‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’? Paris’ Tumultuous Journey

Paris: City of Light, City of Love

The titles for Paris developed in our vernacular draw on the reputation enjoyed by the French capital as a melting-pot of culture, romance and beauty, for which the association of enlightenment in both the spiritual and tangible senses is entirely justified. However, as one looks more closely at this glittering European diamond, the cracks beneath the lustre begin to emerge. Shaken by indefensible terrorist attacks as recently as January 2015 and November 2015, the need for Parisian solidarity, freedom and equality is more important now than ever before, and yet, whilst peaceful, anti-terrorist demonstrations are evidence that such an attitude does exist, latent inequalities in terms of employment, housing and economic potential continue to lurk underneath the surface. So, what is the truth about Paris?

The Centre of Europe

As the capital of France since as early as 508 AD, Paris has had a turbulent coming-of-age. The focal point of its country’s own bloody revolution, it has alternately been both a shelter for conservative elements such as exiled Russian aristocrats in the early twentieth century, and a hub of forward-thinking political thought and intellectualism, currently boasting Anne Hidalgo as its mayor: a female politician with socialist views. It has therefore played out its role as the centre of France - and one of the most important centres of Europe - in a truly diverse manner. Its 12.3 million citizens’ flare for cultural innovation can be seen in its biannual Fashion Weeks, its art museums (the Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world) and renowned cuisine. In addition to this, the city is the financial heart of France, producing 30% of its total GDP. The significance that Paris holds is evinced by its twentieth century track record: a war front in World War One, an occupied victim in World War Two, and a key player in the anti-colonial struggle of the Algerian war for independence during the 1950s and 1960s.

A Diamond in the Rough

However, despite Paris’ position as an enlightened and economic centre, discontent is still rife among its socially conscious populace. A quick internet search for demonstrations in Paris will reveal multiple hits in the last month alone, with marchers pushing for change in various ways: supporting trade unions, calling for a greater response to climate change, attacking austerity measures and so on. These protests address both the bigger picture and the local situation in a tradition stemming from 1789’s major republican revolution. To mirror East-European demonstrations against the powers that be – albeit very different ones – in 1968, Parisian students and blue-collar workers also took to the streets to protest against capitalism and consumerism, resulting in a two-week general strike that nearly brought France to its knees. Indeed, the almost polar distribution of different social classes within Paris - the affluent centred around the west and the lower middle and working classes in the north - could help to explain these consistent rebellions against the status quo. For whilst the city of Paris is itself a gem, it is immediately encircled by an area unequal to its beauty: riskily constructed, unevenly distributed and sporadically deserted social housing in the ‘quartiers sensibles’ (sensitive quarters), wealth inequality that sees a quarter of the city’s populace living below the poverty line, rising unemployment, and homelessness statistics comprising 43% of the country’s total homeless population. Like many European capitals, Paris is a hotbed of inequality and social tension.

The Future

But unlike the population of many other European capitals, the Parisian population appears determined to do something about it, and its government – possibly partially coerced by popular movements – is taking steps to create a more unified city. An initiative started by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy involves the creation of a new administrative body, aimed at strengthening ties between the city and its surrounding areas. The so-called Metropolis of Greater Paris formally came into existence on 1st January 2016 and is made up of 210 officials from the elected committees of member communes. Its focus will be to deal with problems and inequalities in housing, urban planning and the environment, and it is hoped that it will help to solidify the Paris area into a unified and thus even more influential entity. If such initiatives keep being devised, it remains hopeful that Paris will continue to grow and resist those who wish to smash the diamond.