PARIS – I am what Parisians call a “provincial.” This derogatory term comes from the days of the monarchy when France was divided between a royal capital and provinces ruled as fiefdoms by noble families. Though the French have done away with the king, they have yet to discard the notion that Paris is the center of the universe. Some Parisians still believe it is the only city in the country worth interest.
Paris clearly remains important. With 2.2 million people living in the city itself and another 12 million in the metropolitan area, Paris is by far the most populous city in France. Paris is also the headquarters of the French Government, the heart of its economy, and the home of its most prestigious schools and universities. Most of all, Paris symbolizes the entire country for the millions of tourists it attracts each year.
Historically Paris is the heart of the country. Beginning in the 14th century, French kings ruled from the Louvre. Though Louis XIV moved the practical seat of government to nearby Versailles in 1682, during the French Revolution of 1789, the Parisian bourgeois overthrew the royalty in Versailles and returned power to Paris, where it has remained since.
That power has given the city cultural dynamism, convenience stores open until midnight and public WiFi on every corner, and an urban lifestyle lauded above that of a provincial. But Parisian comfort comes with a heavy price. The city of Paris sits in near seclusion. It is separated from its suburbs by a circular motorway, which has been expanded and taken on the function of defensive walls. Most of the wealth and prestigious jobs remain inside these modern walls.
In the suburbs beyond, the neighborhoods are divided by affluence, with some few wealthy towns more closely resembling gated communities than poorer areas. Side by side these wealthy neighborhoods sit their unlucky, impoverished counterparts known as “bedroom suburbs.” These areas house the middle class and the poor, present few job opportunities, and suffer high unemployment. Among them are the infamous cités, the “new towns” built in the 1950s to resolve housing shortages. Year after year, the poor quality of construction, the distance from Paris and its jobs, and the lack of services have turned the cités into social ghettos. The unemployment rate in these neighborhoods is often above 25 percent.
The Parisian transport system exemplifies this disparity. From the late 19th century until World War II, most urban renovation was designed to facilitate movement into Paris. The famous Grands Boulevards of the Baron Haussmann and the Paris Metropolitan system (the Metro) structured and united the development of Paris.
However, after World War II, urban development primarily took place in the suburbs. Construction there lacked systematic organization and public transport, only yielding three levels of circular motorways. Finally in the 1970s, public transport came to the suburbs, though not in the form of the Metro. The suburbs received the RER (Regional Express Network), a new independent system.
Today the Metro mainly remains restricted to the inner city of Paris and its closest suburbs, while the RER has grown into a nightmare of a train. The RER A line alone transports 330 million people each year, twice as many as line 1 of the Metro. The systems have become two different modes of transportation for two different types of Parisians. At the Châtelet station in the center of Paris, where the metro and the RER meet, you can witness a rare scene of Parisian intermingling.
Authorities have been diagnosing problems with Paris transportation for nearly three decades, but solutions have been slow to come. The Regional Council of Ile-de-France, established in 1976, can do little in terms of urban planning and development. The regional transport authority Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France is victim to power struggles between the State, the Regional Council and the municipalities. Meanwhile, the very same municipalities complain about the lack of resources and funding, while simultaneously resisting amalgamation for fear of losing their “local touch.”
In 2007 former President Nicolas Sarkozy officially launched an initiative known as Métropole du Grand Paris (The Metropolis of Greater Paris), which President François Hollande recently revised. Though the initiative is the first coherent plan to expand the transportation network into the suburbs, it will likely complicate metropolitan administrative management by adding further layers of bureaucracy. The Metropolis of Greater Paris initiative will likely come to fruition between 2020 and 2030, 50 years after the project was first conceived. By then, the metropolitan area of Paris will have undoubtedly grown again, expanding far beyond the limits of the proposed metro extensions. For the last 55 years, Parisian infrastructure has lagged behind urban development, and that trend seems likely to continue.
Yet beyond all of these issues, the worst part of this problem is the government’s utter disregard for the rest of the country. Rapid, erratic development in Paris stems from a lack of living and job opportunities in alternative cities. Paris has 12.5 million inhabitants, while Lyon has 1.5 million, and Marseille and Lille house 1.2 million each. If Paris wants to remain attractive to investors and inhabitants, it has to learn to share. It must share its wealth with its poorer suburbs and share its power with other cities. Paris must open up to become a dynamic and cosmopolitan city, not just a museum for tourists and a playground for the elite.