Walking and bike path along former railway line in Paris. (Photo: Ville de Paris)
The following column by contributing editor, journalist and author Mort Rosenblum is from his regular comment The MortReport. Global Insights Magazine/Global Geneva Group are supporting Mort’s insightful and frank reporting from different parts of the world. If you can donate to his journalistic endeavour – based on decades of unique reporting experience across the globe – please do so.
PARIS — As Bogey told Bergman when they parted in Casablanca, we’ll always have Paris. Sort of. Hemingway’s “moveable feast” today is often Big Macs on the fly. And when choked by fuming gridlock and scooter swarms, the world’s favorite city is an immovable beast.
There is still much to love, with new surprises. The 18th-century Hôtel de la Marine at the Concorde, no longer the Navy Ministry behind forbidding doors, is stunning, an open-air café and museum. Replicated ships evoke France’s mission to civilize the world, like it or not.
But new colors replace the dappled pastels at dawn and dusk that once defined the fabled City of Light. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s campaign to turn Paris green has created a maddening palette of red no-entry signs, flashing blue on police cars and gray polluted air.
Elected in 2014, Hidalgo laid out plans to “reinvent Paris” with an eye toward Amsterdam in a city with 10 times the population, twice as many visitors, and neither canal boats nor a circulatory system of hop-on trams. Instead, she added a tenth circle to Dante’s Inferno.
Paris traffic was always a balance between the minuet and bullfighting. Drivers looked out for motorcycles blasting between lanes. Bikes sped along at the edges. Pedestrians understood survival of the swiftest. Now it’s a free-for-all breakdance.
Hidalgo closed arteries along the Seine, narrowed others for bike lanes, slashed parking and routed one-way streets into labyrinths. Barriers section off traffic circles that eased the flow.
Cameras enforce a citywide 30-kilometer (18-mile) an hour speed limit, even after midnight. At peak hours, you can make better time on a walker.
Her plan is a “ville de quart d’heure” — a 15-minute city — in which people walk or bike to shops, restaurants and services close to home. “We must forget about crossing Paris from east to west by car,” she told Le Parisien in 2020. But delivery vans, repair trucks, ambulances, the old and invalid, exurbanites whose only option is driving to work?
And now with all-out preparation for the 2024 Olympics, heavy machinery chews up the city’s heart, adding yet more chaos. “Breathe Paris in,” Victor Hugo once wrote. “It nourishes the soul.” As paralyzed traffic spews toxicity, it also savages the lungs.
Hidalgo is running for president in April, a Socialist among left-leaning contenders in a right-leaning France. Polls put her below 5 percent. But, at 62, she can try again in five years, and she is going all out to dazzle her city. The impact is monumental.
The weekly L’Express just ran a cover showing the mayor perched on an ornate chair under the headline, “Queen of Disaster.” Brutal Twitter posts at #saccageparis show homeless camps, garbage heaps, and savaged landmarks in a city already $8 billion in debt.
One restaurateur friend now benefits from an outdoor terrace on former parking spaces but is nonetheless furious. “That woman,” he said, asking not to be named, “has undone in four years a Paris that took 400 years to come together.”
King Henri IV shaped modern Paris in the 1600s but was stabbed to death (while his coach was stuck in traffic) before finishing the rue de Rivoli. Baron Haussmann did that in the 1850s. It runs from the Bastille to the Concorde past the Louvre, Palais Royale, the Tuilleries, the Comédie Française, elegant stone buildings with iron balconies and, quelle surprise, a McDonald’s.
Pre-Hidalgo, traffic flowed along four lanes. Now only taxis, buses and authorized vehicles inch along down a single lane. Three others, often nearly empty, are for bikes and scooters.
It is not all the mayor. Police wary of terrorism block off traffic near vulnerable buildings. Major attacks are infrequent but deadly serious. In a tense new mood, traditional Parisian pastimes — protests and strikes — are often violent. Armed riot troops respond with head-banging vigor.
And now there is the battle of Notre Dame. Architects restored its exterior, replacing the “forest” — original roof beams ignited by electric sparks — with old oaks and duplicating the distinctive spire. Inside, the Paris diocese plans a Disneyesque remake to accommodate more tourists at the expense of worshippers and history in the 860-year-old cathedral.
In a Washington Post op-ed, an art history professor defended the modern update. “People wept as they watched the cathedral burn,” Elizabeth Lev wrote, “but did they know what was inside?” Yes, in fact, a great many people did.
When it burned in 2019, I wrote, “The world has lost a vital underpinning, for eight centuries a symbol of humanity’s best urges on a planet hardly short of the other kind.” Maybe not. A billion dollars from around the world and swift, skillful work saved the outside. But what matters is the inside.
For Catholics, it is a cathedral. For the rest of us, it is a living timeline. You don’t airbrush history to be “more beautiful and welcoming”, as church press releases assert. Plans include high-tech illumination, Bible verses projected on walls, pews that retract into the floor for more tourist space and contemporary art in niches cleared by removing confessionals.
Natural light shafts beaming down through stained glass carry deep meaning for the devout. Kings and commoners have trod those stone floors for nearly a millennium. In those niches, priests absolved the sins of monarchs and empire builders.
The present demands a delicate balance in a city with 2,000 years of past. Soul and character matter beyond physical change.
I first saw Paris with a new wife in 1968 during the raucous wake for Les Halles, the vast market Hugo called the belly of Paris, about to become a giant hole in the ground. We headed to the Pied de Cochon for onion soup. It was mobbed. When I mentioned “honeymoon,” the maître d’ smiled. A rickety table materialized from the kitchen.
Later, we joined young Parisians splashing in the condemned fountains, flinging wineskins to strangers. We sang, “Those Were the Days” to oompah tubas and bleating horns. Then, crossing the Pont de Sully to the Ile Saint-Louis, we watched golden reflections on the Seine.
Back then, the little island for me was the center of the world. Henri IV had converted it from a cow pasture to what it is today — physically, if hardly spiritually. My wife was strangely unmoved; it was a short marriage.
I settled there in the 1970s with a new mate on the fourth floor with a honeysuckle-scented balcony overlooking grandeur. On Thanksgiving, the baker downstairs cooked our fat turkey in his oven. It was a village of butchers, bookstores, cheese shops and a fishmonger whose sign outside read: “Deliveries on the island and on the continent.”
Madame Fein, the cat lady, sold dry goods to neighbors who had known her since she provided their school supplies when they were kids. Her shop burned down, and they chipped in to rebuild it.
At the long-gone Tastevin restaurant, the owner laughed at the nickname we gave her: Tits. Her ample bosom hovered over my shoulder as we ordered dinner. It wasn’t sexual or “uncomfortable”; it was Paris in another time. The grizzled guy with a cup outside wasn’t homeless. He was a clochard-eleveur. In winter, he returned to his cows on the Riviera.
France’s capitalist economy was “socialist” in the sense that it had a safety net: universal health care, free universities and family allowances that kept poor people off the streets. Families stayed together, gathering for Sunday lunches that took all morning to prepare.
I saw the change in the 1980s on a visit to Monsieur Turpin, the greengrocer and pheasant-plucker who went at dawn to Rungis, the new market in the outskirts, to select each tomato and guinea fowl personally. He was horrified, his walrus mustache bristling.
“Those people,” he said, pointing at tourists who passed by, “are eating while they walk.” The walls around Paris a la parisienne had begun to crumble.
Since defiant Gauls ran off Caesar’s legions in what was then Lutetia, Paris has held firm. Vikings plundered and left. Teutonic hordes invaded, as recently as 1939, but left little mark. Newcomers who came to stay, including Spanish-born Hidalgo, added flavor to the mix.
After France left Indochina in 1954 and freed its African colonies in the 1960s, skin tones were more varied as ex-colonials settled in the metropole. Many integrated seamlessly into French society. Others clustered in low-cost housing projects ringing big cities.
All that followed after 9/11 helped tip the balance. Many Muslim refugees, speaking no French, reviled the permissive society they found. Guns, drugs and Islamist recruiters moved into the projects — les banlieues — where police fear to tread.
That coincided with a faster-spinning world that brought mass tourism and rich outsiders eager for a piece of Paris.
Those Ile Saint-Louis shops are now fancy stores. Day-trippers crowd the restaurants. Some absentee owners rent their places to short-term tourists. The wealthy ones don’t. Late at night, streets are deathly quiet under shuttered windows.
Desperate people, no longer folkloric clochards, sleep in parks and panhandle along the Champs-Elysées. On the metro, constant announcements warn of “les pickpockets”. Petty theft and street scams are rampant. And so, increasingly, are violent robberies.
For decades, I’ve told nervous Americans back home that accounts of anti-Semitism are exaggerated. Now, with increasing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, not so much. The issue is politics, not religion.
Overall, an ugly aggressive mood worsened by on-and-off coronavirus shutdowns muscles aside the old politesse. Parisians aren’t armed. If baguettes were bullets, there would be blood.
Driving from Provence, I timed my arrival before rush hour to peel off at the Porte d’Orleans and zip down streets I knew well toward the Concorde. After 10 light changes, I moved 50 yards. A pointless new tramway that circles Paris (people go in and out of the city, not around it) had paralyzed traffic.
Two trams idled at a stop blocking the boulevard. Five lanes had been reduced to one to leave a wide corridor for buses that needed a fraction of the space. Overheated cars and drivers fought for every inch. Gridlock from hell brought cross traffic to a standstill.
Over the decades, I developed the Rosenblum Theorem. No society I know has more extreme opposites than France. But while a classic French connard is a world-class butthead, the counterpart is a generous, open-hearted friend for life. Depending on one’s approach, the same person can switch from one extreme to the other.
It comes with an important corollary. French authorities can be hidebound beyond belief, seizing on niggling details to make lives miserable. Others are uncommonly helpful, ready to bend stringent rules when reality suggests that makes better sense.
As the Olympics approach, one can only guess at which of these opposite poles will prevail. It is not looking good.
I watch Paris from an old wooden boat on the Seine, smack in the middle of the planned extravaganza. Hidalgo wants a big splash, with aquatic events in a river in which swimmers are more likely to dissolve than to drown. She is on a tear to stop pollution from houseboats.
Studies say marine toilets pumping into the Seine amount to less than 1 percent of raw city sewage and toxic industrial stew that overflows into the river. No matter. Crews are tearing up quays protected by UNESCO as world heritage sites to attach boats to city sewers.
Jacques Chirac, who went from mayor of Paris to the Elysées, once famously said he would swim across the Seine in three years’ time to prove he had cleaned it up. His environment minister replied that he would be waiting with a towel and antibiotics.
In another time, I loved the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A press badge breezed me through checkpoints, and I joked with cops who escorted half-naked women parading a giant mock marijuana joint through town. In 2024, I plan to be watching TV at a safe distance.
Still, I urge friends to visit Paris when the plague eventually subsides. Innovative backstreet chefs add new twists to old recipes. I’m no fan of Vietnamese nems with goat cheese or “tacos” with canned corn and crêpes. But there is so much else.
At the Hôtel de la Marine, Chez Mimosa’s signature dish is deviled eggs. In America, those are just eggs enlivened with Dijon mustard. In a country not picky about sustainability when it comes to food, oeufs mimosa can include sturgeon caviar and bluefin tuna tartare.
Paris today is what it is and still always a good idea. Strikes and protests can dampen the fun, but they are essential to show elected leaders in democracies who is in charge — and to remind big business that workers are more than inanimate “human resources”.
But beyond maddening, the mélange of cars, bikes, scooters and heedless strollers is dangerous. At the port, for instance, people walking on the pavement along the moorings once heard cars approach and stepped aside. Today, constant throngs pay no heed.
One morning, I drove slowly across a bike path that runs in front of the port’s gate. A blind spot blocked my view of a young woman with earbuds hurtling past on an electric scooter. I nearly hit her; she glared daggers. She was in the right. Nearly dead right.
Moments later, I stopped behind a prize Parisian connard in tie and tweeds who ambled down the port access road. I revved just enough for him to hear; it was plain that he did. He kept walking. And walking. When he finally stepped aside, he gave me a withering stare.
If you remember the days when you rented a car and parked it wherever you could make it fit, as everyone used to do, forget about it. Bring walking shoes and a cellphone with an Uber app. For the Olympics, consider a big-screen sports bar at home.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.