Listen to this article
I was driven out of London by house prices years before that became fashionable. My last residence was a rented shared slum above an off-licence in Marylebone. When the landlord threatened to tear it down in 2001, I faced the great London question: do I spend a fortune I don’t have on a grotty little flat and devote my life to servicing the mortgage? Instead I got on a Eurostar train, and three days later bought a nice flat in central Paris for £60,000. Since moving here I’ve watched London and Paris gradually become twin cities (albeit not identical twins). I have also watched the French elite carry out a deep study of London — a place they have come to view with a mix of envy, love and contempt.
London today looms large in Parisian thinking. The British capital is unprecedentedly vibrant, monstrous and close: two hours 15 minutes from city centre-to-centre by Eurostar. Never before have two great cities in different countries been so connected. Viewed from Shanghai, Paris and London are in pretty much the same spot. In fact, Paris has joined the Londonsphere: the ring of towns from Brussels to Birmingham from where people regularly drop into London for work meetings. Occasional Londoners like me use London as a giant “hot desk”. We benefit from its economy without needing to pay its house prices or school our children there. That makes London one of Paris’s best assets.
Paris and London could co-operate — for instance, by enticing Asian tourists or investors to put a foot in each city. Instead the cities’ relationship is above all competitive, says Mathieu Lefevre, Parisian and executive director of the New Cities Foundation.
The rivalry took off after London unexpectedly beat Paris to be named host of the 2012 Olympics. After the vote in Singapore, Parisian wounds were so painful that the mayoralty’s staff could only ever refer to the defeat as “the incident of Singapore”.
Still, the rivalry encourages learning. The people who run Paris want it to be a cutting-edge global city, not an inhabited museum. So they study London.
Clearly Paris won’t ever become London. Its very skeleton is different. “Paris is perhaps the most beautiful city in the world because it is perfect — planned to be perfect,” Jacques Herzog, the Swiss Pritzker-prize winning architect told me. That perfection is the legacy of 19th-century city planner Baron Haussmann. Even the city’s triumphal arches align. “Especially the northern part of the Seine is perfectly, dramatically organised,” says Herzog. “London has in fragments also this geometric clarity, but then it’s surrounded by a totally different spirit, wilder. It’s much more based on private initiative.” The “forest of skyscrapers” now going up in central London would not suit Paris, he says.
Paris’s basic architecture is not up for grabs. Nor does this traditionally socialist city want to follow London and build an economy on banking and finance, says Lefevre. French distrust of banks is just too strong.
But in many other ways, London inspires Paris — just as Paris’s bakeries, cafés and shared electric cars have inspired London. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo aims to “reinvent Paris” as an ultra-modern city. And so Paris studies the urban regeneration that London has achieved around St Pancras and the Olympic Park. Paris relaxed Sunday opening hours partly so as not to lose Chinese shoppers to London. Like London, Paris is becoming a tech hub.
More broadly, Paris is trying to emulate London’s cosmopolitanism. This process is both top-down and bottom-up. Parisian cuisine is becoming ever more international, including Australian-made coffee, Anglo-run restaurants and “les food trucks”. Most Parisians have finally accepted English as the global language. They speak it better than ever, and school their children in it from age six. As I write, “Festival Jerk Off (Queer & Alternatives) — Danse, Théâtre, Installation” is about to open here. A generation from now, Paris could be a de facto bilingual city like Amsterdam.
Paris wants London’s success. However, it does not want London’s prices. While London pushes out the poor, Paris is controlling rents and building new public housing.
“Affordable housing is already the number one problem in Paris by far,” says Lefevre. “It’s seen that London has a far worse problem. Whereas Paris had a very clear envy of London five years ago, I think that is now changing. London is now perceived as just too elitist, too mercantilist, too much a centre for the 1 per cent.”
Paris is aiming for a feat that may be impossible: to be a great global city, but one whose citizens do not live in service to their mortgages. London is both a role model and a warning.