OPINION: The real ‘trashing’ of Paris is not cycle lanes and benches, but gentrification

Litter remains a problem in Paris. Photo: Stephane du Sakatin/AFP
Is Paris really getting dirtier and more dangerous? John Lichfield, who first moved to the city in 1978, examines the evidence.

The city of light has become a dirty, old town, desecrated by crime, filth and vandalism –  including by the official vandalism of the town hall. This, in essence, is the charge-sheet drawn up against the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo in an online campaign on Twitter and other social media with the hashtag saccageParis (Paris pillaged or trashed).

Several hundred of the protesters emerged from behind their laptops and mobile phones this week to demonstrate on the street in the more traditional Parisian way.

Mayor Hidalgo also emerged from her cocoon of denial (“it’s all political; most of the problems are ephemeral and Covid-related”) to admit that mistakes had been made. Or rather she sent out Emmanuel Grégoire her “first deputy mayor” to make the admission on her behalf. What else are first deputies for?   

Grégoire said any new street furniture which had been “unanimously decried” would be removed. This included the so called “mushroom” seats or stools, which have, erm, mushroomed in parts of the capital. It also includes the post-modern “Mikado” benches which look like abandoned piles of railway sleepers.

Yellow plastic lane markers for pop-up pandemic bicycle lanes (or “covid pistes”), which resemble rotting dragon’s teeth, will progressively be removed or replaced by something more elegant and permanent. Older, much-loved street furniture, like the green, double-sided wooden benches which have adorned Parisian streets for 150 years, will be repaired and painted.

These benches, called “bancs Davioud” after their designer, have become one of the symbols of the “saccageParis” protest. Money was raised online to “rescue” a bench which had been uprooted and sent for auction.

One of the classic, dark green benches. Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

First Deputy Mayor Grégoire admitted that the town hall had no idea how many of the old benches remained. Many, many hundreds of them do – some in disgraceful condition.

The town hall is to hold a “bench census”. Good.  At the same time, it should buy several Seine-barge-loads of the dark green paint which has been the colour of Parisian street furniture and Parisian apartment-block doors for as long as I can remember.

There is also to be a crack-down on graffiti and a drive to clean streets more thoroughly and more frequently. Mayor Hidalgo blames the grubbiness of some streets on the Covid epidemic which has reduced the town hall cleaning gangs.

The problem is older than that but no doubt the pandemic has made things worse – something that mostly well-heeled “saccageParis” protesters would do well to remember.

Menial workers in Paris live a long way out in the banlieues. They travel into the city on crowded buses and trains and continued to do so at the height of the pandemic. Areas like Seine Saint-Denis have paid a high tribute in the last 18 months in serious illness and deaths.

Other complaints of the protest movement – about migrants sleeping in the streets, open-air drug markets and crack-shooting galleries in Place Stalingrad and other places – are beyond the control of the town hall.

The problems are real but should be placed in context.  

Violent crime in Paris increased by 46 percent in the six years up to 2019 – often drug related. But the violence is mostly confined to the poorer areas in the north and east of the city. Polls suggest that 65 percent of Parisians still feel the capital to be safe.

In international terms, it is relatively safe. Paris area has an annual homicide rate of 1.2 murders per 100,000 people (a little lower than London), compared to 18.6 per 100,000 in Chicago.

Is the campaign against Anne Hidalgo “political” as she originally complained? Not entirely. Some of the complaints are justified. Not all of the protesters are right-wingers as she once suggested.

But the campaign is hypocritically encouraged by right-wing politicians and fails to take account of ways in which Hidalgo and her predecessor and mentor Bertrand Delanoe have improved Paris – and made it cleaner in some respects. 

Some of the mayor’s alleged offences are deliberate – a drive towards a largely car-free city which is welcomed by many Parisians and detested by others. The foolish 1960s decision to run de facto motorways down the lower quays of the river Seine – an example of “saccage” of Paris by a right-wing government before the city had a mayor – has now been reversed.

It is telling that the “saccage” movement often muddles its justified complaints with bleating about the pedestrianisation of the quays and the reduction of parking spaces.

READ ALSO Scooters and cycle lanes – has Paris become less safe for pedestrians?

In the Delanoe-Hidalgo era, Paris has become cleaner atmospherically. The city’s streets are also safer in another important respect. An age-old problem with Parisian dogs – or rather with some of their owners – has been largely solved. 

Paris has other problems, symbolised as I wrote recently by the re-incarnation of the wonderfully eccentric department store La Samaritaine as a supermarket for luxury brands and a five-star hotel. The central city is losing much of its character but also its people.

Paris has become smaller (a 75,000 drop in population in a decade) as even well-off families migrate to the suburbs or provinces to avoid high rents. This depopulation is especially acute in the inner arrondissements, which had an extraordinary variety of residents and a rich oddity of street life when I first came to Paris in 1978.

To me that represents a greater “saccage” of Paris than anything the mayor has done or failed to do.

But please Madame Hidalgo, keep your promise to pull out the dragon’s teeth, clear away the random piles of railway sleepers and paint all those wonderful, green benches.

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