OPINION: Emily and the Olympics reveal some uncomfortable truths about Paris

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Emily and the Olympics reveal some uncomfortable truths about Paris
Is central Paris becoming a 'tourist Disneyland'? Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

The 'flight' of Parisians from the city and the success of Emily in Paris in encouraging tourism has revealed some confused and contradictory views from the capital's leaders, says John Lichfield.


The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, says that she is pleased that people are deserting the city.

Several of her lieutenants say that they would like to evict the world’s most popular fictional Parisienne.

Her deputy, Emmanuel Grégoire, wants to place a super-tax on second homes in the French capital to reverse the population drain.

Maybe they should all get together to script a new series for Netflix: “Anomaly in Paris”.

How can a mayor want her city’s population to shrink? How can senior Parisian politicians detest Emily (in Paris), the imaginary character who has helped to bring crowds of Americans, and other tourists back to the French capital?   

Hear the team from The Local talk about the emptying of Paris on the latest episode of the Talking France podcast. Download it HERE or listen on the link below


Next summer the City of Light will officially be the centre of the world - the position which many Parisians assume to be its natural state. The Olympic Games will come to Paris for the third time (after the second modern games in 1900 and the “Chariots of Fire” games in 1924).


Is the city ready? What is the mood of Paris as the Olympics approach?

It all depends by what you mean by “Paris”. The main stadium for next year’s games is in Saint Denis, a couple of kilometres north of the city boundary.

Banlieue boom: Why Parisians are moving out to the suburbs

That is the permanent “Anomaly in Paris”:  the uneasy relationship between the city proper and its banlieues (suburbs), sprawling 30 kilometres beyond the ring-road which confines the city like a medieval wall.

There has been some rapprochement in recent years but the two worlds remain bizarrely separate. Paris - the densest urban area in Europe - exists in a different dimension to the suburbs which house the workers who are essential to its survival (and contain much of the region’s violence and misery, energy and creativity).  

Emily in her bright yellow or red beret never strays far from the city proper. But neither do most of the non-fictional 2,100,000 Parisians.

READ ALSO 'Vile snobs' - what do the French think of Emily in Paris?

In her much-ridiculed comments on the shrinking of Paris, Mayor Hidalgo was addressing, somewhat clumsily, this issue. The city had lost 123,000 people in a decade, she said, but that was “good news”. People were moving into the suburbs because the City had invested financially and politically in developing its relationship with Le Grand Paris (greater Paris).

Making the suburbs more attractive had made the city more liveable because it had “de-densified” its population, she said. That meant “more parks, more gardens, more air, less cars, more nature”.

But as Hidalgo went on to admit, demographic changes are draining character from the city of Paris proper. Younger, middle class people are moving east and north into traditionally working class areas. Reasonably well-off families are being pushed into the suburbs - or beyond - as Paris property prices are inflated by rich foreigners and tourists.  

In a reversal of a centuries’ old pattern, young, educated, ambitious Parisians are fleeing the capital for other thriving French cities - Bordeaux, Grenoble, Toulouse - where rents are lower. The Parisian school population is falling. There has been a 20 percent drop in  primary school enrolment in the last ten five years.

When I first lived in Paris, 45 years ago, it was a very different city: grittier, quirkier. One night, in a bar on the Grands Boulevards, I saw the patron pull out a shiny revolver and invite a noisy customer to leave. On the Rue St Denis, the sex workers were so numerous that they could link arms like a giant chorus line.


In some ways, the city has become dirtier and more dangerous since then. In other ways, it has become duller and more homogenous.

OPINION The real 'trashing' of Paris is gentrification

In a recent article for Libération, three of Mayor Hidalgo’s assistant mayors complained that the TV series Emily in Paris presented the French capital as a “Disneyland” of Parisian and French clichés. That is true; but a large part of the city has also become a kind of pastiche of itself.

The success of the series (about a naive and ambitious young marketing executive from Chicago grappling with Parisian business and social life) has transformed American attitudes to Paris and France.

A recent IFOP survey found that 73 percent of Americans had a good image of Paris, compared to 39 percent 15 years ago. Much of the credit is given to the Emily series, which has been seen by one in three Americans.

This is good news for the Paris tourist trade but not necessarily good news for Paris, according to the deputy mayor, Emmanuel Grégoire. He wants a 60 percent tax on second homes in Paris to scare away the rich “Emily wannabes”.

“We have to discourage people who say, ‘I have watched Emily in Paris I’ll buy a pied-à-terre there’,” he said. “Emily in Paris is great for stimulating tourism in Paris but we want people living here as permanent residents. If they want to visit they can stay with friends or in hotels.”


Mr Gregoire says that the proceeds from the tax could be used to build more social housing within Paris to stop the population flight which his boss says is A Good Thing.

Confused? Yes, a little.

The core problem remains the political and psychological  wall between Paris and its suburbs. Hidalgo is right that the conurbation should be increasingly be treated as a “Grand Paris”.

The approach of the Paris - or Saint Denis - Olympics have helped to bring some limited progress in that direction. But social and racial prejudices and vested political interests continue to make the Boulevard Périphérique one of the starkest social frontiers in Europe.


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2023/02/16 11:38
As is well known, the nub of the problem is that the mayor's remit covers only Paris intra muros rather than le grand Paris. As a result the present mayor is only too happy to pursue policies that favour the limited proportion of Parisians who are lucky enough to inhabit central Paris while having no regard for the needs of the banlieusards who travel in to work every day in increasing discomfort. Her anti-car traffic measures make getting into and around the city - which some people, delivery vehicles etc have to do - an absolute nightmare. Her active neglect of the public realm, notably the public parks and 19C street furniture, highlighted by the saccageparis movement, is a scandal.

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