Paris: Beyond the End of History

Quai d'Orsay: From Commuters to Connoisseurs

Quai d’Orsay: From Commuters to Connoisseurs

French culture is dead. So declared Time magazine’s Don Morrison recently. Complacently subsisting off plentiful government subsidies, France’s once-trendsetting culture class have failed to keep up and compete with any of the noise issuing forth from the anglophone world. If France’s capital city is any reflection of the country’s cultural decline, one might be inclined to agree with him — at least superficially.

The museum-like quality of Paris, which remains — seemingly — a sort of improbable continuation of its late 19th century self, has long been lamented. The City of Light has maybe taken its very apt nickname a bit too far, bathing, perhaps, in too much of a stage-set’s glow. It’s easy to forgeet, while strolling through the Tuileries in the evening, that the city isn’t some recently dreamed-up theme park — especially since half the park literally serves as a sort of fairground.

It’s telling that the two most controversial building projects in central Paris – the reconstruction of Les Halles, a former marketplace turned mall and train station, and the potential rebuilding of the Tuileries palace, are, respectively, an attempt to snuff out one of the few mid-20th century intrusions into central Paris, and the attempt to restore a building lost to fire in 1871. The recent installation of the Velib’ bike-sharing system has only added further to Paris’ 19th century flair: never since then have there been so many pedal warriors on the city’s boulevards. Paris may not only be ossifying, but taking active steps to turn back the clock.

Place Vendôme: Sepulchral City

Place Vendôme: Sepulchral City

Morrison hasn’t completely given up on French culture, claiming that hope lies in the cultural explosion percolating in the immigrant ghettos that proliferate in France’s suburban banlieues and the untapped engine of neoliberal economic growth: the former providing new twists on what “French” means, the latter allowing this new France to competitively export itself to the rest of the world.

It’s true that these two forces have brought considerable change to Paris, though not, perhaps, in the positive ways Morrison expects. The upscale offices of American firms have quintupled along the Avenue Georges V, and St-Germain has steeply declined from Bohemian Rhapsody to Banana Republic. This sort of sterility, more than the mere preservation of belle époque facades, has paralyzed Paris.

Military Discipline

Champ de Mars: Military Discipline

Meanwhile, the cultural cauldron of the banlieues strains to penetrate the Périphérique: French rap may have global currency, but it’s not being recorded anywhere near the 8th Arrondisement. While its suburbs burn, central Paris may breathe a sigh of relief that access to the city center has been made deliberately difficult. But this hardly bodes well for the cultural syncretism that may yet help revive Paris’, and France’s, full cultural potential.

The Banlieux Invade

Quartier Latin: The Banlieues Invade

Compare Paris’ situation with Berlin’s: there, the Turkish minority, the city’s largest, has long been established in Kreuzberg. Once a peripheral neighborhood near the edge of the Wall, Kreuzberg assumed a central position in the reunified city, building on its reputation among German artists and immigrant Turks alike, each of which had been drawn to the neighborhood’s cheap rents. Kreuzberg has been a cauldron of intercultural connections ever since, producing not only the German Döner Kebab, as unique to Germany as Tex-Mex is to the United States, but also music from German and Turkish artists alike that has pushed against the boundaries of Germans’ discomfort with patriotism to assert the transcendent values of the new, ethnically inexclusive Germany.

In contrast to French artists, living off the fat of subsidies that supposedly protect them from rapacious Anglo-Saxon cultural influences, German artists and musicians have audibly resisted British and American culture through their work itself. In Berlin, survivance is a grassroots phenomenon, and it has engendered an unlikely esprit de corps among communities that would be disparate in France.

The Sack of Paris?

Anglophones: The Sack of Paris?

Of course, Berlin has not been conquered by market forces as easily as central Paris, which now plays a somewhat stuffy version of Manhattan to the outer banlieues. With the decreasingly relevant exceptions of Belleville and Ménilmontant, few neighborhoods inside the Périphérique will soon play hosts to the sort of creative society that legendarily animated Montmartre and Montparnasse.

For a period over the last decade, the Marais’ star shone bright, until it succombed to the pressures of Americans seeking pieds-à-terre and their taste for multinational boutiques of the sort that now line the Rue Francois-Xavier. Banned from France’s airwaves, les États-Uniens managed to subvert the culture of the French capital via the unguarded conduit of real estate.

Quo vadis, Paris?

Place Benjamin Fondane: Quo vadis, Paris?

The gentrification of Paris, and its fortification against the teeming cultural forces massing outside its traffic-choked outer rum — the real sources of its increasingly supulchral quality — have not gone entirely unresisted. A thriving street art culture continues to subvert the forces laying siege to the city’s creative capacities. On the walls of the capital’s back alleys, a cacophonous conversation persists: a tiger proclaims “Je vote!” An offensive poster is papered over by another demanding “Êtes-vous Européen?” A series of ambiguous figures are painted across the city, commenting on the space around them.

In a tiny square in the Latin Quarter, named for a survivor of the Holocaust, one such figure poses an infinity of questions: is it falling into an abyss, or reveling, in defiance of the heavy weight of memory, of the historical burdens of the city as museum? As long as one can still encounter such quandaries amid its time-frozen streets, Paris’ history has not met its Fukuyaman end: its potential, at least, lives on.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Thursday December 06 2007at 05:12 pm , filed under Europe, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Paris: Beyond the End of History”

  • Douala says:

    First of all thank you for a such wonderfull topic, well i have to say it is difficult for me to say if i agree with you or not. I will read it for a second time and let you know what i think