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OPINION: The new luxury Samaritaine store is an example of the ‘Disneyfication’ of Paris

Here is a parable of modern Paris - the parable of La Samaritaine - another piece of authentic Paris grittiness reinvented as a luxury attraction for foreign tourists, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: The new luxury Samaritaine store is an example of the 'Disneyfication' of Paris
President Emmanuel Macron at the reopening of La Samaritaine. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Until 2005, La Samaritaine was the most popular and least fashionable department store in Paris, a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from “Are You Being Served”.

The store’s jumble of five linked buildings between the Rue de Rivoli and the river Seine was one of the few remaining islands of unselfconscious, authentic, non-tourist grittiness in central Paris.  You could find everything in La Samaritaine from underpants to diamond tiaras; from puppies to concrete-mixers; from ready-made curtains to piranha fish.

IN PICTURES See inside the revamped Samaritaine store

Entering La Samaritaine was like playing a game of three dimensional  snakes and ladders. Each floor had six or seven different levels, joined by slopes of worn linoleum or by short flights of steps. To get from curtains to electrical goods, supposedly on the same floor, you climbed a few stairs into showers and bathrooms, turned right and went down again.

After 16 years of dereliction and legal wrangles, La Samaritaine re-opened again this week – as a supermarket for luxury brands, a five-star hotel and a gourmet roof restaurant with an unrivalled view onto the river and the Île de Cité. It will have private viewing rooms for the super-rich. It will have cafés, where you can eat top of the range burgers and caviar-on-baguette.

The staff of the old Samaritaine were the least helpful in Paris and consequently the world. The new staff will wear chinos and sneakers – and a smile.

The slogan of the old store was “The whole of Paris comes to La Samaritaine.”. The new store is aimed at the richer citizens of Yokohama or Shanghai.

The destruction of the old Samaritaine was romantically, historically and socially a calamity. It was also, I suppose, inevitable.

The modern world, and modern retailing methods, passed La Samaritaine by on the other side. People no longer wanted to go to a shop in central Paris to buy a concrete mixer or lawn-mower or even a pet piranha fish. Samaritaine still had 12 models of lawn-mowers when it was closed overnight, allegedly for safety reason, in 2005.

The world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH) – has spent €700 million on re-building and re-imagining La Samaritaine, ripping out the sloping floors and worn lino but preserving its 1907 art nouveau metal stair-cases and galleries.

A spectacular, pale-yellow fresco of peacocks which surrounds the main atrium was all but lost in the old clutter. It has been wonderfully restored.

No doubt the new Samaritaine will be a great success – once the foreign tourists come in great numbers to France again. The new hotel, Le Cheval Blanc, will be the only “palais”, or five-star hotel, in Paris to have rooms and suites with views onto the river Seine.

All the same, the transformation is cruelly emblematic of what has happened to central Paris in the last two or three decades. There is a campaign going on at present against the alleged saccage (destruction) of the French capital by bicycle-lanes,  ugly street furniture and graffiti and poorly maintained gardens. I have sympathy with some, but not all, of the complaints.

What I regret far more – without knowing how it could have been prevented – is the fact that the inner arrondissements of Paris have lost so much of their quirkiness and eccentricity in recent decades.

The international travel boom (pre-Covid) has turned central Paris into a self-conscious, though still beautiful, “Parisland”, a tourist theme-park to match Disneyland 40 kilometres to the east. Even relatively well-off families are being pushed out by high rents and property prices.

The re-opening of La Samaritaine, delayed for a year by the Covid pandemic, is one of a flurry of restorations and recreations of land-mark buildings in central Paris this summer.

The Musée Carnavalet, which traces the history of the city, has been cleverly re-thought and re-designed. The Bourse du Commerce, a spectacular circular building near Les Halles which was moribund for decades, has been resurrected as an art museum and exhibition space by the billionaire art-collector and entrepreneur (Gucci and FNAC) François Pinault.

The Hotel de la Marine, one half of the imposing 18th century terrace which stands on the north side of the Place de la Concorde, has been beautifully restored as a series of restaurants and exhibition spaces.

All of these buildings are within 15 minutes walk of one another – and all are a short stroll from the Louvre and the Palais Royal and Notre Dame. They are, in their revived form, great and welcome adornments to the capital which will be appreciated by Parisians and visitors alike.

Except for La Samaritaine.

I cannot see the new version of this once great institution as anything but a theft – a loss, a diminution of what once made central Paris not just beautiful but idiosyncratic and unmistakably itself. 

And, in any case, where in earth does one now go in Paris if you suddenly need to buy a pneumatic drill?

Member comments

  1. This article reminds me of New York City, where I’m temporarily living. Luxury stores line Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue for certain stretches, but nobody I know shops there. It’s all for wealthy tourists. I wonder what is the advantage of buying a designer garment in a luxury store in NY vs. the same garment in a luxury store in Paris.

  2. Believe it or not but shops are there to make money the best way they can. Perhaps the writer of this piece believes that everything should be preserved in aspic very much like the people that move to the countryside and are shocked that it’s a noisy smelly environment where people earn a hard living. It’s a great pity we all cannot sit behind a keyboard and get paid for it.

  3. Those stores are money losers, but there to to show they are there.
    There is very little in them, and nothing to be found to really wear.
    It’s best to shop in tax free states and in USD’s.
    Euro/USD is overvalued, and you pay 20% VAT and in sales tax free states, you pay nothing.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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