Paris, city of …?

The most beautiful city in the world has had a very glum look in recent weeks. The repeated and increasingly violent demonstrations, the garbage collectors’ strike (which leaves a very obvious trace on the pavements) shine a terrible light on a city, which has been looking for its way for a long time now.

In the space of a decade, what were once one-off negative events have accumulated to the point of seriously denting the image and reputation of the world's leading tourist destination.

Not too long ago, the Greater Paris hospitality landscape had promised to evolve significantly after a long period of laborious growth, caused by a lack of available land and/or a clear political desire.

It must be recognised that the situation is particularly complex when the territories overlap, when the attributions are not clear, and when cooperation between politicians from different sides is not easy. Discussions between the elected representatives of Paris, the Métropole, and the Paris Capitale Region sometimes look more like bickering than talks.

Good intentions come up against conflicting interests. Lack of decisions inevitably leads to delays. Passing the buck cannot always be a way out.

We can draw up a heavy balance sheet of the dysfunctions that affect the attractiveness of Paris: the Grand Paris Express is not up to the task of hosting major international events; the development work in Parisian neighbourhoods disgusts locals; the traffic plan excludes efficient means of transport due to sheer dogmatism; the logic of substituting soft mobility is being called into question; and what can we even say about the long-awaited transformation promised by Réinventer Paris...

For those not familiar with the concept, Réinventer Paris is an initiative of the City Council to respond to the lack of available land. The basic principle was to free up wasteland or unoccupied buildings in exchange for innovative projects in order to offer the capital new reception capacities and an image of modernity and audacity. This was then renewed several times between 2014 and 2019.

It must be acknowledged that several projects that came out of these calls for tender brought real innovations, but not as many as one might have hoped. The priority given to innovation and audacity has often been overshadowed by financial criteria in the calls for tender. In reality, the selected promoters had to be the most economically advantageous in order to satisfy the financial appetite of Parisian councillors.

As a result, the synthesis between the boldness and profitability of the economic equation has rarely resulted in anything other than conventional programming. Where is the reinvention?

Paris is, in the broadest sense, a shared territory. As such, the Métropole, governed by another council of elected representatives, also launched its Inventons la Métropole du Grand Paris programme. It has even gone so far as to launch versions 1, 2, and 3 of it. Do you think that there has been coordination between those responsible? This would mean them having to get along and listen to each other. Of course, the ambition is not the same, since it essentially concerns the developments around the 68 new stations of the Grand Paris Express, but a common grand design would not have done any harm.

It may seem easy to attack the often pointed out inconsistencies of the Paris City Council. It is determined to discourage investors, to change the rules of the game of its Local Urbanism Plan in order to design a Paris that forgets its role as the capital and as a world centre of tourism and business. It does this in order to present an idyllic version of Paris to the electorate across its 20 arrondissements.

We could cite tons of examples of projects that prioritise the satisfaction of local residents over the ambition of an international metropolis. What will become of the Hôtel Dieu site in Paris, located in the heart of the city, just a stone's throw from Notre-Dame? Will it follow the example of Lyon and Marseille, which have transformed their own sites into genuinely lively places that promote sharing between locals and visitors? It could become a new meeting place, but in fact the idea is to build social housing and to house charities, biotechnology laboratories, and, on a temporary basis, residences for artists in need of a space.

Will the attractiveness of Paris suffer? Will it be permanently damaged by what has happened recently? Fortunately for all, this is not a given. The City of Light enjoys an almost undamageable power of attraction, generously maintained by private initiatives that compensate for municipal failures and mistakes. The foundations of great patrons such as Bernard Arnault and François Pinault multiply the opportunities to visit Paris thanks to their wonderful exhibitions.

On the hospitality side, whatever the difficulties encountered, private investors continue to launch their hotel construction and renovation projects. They are thus mobilising a lot of capital so that Paris can continue to hold its own.

The Olympic Games are moving forward at a rapid pace and will help transform disadvantaged neighbourhoods, thus opening up new opportunities in the inner suburbs. We will be able to judge afterwards whether Paris will have exploited the Games as well as did its eternal rival, London. The effective governance of such a complex territory remains an essential issue to achieve this. Between the rivalry, the clawing, the cutting soundbites, and the façade of solidarity, one can legitimately wonder what will happen.

Fine initiatives such as Paris&Co, the capital's territorial innovation agency, are themselves suffering the consequences of this dogmatism. It is leading to a reduction in aid for the private initiatives of its incubator, which seeks to reinvent tourism.

If dogmatism too often seems to prevail over realism, the recent reversal of the management of electric scooters shows that the right way forward can eventually be found. However, must we wait for situations to become chaotic before reacting in the right way?

Whatever people may say, and despite the efforts of other major French cities, Paris remains the flagship of Destination France. In marketing, it's all about the promise, and Paris, as an international showcase, is an essential part of this.

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