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CULTURE

‘Romanticised and commodified’ – why France is rejecting the ‘Paris woman’ cliché

She's a slender, perfectly-dressed, seductive white woman with great hair who is recognised all over the world. But the cliché of the 'Paris woman' is being increasing rejected in France, and branded as both reductive and detrimental.

'Romanticised and commodified’ - why France is rejecting the 'Paris woman' cliché
Photo by Fallon Travels on Unsplash

From Brigitte Bardot to Inès de la Fressange, Caroline de Maigret and Léa Bonneau, the iconic parisienne (Paris woman) has been reproduced through generations of women hailed as archetypes of the French female.

“The Paris woman is the one of the most romanticised figures in the world,” said Lindsey Tramuta, journalist and author of a new book called “The New Parisienne”, published in July.

“There are very few cultural figures who have been marketed in this way,” Tramuta told The Local.

We all know this Paris woman. She is that effortlessly glamorous woman who has given advice to thousands of women on how to copy her invisible make-up, glowing skin, slender waist, perfect hair.
 
For decades, businesses have capitalised on her seductiveness to sell clothing, makeup and other goods – and Paris as a tourism destination.
 
“In an ideal world, I would be Caroline de Maigret,” begun a Vogue article interviewing the now 45-year-old fashion icon whose latest book, How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits, teaches women to “'Always be fuckable', even when you’re standing in line to buy a baguette.”
 
 
Actress Brigitte Bardot, a star of the 1950s and 60s, is still an icon of the French woman today. Photo: AFP

Tramuta, an American who has lived in France for over a decade and now has French nationality, found herself outraged by the way the Paris woman dominated the narrative of a city – and an entire country – that is so much more diverse.

“Paris is often pegged as a museum city resistant to change. The truth is that it is a city built on a rich cultural heritage,” she said.
 
In Tramuta's book “The New Parisienne”, the multiculturalism of the capital's women is pulled into the limelight.
 
Her book, which features a broad spectrum of women activists, filmmakers, authors, journalists and entrepreneurs, portrays a modern, diverse Paris, an alternative narrative to the stereotype.
 
“The stereotype of the Paris woman is incomplete, whitewashed .. a monolithic image of the French woman that is not true,” Tramuta said.
 
 
Journalist Lindsey Tramuta's new book “The New Parisienne” challenges the stereotypical image of the Paris woman. Photo: Joann Pai.
 
“Whitewashed” is notably what has spurred outrage lately among many French female activists.
 
The iconic Paris woman is, nearly without exception, white. 
 
Last year, model Olivia Anakwe wrote a post on Instagram where she denounced racism and discrimination of black models, expressing fatigue that make-up artists did not know how to do her make-up or cut her Afro hair (something many French hair salons don't know how to do either, despite roughly 20 percent of French women having Afro hair). 
 
 
Franco-British journalist Alice Pfeiffer, author of the 2019 book Je Ne Suis Pas Parisienne, drew in an interview with the Guardian a line between the myth of the Paris woman and French laïcité (state secularism). 
 
Laïcité is the ruling principle of state equality over cummunautarisme, which is a somewhat pejorative term in French that can be translated roughly to 'identity groups'. Laïcité is supposed to ensure equal rights to everyone in France through institutional colour-blindness. In practice this means the French state does not collect any data on race, ethnicity or religion.
 
The French model of state secularism was thrown into question during the Black Lives Matter protests in France this spring, as activists said the French quest for colour-blindness in reality made the country blind to institutional racism.

ANALYSIS: Is France really 'colour-blind' or just blind to racism?

Journalist Rokhaya Diallo is a prominent voice against racism in France. Photo: AFP

“The Parisienne says something crucial about how Paris constructs its own global identity,” Tramuta said.

The representation of the Paris woman is interconnected to the country's ongoing debates about race and discrimination, she explained, because so many women find themselves excluded from the reigning definition of what it means to be Parisian, and, ultimately, French.

“All the women I interviewed realised at one point or another that they would never fit into the mold, even though they were born and raised here,” she said.

 
The book profiles famous personas such as Spanish-born mayor Anne Hidalgo, French-Moroccan author Leila Slimani, journalist Rokhaya Diallo, whose parents moved to Paris from Senegal and the Gambia, and who has been claimed the “one of the most prominent anti-racism activist in France” by the New York Times.

“Paris is one of the most multicultural cities of Europe,” Diallo told Tramuta in her book.

“There's a whole image around the Parisienne that needs to be reconstructed because it's been a long time since she's looked like Brigitte Bardot or Edith Piaf,” she said.

 

Tramuta said it was important to broaden the definition also because foreigners often confuse Paris with France, and the two are very different.

The “new” Paris woman is not white, able-bodied, thin and straight, nor does she necessarily come from the city centre. (As Paris is becoming more and more gentrified, the lines separating the city centre from its banlieues (suburbs) are being increasingly blurred.)

“The New Parisienne” is a Romanian-born coffee roaster, a feminist podcaster, a female rabbi.

“My point is not to say we need to erase the women who do match the stereotype, I’m just saying it’s time to celebrate the other women that are here,” Tramuta said.

“The stereotype of the Paris woman is a compelling example to say lets be better about how we speak about women worldwide.”

 

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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