Paris from 1945 to today : the portrait of a cultural capital. Initial reflections for a further study
by Laurent Martin
According to Walter Benjamin, Paris was “the capital of the 19th century” on the European continent and even in the Western world. Paris maintained this status, with regard to the cultural sector, until 1939, at the time Benjamin’s essay entitled “Paris, capital of the 19th century” was written. However, the city’s glow was already dimming. What remained of Paris’ brilliance in 1945, and in the decades after? How has Paris recovered part of her (I will feminize the capital in this text) aura, to borrow another term dear to the German philosopher? In what disciplines? And to what extent has she sustained or regained her status? How is Paris ranked today within the global-cities hierarchy, again only with regard to culture?
This study is already wide in scope, for an examination of culture must not only include, in my opinion, artistic and intellectual creation (arts and literature), but also cultural and even creative industries, artistic crafts (design, architecture, gastronomy, fashion…), media, film, and tourism. In essence, this list represents the robust set of characteristics Françoise Taliano-des-Garets and I have challenged ourselves to tackle within the division of research themes for our three-year collective project. I will briefly present these diverse themes in this specific case study of Paris, through three major research topics: the first will describe the political and administrative frameworks of the city, with a focus on municipal cultural policy; the second topic will be dedicated to architecture and urbanism, examining urban planning and large-scale public works in the cultural sector. In this section, I will discuss Paris’ relationship to its suburbs, the tension and at times contradiction stemming from its globalization and simultaneous urge for cultural preservation. The ultimate section will cover different sectors of the city’s cultural life – literary, artistic, musical – starting from the second half of the 20th century; I will also analyze the city as a space with active nightlife and festivities. This third topic will also examine the city’s cultural and creative industries, from fashion to luxury, passing through film and tourism, as crucial contemporary sectors.
I will not attempt to cover all of these topics in depth, nor will I try to provide an abridged version of the work we will develop in the next three years; rather, more humbly, I hope to catalyze our research with a few notions and questions that seem important to point out from the get-go. First and foremost, the notions of memory, recollection, nostalgia. The Parisian myth, on which the French capital’s laurels still lie, as exhibited in numerous movies, books, plays and songs, is based on multiple realities, but most importantly on a particular relationship with the past, a constant back-and-forth, more or less conscious and willing, between what is and what once was. The history of culture in Paris since 1945 is also a history of the representations of Paris, in other words, a cultural history.
1. A political approach
1.1. The political and administrative frameworks
I will begin by establishing the political and administrative frameworks in Paris, which will allow us to better understand the following analysis. Indeed, in 1945, Paris became once again the capital of a liberated France – of a country which, though defeated in 1940, managed to be included amongst the victors, to the point of nearly welcoming on its soil as of 1946 the UNESCO, prestigious international institution, with the support of several South-American countries. However, at this time, the city remains treated as a minor affair until 1975. During the thirty years following 1945, named “Les Trente Glorieuses” by Jean Fourastié (1979) as this period corresponded to a great economic boom in France, Paris remains under the direct aegis of the Seine prefecture (mandated by 1884 law) with regard to executive power, and under the police prefecture for all police-related matters. A Parisian council is formed during municipal elections, yet the city has no Mayor. Furthermore, the city budget must be approved by the State.
It is only in 1975 that the city (almost) becomes a city again, with a Mayor elected through universal and indirect suffrage. The law of December 31st, 1975 mandates the formation of a council of Paris, both municipal and general, as Paris is both a French city and “départment” ever since the law of 1964, dividing the three departments of the Seine, Seine-et-Oise and the Seine-et-Marne into eight. It is this very same Council that elects the Mayor – the first of whom, Jacques Chirac, was elected during the municipal vote of 1977. Chirac, a right-wing party leader, was Mayor of Paris for close to 28 years, and used this position as leverage for his future presidential election in 1995. His assistant, Jean Tibéri, took his place as Mayor, only to be caught in the whirlwind of what are now known as the “affaires de Paris” cases. Following Tibéri was a series of left wing, socialist mayors, Bertrand Delanoë (2001-2014) and Anne Hidalgo (2014-present); local government also remained socialist between 1998 and 2015. Since the December 31st, 1982 law called P.L.M. (Paris, Lyon and Marseille), all twenty districts in Paris have a respective council, elected through the same system as municipal councils in all French communes with more then 3 500 inhabitants. Consequently, there are district Mayors and councils with similar modes of operation as those of traditional municipal councils, yet detaining significantly less power. Finally, all twenty district Mayors elect the capital’s Mayor.
Unlike other French cities, there were no intercommunal fiscal exchanges between Paris and its neighboring communes. And unlike other major European cities, there was no administrative organization that oversaw the Parisian agglomeration – until January 1st, 2016, official birthdate of the “Grand Paris”. Even though a geographic continuity links Paris to its suburbs (which begin well beyond the freeway built between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s on the former fortified city walls constructed from 1840-1845), there are a fiscal and communal independence between the suburbs of the Parisian agglomeration. Such an absence was poorly compensated by regional law in existence since 1976 and extending beyond Paris and its periphery. The separation between Paris and its suburbs, the inequalities and organizational difficulties within various public services in the Parisian agglomeration, are some of the most recurring problems the capital faces. The Grand Paris initiative aims to overcome these obstacles, as declared by the January 27th, 2014 law on the modernization of territorial public action. Since 2014, the Grand Paris agglomeration regroups Paris and the three communes contained within its petite couronne (little crown).
1.2. A presentation of the municipality’s cultural policy
Similarly to all local regions, Paris is financially autonomous, as exhibited by an annual vote on the city’s budget. The budget, covering both the city of Paris and its départment, is divided in two parts: a communal budget and a departmental budget, each of which is subdivided in two other parts – an operating budget and an investment budget. Specifically with regard to culture, a Direction des Affaires culturelles, composed of two sub-departments (cultural heritage, on one hand, and cultural transmission on the other), oversees municipal cultural policy. It is only since 1975 that the capital can establish an autonomous policy in this sector, as in all others, though still needs to define these laws with the State, which appears particularly present, if not overbearing when it comes to cultural matters. Indeed, the capital has a high concentration of top-ranked institutions, from the Centre Pompidou to the Louvre, from the musée d’Orsay to the musée du Quai Branly, all under the aegis of the State, and more specifically of the ministère de la Culture et de la Communication.
What purpose does this municipal cultural policy have? To support a large network of libraries and media labs, of museums and music conservatoires, to upkeep historical monuments, to encourage professional artistic creation, as well as amateur practices, to facilitate democratic access to culture and to allow all citizens to practice a cultural activity of his/her own will. These policies benefited from important financial support in the 1980s, which only increased throughout the decade, fueling an era of investment in cultural affairs. However, this boon was also an attempt on the Mayor’s behalf to make up for the city’s tardiness in cultural policy-making, as well as a desire to rival his political opponents’ activism in cultural affairs. In 1987, the municipal budget allotted to culture totaled 12 billion francs (approximately 300 000 euros), twice the sum invested in culture between 1978 and 1987. During the same year, the Minister of culture spent 4.5 billion francs (approximately 1 118 000 000 euros) in Parisian cultural institutions. However, in the 1980s, as in 2016, the percentage of resources allocated to culture by the city of Paris was inferior to that of other large French cities: 5.8% in 1987, and 4% in 2016. This is in large part due to the fact that the State covers funding for numerous cultural institutions, thus allowing Paris to exempt itself from such expenses, which other cities cannot do. For instance, significant Parisian libraries, such as that located in the Centre Pompidou or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, are national, and not municipal, institutions.
A detailed analysis of these expenditures allows us to highlight the city’s priorities with regard to the cultural sector. I will confine my study to a succinct analysis of the most recent budget vote in 2016; yet, ideally, one would need to examine the annual evolution of municipal budgets. For FY2016, the operating budget allocated to culture totaled 311.7 million euros, of which 125 million was allotted to salaries (for a total 2016 municipal budget of 7.8 billion euros). Salaries set aside, operating expenditures in culture totaled 186.6 million euros, a 0.6% decrease relative to FY2015, in an overall context of budget restrictions. These expenditures were spent as follows: 53% on “cultural actions” (essentially funding for cultural institutions), 30% on museums (through the public Paris-Musées fund), 3% on the preservation of cultural heritage, 2% on libraries and media labs, 3% on a combined fund dedicated to amateur practices, archive conservation, and oublic services.
The city of Paris provides support for approximately one hundred art venues and performances, representing a sum of over sixty million euros – exceeding the respective budget allocated in London, due to a significant decrease in UK arts budgets. Paris provides support to spaces favoring cultural transmission, from performances to places of creation, embodied by noteworthy venues such as the Théâtre de la Ville or the Théâtre du Châtelet. Other large institutions benefit from both municipal and State funding, such as the Orchestre de Paris, the Ensemble orchestral de Paris, the Théâtre du Rond Point. With regard to visual arts, Paris offers grants, residency programs in studios (with or without housing, collective and individual residencies); furthermore, the city purchases artworks through the Fonds Municipal d’Art Contemporain (400 pieces were acquired in the past decade), and commissions pieces for public spaces. Paris provides support for cultural projects, exhibits, open houses, with specific attention dedicated to venues that also accompany artists throughout their creative process leading to a public opening. 10 000 square meters are dedicated to art collectives and 250 international artists are greeted each year through specific municipal programs.
These past years, the city of Paris has supported the establishment of new institutions for cultural creation and transmission, often set up in refurbished spaces – the Maison des Métallos, the Centquatre, the Gaîté lyrique, are a few examples. In addition, the city has supported new events such as La Nuit Blanche or Paris en toutes lettres, along with Parisian festivals (Le Festival d’Automne or even Paris Quartier d’Eté). This cultural policy is fervently criticized by the opposing party, but also by a certain number of key players in cultural affairs, denouncing elite policy-making and communication campaigns to the detriment of more discrete actions, of substance nonetheless. Large cultural institutions and popular events are criticized for monopolizing municipal attention, and thus overwhelming smaller venues. Paris is accused for preferring “cultural capital” versus favoring a capital of culture or even culture within the capital. This has been a long-lasting debate, also played out on a national scale, regarding cultural policies in favor of the most visible and audible – which does not necessarily equate with the useless or poor quality – versus policies favoring the population’s true demands.
With regard to cultural heritage, a network of twelve municipal museums all under the aegis of Paris-Musées, provides a diverse offer of art history museums, artist studios, and literary museums, to which one might add historic monuments (such as the Tour Jean sans Peur, the Tour Saint-Jacques and the Wall of Philippe-Auguste); ninety-six religious monuments containing 30 000 works of art and 320 acres of “preserved land” are recognized as municipal heritage, overseen by the DAC, specifically the department of architectural and archeological history of Paris (DHAP) and the office of cultural and historic monuments (BECH). The former organization guarantees the larger mission of monitoring archeological research conducted during building renovation and destruction; the latter oversees maintenance and restoration projects. The numerous and constraining Parisian laws regarding historic monuments, whose proper application is overseen by specific organizations and commissions – in particular the Commission du Vieux Paris (est. 1897), a consultancy comity for the Mayor of Paris regarding the protection of municipal heritage – as well as the powerful impact incurred on numerous neighborhoods by large cultural institutions visited by significant international populations of tourists, encourage certain skeptics to claim that Paris has become a vast, outdoor museum, to the detriment of more diversified activities and populations. I will return to this controversy in the second part of my study, dedicated to Paris’ urban landscape.
2. A modern Paris, preserved Paris or museum Paris ?
The two factors previously noted, namely the direct management of the city by the State until 1975 and the divide between Paris and its environing suburbs – explain in part the nature and the rhythm of the transformations which define the capital’s architectural and urban history. One of Paris’ greatest fortunes is that the city came out of World War II relatively intact, exempt of the destruction incurred by other capitals, such as London and especially Berlin. Contemporary Paris is largely the Paris of the 19th century, as described by Walter Benjamin, the framework with which national authorities had to work in the wake of the war. However, this good fortune is also a handicap of sorts: while Berlin or London reinvented itself from the ground up, Paris had no ruins from which to rebuild. On the contrary, the city had numerous slums and insalubrious neighborhoods, which the Haussmannization laws were unable to eliminate. These run-down habitats were populated by the working-class and immigrant populations. Fueled by a booming demographic, Paris of the mid-1950s was composed of hundreds of thousands poorly housed denizens. This housing crisis is both qualitative and quantitative: in 1953, 80% of Parisian housing lacked a bathtub or shower. A great need for modernization became apparent, a concern which also extended to public transportation. These needs were especially well outlined by Bernard Lafaye, a consultant to the city of Paris, and architect Raymond Lopez, in their 1954 city proposal.
2.1. A modernized Paris
Vast renovation plans ensued, particularly tackling Parisian slums and suburbs. Tens of thousands of resident buildings were destroyed and replaced by new ones. These renovations remained limited under the fourth République, yet they gained traction under de Gaulle’s presidency in 1958 and the foundation of the fifth République. Put into action as of 1959, the plan d’urbanisme directeur (PUD) replaces the laws of 1902. This urban plan mandated a reorganization of the city, inspired by Le Corbusier’s manifesto, La Charte d’Athènes, promoting better public transportation in a renewed urban setting. The height limitation on buildings was in part alleviated, allowing the construction of high towers in renovated neighborhoods, such as the Tour Montparnasse and the Maine-Montparnasse train station in the 14th district of Paris, as well as the office and residency buildings in the 15th district and by the Seine, and finally the new business district, La Défense, in the west of the city. The center of Paris was radically modified by the construction of the Pompidou Center, mandated by president Georges Pompidou (successor to de Gaulle in 1969). This powerhouse of culture, with a daring architectural design by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, gained much attention and prompted the delocalization of a market in existence since the Middle Ages, from Les Halles to Rungis. The pavilions constructed by the architect Baltard, at once masterpieces of the metallic architecture of the 19th century, were replaced by a large tile and a “hole”, poorly filled by a mall and a station for RER trains.
Furthermore, the question of public transportation was crucial. “Paris needs to be adapted to automotive transportation”, declared Georges Pompidou, initiating the creation of a freeway on the right riverbank. A linear path was constructed along the Parisian periphery, connecting to a larger scale highway, as well as to parks, buildings and public infrastructure (stadiums, schools, etc.). Beyond this route, bypasses and expressways were built in France, following the establishment of the Plan d’aménagement et d’organisation générale de la région parisienne (PADOG). These transformations were inscribed in policies seeking to keep all decisions within the confines of Paris and to relegate all production power to the periphery, as well as isolating the populations traditionally associated with manufacture in social housing built in suburbs or “new cities” constructed as of the 1960s. A dual process of deindustrialization and decongestion of the city was set up, leading to the delocalization of working-class populations to the couronne parisienne communes, as well as to the gentrification of the city center.
2.2. Paris preserved
The change of political and administrative structures occurring in the second half of the 1970s interrupted some of these urban renovations, while extending others. The Plan d’occupation des sols (POS) followed the Plan d’urbanisme directeur in 1977, the same year Jacques Chirac was elected Mayor of Paris, as well as the year during which Louis Chevalier’s book, L’Assassinat de Paris (“The Assassination of Paris”) was published, denouncing the excesses of modernization. Skyscraper projects, highway construction plans on the left bank, and the development of expressways were slowed down, then put to a full stop. This period marked a return to traditional urban structures – the city block and the urban plots – defended by the Atelier parisien d’urbanisme (APUR), which ensured the appropriate application of preservation laws on protected sectors and the reevaluation of heritage from the 19th century. For instance, the Orsay train station was meant to be demolished at the beginning of the 1970s, yet was saved and transformed into a museum; as such, the rehabilitation of historic buildings was favored over their destruction. The State ceased to be the omnipotent decision-maker and learned to take into account municipal power that established more or less implemented consultations with local populations.
Indeed, the construction of large-scale cultural projects marking the 1980s and 1990s was directly piloted by the State, yet always in consultation with municipal authorities. Some projects for instance were launched in the 1970s by a right-wing president, but were completed by a left-wing president for the sake of continuity, though at times with a cost to the original architectural or museum plan (the musée d’Orsay, the Institut du Monde arabe, the Cité des sciences et de l’Industrie de La Villette, to which one must add the construction of La Défense). Other projects emerged from the Mitterrand-Lang years: the Grand Louvre and the new ministry of finance, the Cité internationale de la musique in the Villette neighborhood, and the opéra Bastille. During President Mitterrand’s second seven-year mandate, the Très Grande Bibliothèque was constructed, later to become the Bibliothèque de France. Jacques Chirac, who at times proved very critical of these projects, initiated the construction of the musée du Quai Branly. Such projects gave rise to abundant controversies, over which I will not dwell; I will merely indicate some research completed on the subject (Thomas Hélie) which should contribute to the compilation of a bibliography by the Comité d’histoire of the Mininistry of culture. These large-scale projects were nonetheless inscribed in a political plan to rebalance Parisian cultural offerings with those of the east of the city, as well as to maximize the capital’s outreach on an international scale, reinforcing the city’s cultural and touristic attractiveness.
2.3. Paris, a museum ?
In 2006, a plan local d’urbanisme (PLU) replaced the POS, and was joined to a Plan d’aménagement et de développement durable, with the purpose of reinforcing intercommunal solidarity while reaffirming Paris’ role on an international scale. Under left-wing rule, it was mandated that the city should no longer be only car-based city, leading to the creation of bike and bus paths, and increasing the offer in public transportation, namely through the construction a tram line on the Parisian periphery. These changes were advocated by an environmentally-aware population, still able to live in Paris and known as the bourgeois-bohêmes. This privileged population was often mocked in magazine columns, included those read by the “bobo” themselves, and was a product of a sociological and demographic evolution in the capital. The modernization process was launched prior to focusing on the preservation of pre-existing structures; the city developed an expertise in tertiary activities and strategic functions. Paris emptied itself of a portion of its working-class, becoming more bourgeois and simultaneously accumulating diverse cultural institutions and events. However, a more detailed study must be led to confirm the correlation between the gentrification and muséification of the city, which in turn often fuels a narrative of nostalgia on the disappearance of an old Paris, working-class and authentic. A nostalgic discourse that is also apparent, to a certain extent, when mentioning the dimming brilliance of the city in the fields of art and literature or when discussing the hegemony of the capital threatened by powerful cultural industries, which I will develop in this third section.
3. Culture in Paris: an analysis by sector
3.1. Paris’ dimming brilliance, the capital of arts and literature
In 1962, Harold Rosenberg claimed that what made Paris a fascinating place prior to World War II, was the “’modern’ mix of Viennese psychology, African sculpture, American detective novels, Russian music, German technique, and Italian nihilism”, to which I might add painting and sculpture stemming from the whole of Europe, making Paris an authentic “lab of the 20th century […] a sacred place of our time”. Some of this effervescence remained in a liberated, post-war Paris, persisting even a few decades after, however with certain losses and gains. With regard to the losses, Paris was no longer a leader in terms of modern and contemporary art. Indeed, the second school of Paris – of which a debate around the movement’s definition and contours existed as of the 1950s, and which would be interesting to further explore – allowed Paris to maintain a certain position of regard, perhaps even longer than what Serge Guilbert claimed in his classic book, Comment New York vola l’idée d’art moderne. However, as of the 1960s, it was evident that Paris was no longer the meeting point for international visual artists or for new artistic movements. It would be interesting to examine whether French artists’ loss of recognition on the international artistic scene was correlated to this phenomenon or whether these two occurrences were distinct. That being said, institutions such as the Musée national d’art moderne, which opened in 1947, or the Centre national d’art contemporain inaugurated three years later, were powerful tools to maintain the idea of a French or Parisian capital of modern and contemporary art; the large “Paris-Paris” exhibit at the Centre Pompidou (1981), visited by François Mitterrand just a few days following his election, powerfully illustrates this observation. In addition to these institutions, other large institutions dedicated to contemporary art were constructed in Paris and its suburbs, such as the MAC/VAL in Vitry-sur-Seine or the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Boulogne, in addition to the Fondation Cartier and the events organized at the Grand Palais, especially the FIAC fair each fall. Nevertheless, though Paris concentrates to this day one third of the artists in France as well as hundreds of art galleries, the city is no longer the capital of visual arts, dethroned by Berlin’s reasonable rent prices, or even by London’s effervescent art market.
With regard to literature and theater, Paris maintained a front-row position post-World War II, thanks to the city’s writers, poets, philosophers, from Sartre to Bourdieu, Perec to Modiano – I willfully reference the two latter authors, as they were writers of Paris, Parisian pedestrians, whose pieces were inspired by the city. International authors were perhaps less numerous, perhaps less brilliant than before the war, but this is a matter of appreciation: Beckett and Ionesco modernized theatre as authors, as did Peter Brook and Giorgio Strehler later on, as stage directors. Brook’s nomination to the Odéon theater in 1983, later named the Théâtre de l’Europe, or even the creation of the Maison des cultures du monde, demonstrated an a new openness to foreign artists; this phenomenon could be noted in numerous sectors – for instance in literature, with an influx of Eastern European refugees, such as Kundera, or Cortazar from the South, both naturalized French citizens at the beginning of the 1980s. With regard to music, Paris also played since 1945 a pivotal role, becoming the capital of jazz between 1945-1960, prior to becoming the capital of raï and world music as of the 1980s. Today, Paris is, along with London, the capital of world music, significantly more so than is the city of New York. Without even mentioning all of the clubs, underground venues, and music-halls, from the Tabou to the Rose Rouge, from the Olympia to the Bataclan – dear to our hearts – that have brought much joy to visitors or residents making the most of the nuits parisiennes, title of a beautiful book written by Antoine de Baecque about these places of pleasure and emotion. Today, one can count over 36 000 concerts per year in over 700 music venues in Paris, 4 000 bars and 400 cabarets, clubs, and concert halls, to which we might add 130 music venues in Paris.
3.2. Cultural and creative industries
These numbers and the bustling activity they illustrate are evidence of a distinct reality, related in part to that which I have previously made reference. Cultural businesses, and more generally speaking, cultural and creative industries, are concentrated within Paris or in close proximity to the city center. Roughly speaking, as I await more conclusive studies throughout our research project, I believe that three entities must be distinguished: first, cultural industries, or content-based industries which reconcile industrial production with mass transmission of culture. Within each of these defined sectors – press, media, film, publishing, music, we should be able to identify production spaces, or places of cultural consumption, and make a map of the material infrastructures constitutive of an economy of culture, characterized by jobs, revenue, and exportation.
As such, independent music retailers have almost entirely disappeared (there are approximately fifty left in Paris); the network of independent bookstore owners is still alive (756 bookstores were counted in 2014 in Paris). This is due to the 1981 law of the prix unique du livre, which blocks big store sales that would generate unfair competition with smaller businesses. The city of Paris has also established support networks for these independent bookstores that cannot compete with the evolution of real-estate prices. In the film industry, we have the habit of claiming that Paris is the capital of this seventh art form, but this claim actually makes reference to the high density of movie theaters and to their diverse line up, rather than to actual film production in the capital – our study will have to confirm this statement.
The second entity is composed of creative industries, artisanal professions, design, male and female fashion design, gastronomy, perfume and cosmetics, and the luxury industry. The fashion industry alone congregates approximately 60 000 jobs. To include these professions in our study is not a given – yet, how do we define what activities should or should not be taking into account throughout our research? However, I believe that we should attempt to include these industries, as they participate in the symbolic rebirth of the French State with regard to cultural activities, in addition to the fact that the these sectors were foundational in the construction of the Parisian myth and attract numerous tourists to the city.
Tourism, both national and international, constitutes, in my opinion, the third sector to be taken into account, regarding – yet not exclusively – natural and cultural heritage and large cultural institutions. Consumerist tourism exists as well, embodied by the Champs-Elysées and its adjacent streets. It is important to map this form of tourism, to track its evolution with time, and to witness how it informs, in part, Paris’ appearance with regard to its environment (I would like to remind you that the first tourist destination in Ile-de-France is not the Eiffel Tower or even Versailles, but Euro Disney).
I have outlined here today numerous research paths, rather conclusive results – much work has yet to be accomplished. I would like to conclude by mentioning a theme I have referenced several times, that of the Parisian myth. A study of Paris must attempt to understand why the city’s fame with regard to literature, art and music seems to have passed, and is often presented in willfully nostalgic or melancholic terms. This is a guiding question articulated in Quebecois author Régine Robin’s recent book, Le Mal de Paris, replete with intelligence and sensitivity. Robin questions the notion of “the Parisian myth” and the paralyzing breakdown of the city’s imagination. However, we must be cautious, as this is not a new concept. Julien Gracq spoke of the Parisian myth in analogous terms as a dream house built around 1830-1840, and whose fall occurred a century later. Undone by the defeat of 1940, it is was though Paris had became a province. Régine Robin localizes the fall in the 1970s. “In this mythical representation of Paris, something ceased to be in the 1970s, be it in music, photography, film or literature. Paris appears to have distanced itself from stories, representations, and is no longer a myth. […] The imaginary has become imagery”, an image that we fuel through the repeated presentation of Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis photographs, illustrating a working-class Paris that has long ceased to exist.
I believe that beyond these specific sectors onto which we will cast our attention in the upcoming years, it is important to think of this Parisian mythography, of the Parisian myth, its obsolescence, perhaps, but also of its persistence and rebirths. The French film, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001), or the American movie Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen (2011) are proof of this phenomenon. Woody Allen’s movie, which places cliché at the heart of its matter, neglects an important moment in literature and music, namely the myth of Saint-Germain des Prés (featured recently as the subject of a cultural history dissertation by Quebecois student, Eric Dussault). Instead, the movie focuses on a Paris of the 1920s, that of the lost generation, and a Paris of the Belle Epoque. I find this choice to be revelatory and very perceptive: nostalgia is universal, and the individual who misses yesterday’s Paris, would – had s/he lived actually lived yesterday – miss a Paris from the day-before yesterday.
Benoît Duteurtre in A nous deux Paris, referenced by Régine Robin, claims that all big cities in the world belong to a specific moment of their evolution, and that this moment profoundly affects these cities, which cannot undo such impact. The representations of Paris, in movies, books – especially foreign productions – remain in large part prisoners of a Paris past, built between the Second empire and World War II. I agree with Régine Robin who calls for the construction of a newly imagined 21st century, an ideal “Grand Paris” that would not stop at the Parisian periphery, but that would necessarily include suburbs and neighboring communes. Paris is both a city of excess – excess of imagery from the past – and of dearth, a lack of representation of its periphery. A “new Paris requires new stories, representative of its new spaces, a new narrative identity”.
By connecting this literary appeal with a newly imagined “Grand Paris”, policy makers claim to think of Paris as a whole, as a cohesive agglomeration. This is the essence of the Grand Paris project, an urban planning project scaled to the entire nation, that has adopted the mission of gathering in a single administrative entity the city of Paris and its environing communes. One of the direct manifestations of this project is the Grand Paris Express, an automatic metro under construction since 2015 and which should be operational at some point between 2022 and 2030. This path will include 200 kilometers of new tracks and 68 new train stations, to which are associated numerous cultural projects. Paris’ candidacy for the 2024 Olympic Games and for the 2025 Universal exhibition are also manifestations of the city’s growth, seeking to place itself in international competitions with other global-cities, especially those in Europe. It appears to me that these two aspects – the Parisian myth and the manner in which authorities, and individuals, seek to rearticulate it – must be taken into account in our research project, so that we don’t reduce our analysis of culture, in Paris as in the other considered cities – to the sole description of the cultural sectors or policies of which they are the merely the contours.