderly Jews on his block was sprayed with anti-Semitic graffiti and torched (though the perpetrator turned out to be a disturbed Jewish man). But he also notes that the explosion of suburban car-burning in the summer of 2023, after the police shooting of a young Muslim, turned out to be “a three-day wonder… rioting by a small minority of teenaged boys”. It did far less damage than its predecessor in 2005.

He notes that the Paris region’s murder rate has dropped by three-quarters since 1994 and recently stood at 1.2 homicides per 100,000 people – less than one-quarter of that of New York City (and one-fortieth of the rate in St Louis, Missouri). Writing of the city’s ethnic situation, he concludes: “The right depicted a jihadi hellhole and the left a multicultural paradise. In fact Paris was both those things, at different times in different neighbourhoods.” 

Kuper has particularly revealing chapters on the Parisian elite. As he notes, very little serious business takes place in France without a meal being involved, and President Emmanuel Macron owed his political rise in large part to relentless networking at upscale Parisian restaurants: “he never ate alone”. At these meals, Macron proved especially expert at winning the support of powerful older men, earning him the sobriquet of dragueur (seducer) de vieux.

Here, Kuper adopts a jocular tone. But he turns scathing when describing how seduction by powerful men often became predatory, and the way elites closed ranks to protect and excuse the predators. All too often, abominable behaviour received a pass in the name of 1968-style sexual freedom, with disapproval mocked as “puritanism”. The writer Gabriel Matzneff, an open defender of paedophilia, remained a member of good standing of the Paris literary world until the publication, in 2020, of a memoir by one of his victims. That memoir, in turn, spurred the lawyer Camille Kouchner to expose how her stepfather, the eminent socialist academic Olivier Duhamel, had sexually abused her twin brother when they were 13. More revelations, and more scandals, followed.

Elsewhere in the book, Kuper emphasises that if anything in Paris has been resistant to change, it is the dominance of this elite, and its tightly constructed system of selective schools, government corps and social networks. The elite has never been entirely insulated from popular protest. As Kuper neatly puts it: “France has three branches of government: the presidency, the judiciary and the street.” Faced with widespread popular discontent, President Macron even promised to abolish his own alma mater, the ultra-selective École Nationale d’Administration. Kuper adds, though, that “abolish” actually meant “rename and reform”. It remains to be seen how the elite will cope with a government of the extreme right, if Macron’s wild gamble on snap legislative elections this summer fails as spectacularly as it currently promises to do. But in “the most intimate sphere of life” it has already proven surprisingly vulnerable to reform, in the spirit of #MeToo. Here as well, then, the city that once gave lessons to the rest of the world is now feeling powerful winds blowing in from outside.

David A Bell teaches history at Princeton University and is the author, most recently, of “Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution” (Picador)

Impossible City: Paris in the 21st Century
Simon Kuper
Profile, 272pp, £18.99

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[See also: The politics of the prehistoric past]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation