created by Ben Cooper
In London we pride ourselves on our diversity, and fight against any strong political voice which pushes an agenda of fear, and terror at the foreign and the new and the different, but how does this measure up to life in Paris?
In the spectrum of London arrivals, I was somewhere in the middle – nothing bought for me, no parental nest egg, but I had a job and we had found a home. And it was wonderful: exciting, vibrant, different. I was free, in some ways. Earning some money, not much but some, finally gives you a measure of freedom that can be pretty intoxicating. In short, it was the story of hundreds of others, done in the same way, but it was still mine.
Five years later, more or less, and with a few house moves and a bit more life under my belt, a new job took me to Paris. I left London with some great memories, knowing that I'd miss my friends, and conscious that London had changed me. How could it not? It’s the definition of a melting pot: Big and diverse, it was so different from a quiet upbringing in the Home Counties. It had taken me a while to get used to at times, but I loved it.
About 18 months ago I arrived in Paris. I’d love to pretend that it isn’t how you’d think it is, but to be honest it is. Everyone is super fashionable all the time. People really do spend a huge amount of time smoking and drinking nuclear strength espressos. And the bread. Oh the bread. I could write a book on how good it is. Unfortunately, as yet, the editors of Smoke and Tales seem resistant to financing that particular project.
That was at the start. Eventually, like London, I started to feel a little more at home and felt a bit more able to question the city I lived in. For all the wonder, and all the beauty, for all the museums and all the restaurants, there is a bit of darkness to Paris. Every city has something, whether in the past and just beneath the surface or visible in the future with echoes today.
Before I get into the meat of it, a brief history lesson. Paris is old. Really old. Like London it dates back to pre-Roman times – when Julius Caesar arrived here in ca. 50 BC there was already the ruins of a much older Celtic city on the current site of the Île de la Cité. It has been pretty much continually occupied since then, and for a long time was the same mesh of small alleys, jungle of lanes, mix of timber and brick and noise and odours and humanity of other cities across the continent. It has a history that incorporates names which everyone in France knows: Clovis, Saint Denis, loads of Louis, Napoleon, Haussmann. The last of these may have done more than anyone to make the city what it is today. Made the prefect of the Seine department in the mid 1850s, Napoleon III charged him with renovating the capital.
So he did. Slums were cleared, buildings were flattened, boulevards were created, people were evicted. Hundreds who didn’t fit the demographic or who couldn’t afford to stay were moved on and the city became largely what it is today: beautiful and well planned, yes, but perhaps a bit ‘made up’. In the effort to clear the morass Paris lost something.
Today central Paris is still beautiful and romantic (apart from the padlock bridge, seriously, don’t do this). A living display of the strength of French culture, and ingenuity. But still missing something, and it is something London currently has in spades - diversity. Following on from Haussmann’s works programme, the building of the mid to late 20th century made sure that Paris was mainly occupied by the right kind of people – wealthy, white collar types. Drop the collar, because it was just white, really. As Paris struggled with its own colonial legacies, its influx from overseas was largely put in grim suburbs, not fit for purpose buildings and hidden away. These “cités” are now a byword for sink estates, segregation and are a pretty stark reminder of a past that the majority of Europe still has to properly face.
These “cités” are now a byword for sink estates, segregation and are a pretty stark reminder of a past that the majority of Europe still has to properly face.
Next time you are coming to Paris on the Eurostar, you’ll come through a series of rough, tough suburbs to the north of the city. This areas includes a cité, called Saint Denis. Far from the worst but one of the best known. Formerly a home of French heavy industry, and still the home of the French Royal Necropolis, it now has one of the highest crime rates in France, with over 150 crimes per thousand people. This is nearly double the national average. It also has one of the lowest police efficiency rates – less than 20% of crimes are solved. The wider departement has an average life expectancy of around 60. Saint Denis is less than 10km from the centre of Paris.
On 7 January this year, three people who would have certainly felt like outsiders in Paris came into the centre of the city and did something with global implications. I am writing, of course, of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the associated aftermath. It was a terrifying couple of days. It left me with two lasting impressions though; namely that nobody deserves to die for an opinion, and that the issues Europe has with its new migrants, its colonial heritage and successfully integrating citizens from all backgrounds have not gone away. What is obvious to me though is that keeping a group of people on the outside, looking into a city of almost unrivalled beauty, was always bound to fail.
Which brings me back to London. As I mentioned above, the vibrancy and the diversity were two of the main things that made me fall in love with the place. It changed me most as a person too. And it may be the most fragile thing London has. This isn’t to say that London doesn’t have issues, and that isn’t to say London doesn’t have suburbs that are alarmingly impoverished in comparison to their neighbours. Camden, Brixton, King’s Cross, Hackney and Shoreditch are all examples of how independent and multi-cultural neighbourhoods can shine whilst attracting inward investment, growing and meeting the requirements of all their inhabitants.
I do think this brilliant, symbiotic relationship is under threat. There is a weight of international money pushing Londoners (whether life-long or adopted) to the margins of the city. There are districts within the city which are gradually being hollowed out to be owned and occupied by people who are rarely there, don’t wish to interact and certainly are not here for the slightly gritty, multi-cultural pub at the end of the road that you love. In tandem, there is a strong political voice which pushes an agenda of fear, of terror at the foreign and the new and the different, and which wants to keep a discernible group of people on the outside. London has to be so careful not to lose one of the things that make it a great city.
Follow him at @bdtcooper