Little by little Paris is disappearing. If you stand at the Maison de Radio or anywhere near the left bank of Pont Crenelle and look across the Seine, your view is of full or semi-skyscrapers crowding the opposite bank. A film director, framing his background shot with his two hands in cinematic rectangle, couldn’t be sure it wasn’t Chicago or Singapore or some other anonymous world cityscape he was setting up. Only a few years ago the standard joke among Parisians not yet undermined by indifference was to ask where one could get the best view of all Paris—from, say, the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Coeur, or the top of the new Tour de Montmartre? The answer was the Montmartre roof, because from there you couldn’t see its ugly intermitting self. Now it has been joined by all the encroaching blocks of similar boring glitzy office lofts and apartment boxes pressing remorselessly in upon central Paris from every side.
Of course, in the name of modernity, Paris has been submitting itself to automotive and architectural progress since mid-century, when it began surrendering the broad unencumbered sidewalks of all those spoke-streets radiating from the Etoile to parallel parking and allowed 20th-century high-rise boxes to intermingle with its low built traditional architecture. The erosion of the capital’s special character accelerated when it provided for fast heavy traffic along Seine boulevards (and tunnels) and gave ground to new factories infiltrating the capital from Sevres to La Villette. Two climaxes in sheer bad taste as well as urban planning occurred when the perverse Pompidou Museum, with its skeletal bones and pipes gaily exteriorized, and that exclamatory glass pyramid, defying the sedate and harmonious setting of the Louvre, went up a faits accomplis.
Still, city fathers—or are they stepfathers by now?—have been prettifying much of the rest of middle Paris, probably by way of guilty compensation, sandblasting many of the standard landmarks, including Notre Dame recently, and refurbishing the gilt on the four glittering horses of Pont Alexandre. Nonetheless, or all the more, the net result is that the Paris we have loved and admired has been steadily shrinking, dwindling down to an area that extends from the Trocadero to the Etoile and Champs Élysées, the Rond Point, Concorde, Tuilleries, the Opéra, Louvre, and over to the Íle dé la Cité and the whitened Cathedral: a retreating showplace, a spruced-up city within a city. It has now become a sort of cultural Disneyland, a revered theme park.
Except that what is left, the vestigial glory, is no where near what it was. The once elegant and charming Champs Élysées has joined the Rue de Rivoli and Place des Vosges in helter-skelter vulgarity. The other street of undisputed sophistication and style, St. Honoré, shows the same discontinuity of fashionable magasins cheek-by-jowl with cheap shops the way you can find fancy jewelry establishments alternating with sleazy cigar stores next door on Fifth or Lexington Avenue in New York. Probably this very coarsening of aesthetic and urban standards is what paved the way for that vitreous insult at the entrance to the world’s otherwise most palatial museum in all of the beauty of its harmonious facade.
Paris declines by other measures as well. Items culinary: you cannot get a potage in any normal restaurant the way you could only a few years ago; salades de tomates or concombres are no longer usual fare either. And entrecôtes are not nearly as tasty or ungristly as they used to be in bistros or brasseries. In fact, midline eating in Paris and France is below what you can expect anywhere in, say, Italy nowadays. Item canine: despite feckless civic adjurations to pick up after one’s pet, dog feces turn countless Parisian streets into head-bending Olympic obstacle courses. (Actually, China’s bid for the 2008 Games included a competitive complaint against the City of Light on these very grounds of street soilage in Paris.) Item pestiferous: there is a growing incidence of mice, rats and cockroaches in the city, even in posh arrondissements like the 16th, Passy. It is almost impossible to enlist all the landlords of an apartment block to band together for effective fumigation, celebrated French individualism being what it is. But, then, where are the civil authorities? Why are they waiting for plague before stepping in? Item automotive and telecommunicative: if you thought that riding around the Etoile was the world’s greatest traffic adventure before now, you cannot imagine the increased terripilation you will feel with covert cell-phone drivers added into the mix.
In such ways, Parisians and most French are a match for Americans. In point of fact, the famous Coca-Colonization of the country has passed into and through the MacDonaldized phase: one out of ten French men—and women—is obese. On the more malign side of acculturation, crime is up: Paris is the burglary capital of Europe. And there are now areas of Paris so dangerous and autonomous that police will simply not enter those quarters or ghettos, even with officers of color on the force. Nota bene, or male: the police are recruiting vigorously these days, for both sexes and any ethnicity, so far failing to fill ranks. On the prosecutional front, there is an exceptional hole in the magisterial French court system, regarding DUI arrests, which continue to increase in France, Despite Coca Cola sales, many French still drink a lot of wine—and then drive and slay a lot of their countrymen. But they aren’t put away for negligent homicide or irresponsible death by any other name, because the viticulture interests are as strong in France as the NRA is in our country. The populace doesn’t seem to mind all that much. Accounting for the perpetrators, it probably prefers suspended licenses instead of jail time, even as the victim list mounts; it simply likes the arrangement.
It also likes its TV (where I have seen no ads against drunk driving), commercialized as it is now and dumbed-down in talk and game shows that, when they are not direct importations of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” etc., are original inanities even exceeding American models. Few French seem to care or even register the erosion of their entertainment any more than of their school system, which continues to slide all the way from pre-baccalaurêat requirements through university expectations. (There are too many overbuilt university complexes—and nominal students—in France now, as in the United States.)
All these matters proceed apace amid an atmosphere of virtual incognizance, a mental set that extends to the ongoing ethnic transformation of the country going on before French eyes. Americans, of course, are used to such demographic change, have in fact been made, characterized and self-characterized by it, but the French have been notoriously chauvinistic and, more to the point, xenophobic. Outside observers may be excused for being struck by their new and perhaps willed unawareness of what is happening all about and among them, as mosques rise in quartier after quartier and dark-skinned people literally change the color and citizenship of France, especially urban France. In other words, the historic country as well as Paris is disappearing and nobody but the hysterical 20 percent of the electorate, Le Pen’s quasi-fascist group, seems (for their wrong reasons) to care or, in service of momentous fact, even to notice. Maybe that’s because, as a member of the E.U. for a while now, France has only nominal borders and anyone can come in. In any case, the French seem perfectly reconciled to their portion of European southernization, so to speak, familiar also to Germany, Benelux, Britain and, recently, even Italy and Spain (and, again, ourselves). The thing is that, by now in France, the third world’s presence is no longer confined to garbage collectors, street cleaners, maids and nannies. As in large American cities, the cab driver is foreign—Portuguese or Turk—semi-skilled construction workers are Moroccan or Senegalese, and emergency room doctors as well as staff are Algerian or Pakastani. What is truly noteworthy is only how casual an attitude the erstwhile French establishment assumes as not only the complexion but the basis of their national life is being transformed.
In the two other big questions facing them, the French present a similar insouciance. Nobody has the slightest concern or even interest in what is happening to the radioactive waste in the world’s most nuclearized country. One would think that, with prestigious first-class newspapers like Le Monde and Figaro, French reporters would have ferreted out the answer: is waste being secreted on local sites, in caves of the Maritime Alps, in the seas off Tahiti, or by arrangement with Senegal? All one hears is that waste is being “reprocessed,” as if the magical marbles to which it is being reduced have lost their radioactivity. In any event, where are they being deposited? No journalists or Green citizenry can get this crucial information, and the public turns away from the whole matter. As it does from a question even closer to its heart—the financing of its vast and costly social services. People want an eventual eight-week vacation and retirement at 55 or—why not?—50. But without retrenchment of the entire system, inevitable bankruptcy looms in the not-too-distant future, yet no one takes the issue seriously. There is no debate, no confrontation.
That is the hallmark of Gallic life now, not to bother, not to notice. The French are not attending to the large structural questions of their national life any more than to the structural shrinkage of Paris, almost as unaware of the social transformations of their country as they are of the devaluation of their capital. There is potent irony in referring to their supreme 19th-century realist, Balzac, and his claim that Paris was the great bellwether on earth, the cultural center of the modern world—registering the exquisite consciousness and morale of Western civilization—and then taking the measure today of this broad-gauge, colossal indifference. That is to say, he may be as accurate and relevant as he ever was, though not in the way he would have imagined—or desired.