Rats crawling under a Périphérique underpass at Porte de Bagnolet. Graffitied cement cubes serving as the bases for traffic lights from Place Victor Hugo to Boulevard de La Villette. Dirty, yellow-striped concrete guardrails—blocking off traffic or marking bicycle lanes—dropped casually on historic Parisian boulevards, from Rue Royale to Boulevard Saint-Michel to Gare du Nord. Paved expanses for urban skaters replacing the gardens and the fountains of the Trocadéro. Crabgrass where elegant flowerbeds used to grow at Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées or along Boulevard des Invalides.
There are also broken-down benches, streetlights, signposts, and more, filling huge green Ville de Paris (City Hall) dumpsters. Designed by Gabriel Davioud between 1855 and 1881, this now-mangled ‘street furniture’ is the kind that directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, or Vincente Minnelli, and set decorators like Alexandre Trauner lovingly reproduced on Hollywood backlots to recreate the quintessential look of Paris.
That’s a mere sampling of the horrors Twitter will yield, complete with pictures, if you conduct a quick search for the #saccageparis hashtag.
Under Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo and her Red-Green coalition, saving the environment has meant uprooting trees on Place de la Contrescarpe; cutting down a sprawling wisteria that shaded the diners at Chez Plumeau on Place du Calvaire in Montmartre (and before them, in the 19th century, the guests at the modest Auberge Coucou, in the days of Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso). It has also meant destroying countless city parks, some designed under Napoléon III, by refusing to water them; and forbidding weeding on the wastelands thus created.
The mayor—a crafty machine politician (a possible presidential candidate next year with barely a chance of even making it to the second round), and a one-time close protégée of François Hollande—was re-elected by 17% of registered voters last year against a split opposition during the COVID crisis. She can only stay in power if her Green allies are allowed to wage their ideological war on bourgeois beauty under the sadly familiar newspeak of ‘inclusiveness,’ ‘climate-friendly policies,’ ‘direct democracy,’ and other weasel words. She has embraced it all to burnish an image of Green champion that plays well in The New York Times and The Guardian (whose correspondents she always has time for).
Photo: Courtesy of #saccageparis on Twitter.
This enables media coverage to ignore the downside of such horrors as the Jeff Koons installation of ‘tulips’ near the Grand Palais (a monumental bouquet of multicoloured plastic-tinted aluminium flowers held tight by a somewhat obscene pink fist) or the destruction of the elegant Lalique crystal fountains of the Place Marcel Dassault at the intersection of Avenue Montaigne and Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The fountains, which were wilfully allowed to break down over recent years, were once surrounded by some of the most beautiful flowerbeds in the world (they were the labour of love of the Gaullist councillor Françoise de Panafieu, appointed by Jacques Chirac and his successor Jean Tibéri). But they were placed by a €6.3 million abomination of steel tubes that look like 13-metre-tall, Swarovski crystals-encrusted leaking pipes, pointlessly revolving over a spare expanse of sad, sad grass.
In both cases, the mayor explains the unnecessary ‘artworks’ are ‘free,’ omitting the heavy maintenance costs which, in the first case, are not paid by Koons (the city of Paris forked out €3.5 million for the actual installation); nor, in the second, by the Galeries Lafayette or the Government of Qatar, the two chief donors.
Meanwhile, the city has lost almost 110,000 inhabitants (of 2.1 million) since 2010. Unlike Berlin, London, or New York, Paris has not expanded to include its surrounding metropolis, which numbers some 12 million inhabitants. Property prices and job availability means that Mme Hidalgo’s voters are increasingly well-off—with a fringe of dispossessed classes that clean their homes, work in their restaurants (or deliver their meals), and rarely vote (when they have documentation). As in all Western capitals, hipsters proliferate: high-earning singles or childless couples, whose inclinations are liberal.
They, unlike the rest of the region’s inhabitants, are the ones who buy into the mayor’s particularly stringent brand of eugenics. If you’re fit, young, with minions to take care of your luggage, youngsters from the banlieues to deliver your groceries from Monoprix or La Grande Épicerie du Bon Marché, and Filipino nannies to ferry your children, you’re fine—get on your bike! The rest of us, to Save The Planet, are supposed to abide by the 15-minute ideology, which claims that anything you need, from doctors to schools and shops, should be found within a 15-minute-walk radius—in effect imposing village limits to the City of Lights.
Mme Hidalgo knows how to cultivate a specific clientele: Ville de Paris employees, numbering 55,000 (compared to 40,000 under Jacques Chirac in the 1990s—but then the city budget was in the black, whereas the debt of Paris is now a terrifying €8 billion). They somehow get first dibs for new social housing, especially in those arrondissements where the older residents dare to vote for the conservative Les Républicains candidates. As for the benighted citizens living just outside the city limits, where métro lines and buses are less frequent, Anne Hidalgo simply ‘ain’t bovvered.’
Photo: Courtesy of @saccageparis on Twitter.
Nothing the most earnest Scandinavian city council has ever thought up could possibly match the roundabouts blocked by permanent concrete barriers, the streets narrowed with the sole aim of creating more congestion, the crossroads leading to no-access roads on four sides, or the 30km/ hour speed limit across the whole capital that comes into force this September 1st. A number of underpasses—especially under accesses to bridges over the Seine—have simply been filled up with earth and tarmacked over. Some of Paris’s historic squares—like Nation, Bastille, République, or, soon, Place de la Concorde and Place de l’Étoile—have had traffic reduced to single lanes. (The Champs-Elysées, too, are supposed to be reduced to two opposed lanes.)
Parisians have learned to dread announcements nowadays from City Hall that start with: “A Citizen’s Consultation will be organised …” This used to mean that an unannounced gathering (except for a couple of lines on the mayor’s website) would be held somewhere in the outer arrondissements during office hours. Since COVID, however, these have been replaced by electronic multiple-choice questionnaires only accessible if you provide your national identity number, and in which every pre-provided answer praises a different aspect of the proposed policy, Soviet-like.
The mayor—whose Red-Green coalition depends on regular performative acts of vindictiveness on behalf of the environment— consciously chooses to make our lives hellish. She has five more years—not to mention the 2024 Paris Olympics, for which she has grandiose plans, including a garden bridge between the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadéro that’s about as unrealistic as Boris Johnson’s aborted equivalent in London— to complete the job.
Anne-Élisabeth Moutet is the Paris columnist for The Telegraph.
This essay appears in the Fall 2021 edition of The European Conservative, Number 20: 9-11.
With the exception of the painting in the header, all other images are courtesy of the many Parisians and visitors tweeting (in many cases anonymously) about the crumbling of Paris at #saccageparis.