From international diplomacy to setting benchmarks in urbanism, from investing in culture to protecting a rich mix of independent businesses, Paris has become a hothouse for fresh thinking. That’s why we have made it our global city of 2008.
City: central Paris is made up of 20 arrondissements that were demarcated in 1860 by Napoléon III and Baron Haussmann. This is the area that falls under the control of the Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoë. It has a population of 2.2m. The centre is ringed by the road known as the périphérique and beyond are the seven départements that make up the Ile de France. In total, the area has a population close to 12m.
Headquarters: all but one of Paris’s leading educational establishments or “Grandes Ecoles” are in or around Paris. These include the leading business school Insead and the Pasteur Institute. It is also home to UNESCO, the OECD and the ICC.
Less than three years ago there was much hand-wringing in the international press about the future of Paris following the race riots that first ignited in the city’s Clichy-sous-Bois banlieue, and the failure of its bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. Today, however, when you speak to urbanists, diplomats or tech start-up bosses, they describe a very different and confident city. The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous. How has Paris, routinely described as just a museum city (and it really wasn’t meant as a compliment), come to be regarded as a hub of inventiveness? And how have its citizens begun to lose some of their reputation for being too conservative and snooty for their own good and instead be thought of as rather fun and free-thinking?
The successful brand update has much to do with the tenants at the Hôtel de Ville (Paris’s socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, re-elected in March for a second term) and the Elysée Palace (the showman president Nicolas Sarkozy – with a little help from his new model wife, Carla Bruni). While the two do not share a common political agenda – and despite some past sniping between the pair – they are united in their desire for Paris to be a global city. And over the past year their respective plans for the capital have begun to look decidedly similar. So while Sarkozy talks of creating le Grand Paris and Delanoë presses his vision for Paris Métropole, each now focuses on issues such as transport and an easing up on planning laws to allow for the construction of skyscrapers just outside of central Paris. There is less talk about the need to reshuffle the political order (Sarkozy had hinted he would like to see a single mayor for all of metropolitan Paris – Delanoë’s remit only stretches to the périphérique). Even the appointment by Sarkozy of Christian Blanc, former Air France boss, as secretary of state for the Paris region no longer causes the mayor to have palpitations.
Laurent Joffrin is the editor of Libération, the left-wing paper founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre. Joffrin has just published De l’audace, a book of conversations with Betrand Delanoë about his politics and life. How does Joffrin judge the changes made to Paris by the mayor?
“He has modernised the whole thing. He has changed the philosophy of traffic by multiplying the ways you can get in to the city and persuading even the bobos [bohemian bourgeoisie] that changes were needed to create a better environment. Then there are his policies towards new business and creating new scientific cities around the universities. He has done more [for] public housing and has policies towards the homeless and immigrants.”
But it is in some of the most PR-friendly moves that Joffrin detects a city that’s loosening up, and Delanoë’s astuteness at work. These projects include the introduction of Vélib’, the bike-share scheme that has been a great success; the creation each summer of Paris-Plage, a man-made beach along the Seine; and Nuit Blanche, when the city’s museums stay open all night and are free to visit (a scheme since adopted by everywhere from Tel Aviv to Tirana).
“Delanoë has given this city a touch of modernity. Parisians go out for Nuit Blanche and it gives out this idea of a city that is lively and that in turn makes Paris attractive to businesses. So the revenue for the town hall goes up without having to increase taxes,” says Joffrin.
He also believes that being gay has helped him appear more modern, the right man to reinvent Paris. “It’s clear that he is not a classical politician. He appeals to others who have diplomas and the executives. He’s a little bit Californian – progressive with respect for the environment.” Although let’s hope he doesn’t go all Arnie on us. And, of course, this all gels because Delanoë’s voters are not the poor or the suburban, but the wealthy who live in the centre.
Across at the Hôtel de Ville, there is no time for anyone who suggests that Paris-Plage or Vélib’ are just PR stunts. Christian Sautter is a deputy mayor of Paris and occupies a stately rose-wood panelled office. “The bicycles are both about quality of life and innovation; it’s about the good image we want to give of Paris. Paris-Plage is different. In August, everyone who can afford it goes away, poor people can have a homemade vacation. It’s all about quality of life, innovation and solidarity.”
The ambition, says Sautter, is to make Paris the place to do business, a global HQ for high-tech and science companies. “The real priority is for Paris to be a global city of this century and compete with London, Shanghai and Tokyo.”
And, he insists, the city is determined to give those businesses what they need. “Paris has a tradition in finance and is now the core of the Eurozone and we want to build on that and attract as much investment as possible. We want to capitalise on the technological and research assets of Paris. We have famous universities and research institutes and we want to put them together with big companies and start ups to build clusters.”
But that doesn’t mean that Paris is about to relegate the importance of its traditional attractions. Even the café culture is seen as part of the city’s plans to be a generator of new ideas in science and technology. “The main discoveries in America are made in the cafeterias of universities and the main discoveries in Paris are made in the bistros,” he says. If you were looking for an overseas posting there is little doubt that the promise of good, affordable food on almost every corner would encourage you to sign up for relocation. These things matter.
It is not only the mayor who has made people look at Paris afresh. The city has also become both more visible and audible on the global political and diplomatic scene thanks to President Sarkozy and his foreign minister Bernard Kouchner (when was the last time most people could name the French foreign minister, let alone agree with what he said?).
François Heisbourg is special adviser to the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a leading think-tank. In his office, with its bookshelves lined with model subs and a battalion of miniature tanks, he says that while it is too early to judge what results this new improved international profile will have, the changes have still been dramatic. This is because France has re-engaged with Washington, taken a firmer line with traditional Arab allies and spoken out against regimes from Tehran to Rangoon. “When Villepin was foreign minister he was always complaining that whatever we were saying, we were not audible in the US. Now because of generational and attitude changes, we are audible. In Israel the change is awesome. We are taken seriously… And it’s great to see new ideas coming out of Paris.”
And Paris is set to make even more headlines over the coming months with comprehensive redefinitions of its defence and security policies. Then in July the city will host the Mediterranean Union Summit (Sarkozy would like to bind these nations together without offering EU membership to Turkey et al) and will also take over the six month presidency of the EU. Heisbourg sees an intriguing synchronicity between the ambitions and attitudes of president and mayor. “Delanoë is like Sarkozy or Kouchner. He is not arrogant and approaches politics and government in a manner that is not pretentious… One of the nice changes is that ideas are coming out of Paris.”
Before we get too carried away, there are plenty of challenges ahead for Paris. The cost of housing in the city centre is creating a ghetto for the rich and those who manage to get social housing. Labour relations are enough to get CEOs straight back on their personal jets (that’s if air traffic control is not on strike). And despite good first steps, people in the banlieue do not feel part of the Paris project. Another round of riots would be disastrous for the city. For now, however, Paris can enjoy its new image. We might even pull up a café chair and join in the debate about what it should do next.
Ever since the Eiffel Tower went up, Paris has had a history of commissioning – and slowly coming to love – grand examples of modern architecture. And it shows few signs of easing up on the trend. The new Cité de la Mode et du Design (pictured, right) is part of the Paris Rive Gauche scheme. Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH, will fund a new art foundation that will be designed by Frank Gehry. Meanwhile the ugly 1970s Les Halles development is about to be rebuilt.
What the city has been less good at is constructing tall office buildings but there are now numerous projects being lined up – with the mayor’s backing. In La Défense, Jean Nouvel will design a new skyscraper. It’s all part of the brand overhaul for the city.
Paris has ambitious plans for improving public transport and persuading people out of their cars. What it won’t introduce is a congestion charge, which would be seen as divisive as it would be the people in the banlieue who would be banned from driving into the city. Just launched in June is Vogueo, a river bus service from Gare d’Austerlitz to Maisons-Alfort. Also planned is Autolib’, a car-sharing scheme which will be run in a similar way to the bike project. Then there’s the introduction of new bus lanes. But it’s the Vélib’ bike scheme with its 20,000 cycles that has been the bravest and most fruitful experiment so far – although they are most popular on down hill routes, leaving some stations empty after the morning rush.
Here are a few facts that will make you wonder if you are living in a cultural backwater. Paris has 119 museums, including 14 operated by the city. But it’s the cinema figures that are extraordinary. There are 376 cinema screens in Paris, including 150 at independent venues and 89 art house ones. On average there are 450 to 500 films a week shown in Paris.Yet the city feels that access needs to be improved. “If you have a family of four, a museum visit costs as much as going to the cinema. That’s why offering people free entry [as part of Nuit Blanche] is really something,” says Christian Sautter, deputy mayor.
In Europe, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport is second only to London’s Heathrow in terms of passenger numbers (59.9m passengers vs 68m in 2007). It is also Europe’s premier cargo hub. The airport is currently rebuilding Terminal 2E and extending two others. In partnership with Paris’s other airport – Orly – you can fly to 261 short-haul and 360 intercontinental destinations every week. CDG is home to Air France-KLM, Europe’s largest airline.