When Paris becomes utopia

Image of Simon Kuper

Walking through Paris in spring, you start to think about earthly utopias. It’s tricky to describe the city on the first sunny day of the season, because it’s been done so often before. As Ella Fitzgerald and everyone else sang:

... April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom

Holiday tables under the trees

April in Paris, this is a feeling

That no one can ever reprise

Briefly: I saw gorgeous people sitting around under gorgeous buildings eating gorgeous meals in the sun. It was just a very good human-and-nature co-production. I won’t say more for fear of sounding like a bad love poem. However, there’s a serious issue here: how does a utopia come to be created? It’s luck only in part. The French will go to almost any lengths to preserve Paris in spring.

Each country does one or two things brilliantly. Italians know coffee, the Japanese are polite, Americans can talk to strangers, Germans stare their own history unblinkingly in the eye, while Britons have shortcomings but are very funny about them. The French know how to live, but never more so than in Paris in the spring. This warrants an enquiry into the mechanics.

The first essential for a great spring is a bad winter. Paris has it. “When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, exaggerating slightly, in his memoir of Paris. Because Paris has clearer air than London, winters are colder here, and yet the city rarely gets the white winters of the north. Even when the lakes do freeze over, everyone sits inside grumbling over chocolat chaud instead of skating around communing with nature.

Winter seems endless in Paris, and yet the place is built for sunlight. It’s like a Mediterranean city plonked down in the north: white and grey buildings, designed for the play of shadows, with tiny apartments that Parisians need to escape.

They need to escape partly because so many of them are ex-peasants living in captivity. Paris traditionally populates itself from dying French villages. Even Parisian-born families often claim they are “really” from the hamlet that great-grandfather left. I once stumbled on a Maigret detective story set in the Parisian street where I was living 50 years later (everything you do in Paris has already been written or filmed), and was struck by Georges Simenon’s description of the street on warm nights. The inhabitants, he wrote, would put their chairs on the pavement to recreate their lost outdoor village life.

In London, winter and spring are barely distinguishable, because the clouds muffle both seasons. In Paris, when spring comes it’s like someone has switched on the light. When the terrasses appear outside cafés, it’s like living in an apartment that has doubled in size overnight. Again, it’s impossible to laud the terrasses without cliché. Here is Woody Allen’s parody of the genre: “I come upon a man at an outdoor café. It is André Malraux. Oddly, he thinks that I am André Malraux.” But the terrasses do turn Paris into a stage-set, where the people become the architecture. That’s why the chairs face outwards, so that the diners can inspect the passers-by.

Meanwhile, the passers-by can inspect the diners’ food. Paris in spring is like an outdoor exhibition of French cuisine. It all adds up to a simulacrum of French village life – but without the tedium, because you are in the epicentre of civilisation. That first day of spring, I was walking home from an Orson Welles movie.

In spring, some Parisians even smile. Smiles are unremarkable in, say, Florida, where people grin even when they have just been foreclosed. But in Paris, where grumpiness is the socially approved mode, the smiles are shocking, as if someone had just put LSD in the wine supply.

In short, Paris in spring is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. However, it’s a fragile one. These utopias are easily wrecked. The Italians, for instance, created the perfect experience of watching football, but then wrecked it with decrepit stadiums, hooligans and match fixing. Brussels was apparently almost as good as Paris until the postwar city planners wrecked it.

France’s rulers scheme daily to preserve Paris. They don’t merely shove everything mundane – office buildings and the like – into the netherworld beyond Paris’s ring road. Just how far these people will go dawned on Winston Churchill in June 1940. Flying into a France being invaded by Germans, he naturally anticipated a battle for Paris. “Will not the mass of Paris and its inhabitants present an obstacle dividing and delaying the enemy?” he asked the French. But Marshal Pétain was dismissive: “To make Paris a city of ruins will not affect the issue.” And the French general Weygand added that “no attempt at resistance would be made in [Paris] ... he could not see it destroyed by German bombardment”.

Which is why, at a price, we still have Paris in springtime.


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