Featured in
Issue 176

Le Grand Paris

The French capital expands its boundaries

BY Lauren Elkin in Critic's Guides | 11 DEC 15

Castro Denissof Associés architects’ rendering of Greater Paris without administrative boundaries, 2009. Courtesy Castro Denissof Associés

On 1 January 2016, Paris will no longer be a city composed of 20 arrondissements (2.2 million people living in 105 km²), but the Métropole du Grand Paris, encompassing 6.7 million people over 762 km². The last time Paris enlarged itself this way was in 1860, when a ring of outer villages including Belleville, Bercy, Montmartre and Passy were integrated; this capped off a systematic expansion outward of the city from its original location on the Ile de la Cité and the Latin Quarter.

This latest enlargement is happening just six weeks after the worst attack on French soil since World War II. Most of the attackers were not Syrian refugees, as they would have liked us to believe, but home-grown products of the ‘territorial, social, ethnic apartheid’, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it, which divides Paris from its outer suburbs, the banlieues. While it may seem inclusive, the plan was actually thought up by former president Nicolas Sarkozy – and many are suspicious of his intentions. In his book Paris sous tension (Paris Under Pressure, 2011), Eric Hazan writes of the way the poor and working class (known as the classes dangereuses, ‘the dangerous classes’ in the words of the mid-20th-century French historian Louis Chevalier) have been pushed ever-outwards from the centre of Paris by just this sort of ‘modernizing’ project. Is this simply one more way, Hazan asks, to spin the poor out, ‘centrifugally’, yet further? Or will it improve circulation throughout the city, create jobs, allow for more spending on schools and for better public housing to be built?

Le Grand Paris is a logical next step in the government’s attempt to decentralize the Ile-de-France. Since the late 1990s, a slew of major cultural institutions has opened outside of Paris proper, including the Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne in Vitry-sur-Seine, Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry, La Galerie Centre d’art contemporain in Noisy-le-Sec, Maison des Arts in Créteil, and the MC93 theatre in Bobigny. Money has also been poured into developing a French ‘Silicon Valley’ on the Plateau de Saclay, around the Ecole Polytechnique in the south of the city. But it may take many more years for the ‘apartheid’ to dissolve.

One of the things that some commentators are saying about the places that were attacked is that they were very ‘mixed’; not just in central Paris, but also the Stade de France, which is outside the ringroad in the banlieue of Saint-Denis. However, the terms we use to talk about this ‘mixing’ may be the key to its success – or downfall. This is the argument made by one of the victims at the Bataclan, Matthieu Giroud, who was a lecturer in geography at the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée. Just ten days before his death, he published a piece on mixité for the magazine La Vie des ideés (The Life of Ideas), arguing that it can become a form of top-down social control, but that the inhabitants of gentrifying neighbourhoods could practice forms of resistance by ‘occupying public space and making themselves visible’ in order to ‘appropriate and control their neighbourhoods’. In talking about the values of diversity, Giroud wrote that it’s important not to flatten out the complexities of the ‘oppositions, conflicts, struggles, controversies […] all the forms of life in mixed neighbourhoods’.

It’s probable that the deranged murderers who took Giroud’s life intended to deepen mistrust towards Muslims in France and to sow more discord in the already troubled relationship between Paris and its banlieues. But they’ve done this at a time when the city is about to become more ‘mixed’ than ever before: we are all about to become Parisians together. The question is: what will this mean, practically? And what kind of community can we build together?

Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (2016) and No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus (2021) by Semiotext(e)/Les Fugitives. She lives between Paris, France and Liverpool, UK.