Updated at 12:29 p.m. ET on September 7, 2020.
The pandemic has hit Paris hard. It hit the poor suburbs of Paris the hardest. Paris had already bet its future on the merger with a large circle of suburb cities to form the new Metropolis of Greater ParisâA capital of the 21st century that is resilient to the environment. But the coronavirus has made it clear how urgent this transformation really is.
Last year, more than 38 million people visited Paris. This summer, foreign travel bans lowered hotel occupancy rates 86 percent. The Paris metropolitan area has seen economic activity drop by more than 37% during the pandemic compared to the same period last year. In Ãle-de-France, the region that is the Parisian metropolis, 100,000 jobs have been lost since mid-March.
The strict national lockdown from mid-March to mid-May succeeded in reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths. But after being attenuated, the virus started to spread again. Although current hospitalization rates remain manageable and death rates are relatively low, the the number of new cases has increased alarmingly in recent weeks, with an upsurge in cases in the Paris area. On August 27, Prime Minister Jean Castex declared 21 of the 101 administrative departments of France, including Paris and its neighboring departments, COVID-19 “red areas. “
As in the United States, the pain was not felt the same way. Compare the fate of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest administrative department in France, with the second largest proportion of immigrants, with that of Paris proper. Seine-Saint-Denis offers the greatest number of essential workers in Ãle-de-France. Many residents continued to use public transportation to get to work during the two-month lockdown. The region also suffers from a shortage of doctors. The result of all this was a death rate in Seine-Saint-Denis from March 1 to April 19 which was 134 p100 more than the same period last year. Within the city limits of Paris, the death rate was 99% higher. **
People in the suburb are fully aware of how much more they endured during the initial lockdown than their wealthier neighbors, and how harsher they were treated by the police when they ventured into the public sphere than, say, the joggers near the Arc de Triomphe. The result was frustration and anger. George Floyd’s death in the United States sent thousands of French Black Lives Matter protesters in the streets of Paris in June – in defiance of orders not to gather in large numbers – to demonstrate against racist police brutality in France.
However, nobody talks about the death of Paris as some talk about the death of New York. During its 2000 year history, Paris has survived many calamities. In recent years alone, Paris has been rocked by Terrorist attacks, floods, violent street demonstrations and a fire that almost destroyed Notre-Dame. The motto of the city is “Fluctuation nec mergitur, “” Shaken by the waves but never sank. âParis is the financial, cultural and political capital of a very centralized country, and it will remain so forever.
Yet, and this may come as a shock to Americans, French leaders understand that they must not let the crisis spoil. He is ready to act. When the Parisians came out of their apartments and returned from their country houses after the lockdown, they found that 50 kilometers of bright yellow pop-up “corona lanesâFor bicycles had been laid on crowded underground subway lines. Coffee tables have spilled over to car-free streets, occupying former parking lots and allowing city restaurants to reopen with minimal risk of contagion.
The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is responsible for rid the city of cars for a while, and reduce the air pollution that kills 6,600 people in the Parisian agglomeration, the majority of them suburb, every year. In June, she was handily reelected on a platform to accelerate the ecological transformation of Paris. She pledged to make some of the changes she made during the lockdown permanent and to make Paris green again with urban forests. All diesel cars will be banned from the city by 2024. Hidalgo is also moving forward with a plan to transform the ring road, the ring road that surrounds Paris, in a park with very reduced traffic and clean, easily crossed by pedestrians and cyclists. The idea is not only to eliminate an unsightly and polluting highway in a city which aims to post-carbon; it is also removing the most important physical and psychological barrier to the merger of Paris with its suburb in the new Metropolis of Greater Paris. This barrier cannot fall soon enough.
The concept of a metropolis was born from violent riots in 2005 following the accidental death by electrocution of two young people, both from minority communities, fleeing the police in Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. In 2009, the then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, instructed a team of architects to imagine an enlarged âGrand Parisâ which would raise the quality of life in the suburb, bring Paris into compliance with the carbon emission limits of the Kyoto Protocol, and make the French capital a world-class city. The Metropolis of Greater Paris was officially signed in January 2016, following the terrorist attacks of 2015. Scheduled for completion in 2030, the Grand Paris Express, already under construction, is the circulatory system of the new metropolis. It will be the largest public transport system in Europe, with 200 kilometers of new tracks for automated trains running every two to three minutes between 68 stations designed by architects. The stations will be decorated with commissioned works from leading contemporary artists and surrounded by new housing, green spaces, university campuses, and multi-purpose office and leisure complexes. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said lack of access to public transport was tantamount to putting people in Paris suburb “under house arrest. “The Grand Paris Express is supposed to free them.
Another project supposed to improve their lives is the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Much of the infrastructure for the games will be built in the town of Saint Denis, in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. When I visited the future 2024 site olympic village in August, the extent of in-store changes was evident. Less was how these changes would help residents whose homes and small businesses are razed. Parisian authorities promise the Games will bring new housing, jobs and a brilliant station on the Grand Paris Express. Many inhabitants, who had no choice in the matter and whose fate was ignored for decades, remain skeptical.
The emblematic Paris of today is the result of a radical transformation of the French capital following the cholera epidemic that swept through the city in 1832, killing 19,000 people in six months. So like now rich parisians fled to their country houses. The poor were left behind in dirty streets with sewage. Rumors were circulating that the disease was a plot against the people who, as Victor Hugo immortalized in Wretched, revolt, erect barricades to cut troops from rebellious neighborhoods. In response, Napoleon III charges Baron Haussmann to make Paris a modern capital, proof against epidemics and revolts. The congested poor neighborhoods were demolished to make way for wide avenues that allowed air and troops to move freely throughout the city. A new underground sewer system has been created. The poor were pushed to the outskirts of the city. Almost 170 years after their expulsion, the Metropolis of Greater Paris is supposed to bring them back into the enveloping bosom of the metropolis.
From the point of view of an American in the Metropolis of Greater Paris, I live in suburb city ââof Pantin, in Seine-Saint-Denis, I can hardly believe the chaos that reigns in the United States. France is far from perfect and far from equal, but I feel lucky to live in a place where politicians and the citizens who hold them accountable are using the devastating pandemic to make the sweeping changes needed to survive the upheaval. future.
* This article previously mislabeled a photo of French White Lives Matter protesters as Black Lives Matter supporters. The photo has been deleted.
** This article had previously incorrectly indicated that mortality in Seine-Saint-Denis and Paris from March 1 to April 19 was respectively 134 times and 99 times higher than at the same period last year. In fact, mortality in these areas was 134% and 99% higher, respectively.