Thomas Chatterton Williams: Do Americans understand how badly they’re doing?
As in the United States, the pain has not been felt equally. Compare the fate of Seine-Saint-Denis—France’s poorest administrative department, with the second-highest proportion of immigrants—with that of Paris proper. Seine-Saint-Denis provides the highest number of essential workers in Île-de-France. Many residents continued to take public transportation to work during the two-month lockdown. The area also suffers from a scarcity of doctors. The result of all this was a mortality rate in Seine-Saint-Denis from March 1 to April 19 that was 134 percent higher than the same period last year. Within Paris city limits, the mortality rate was 99 percent higher.**
People in the banlieues are acutely aware of how much more they endured during the initial lockdown than their richer neighbors, and of how much harsher they were treated by police when they ventured into the public sphere than, say, joggers near the Arc de Triomphe. The result has been frustration and anger. George Floyd’s death in the United States sent thousands of French Black Lives Matter protesters into the streets of Paris in June—in defiance of orders not to gather in large numbers—to demonstrate against racist police brutality in France.
For all this, no one is talking about the death of Paris the way some are talking about the death of New York. In its 2,000-year-long history, Paris has survived plenty of calamities. In recent years alone, Paris has been rocked by terrorist attacks, floods, violent street protests, and a fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame. The motto of the city is “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” “Tossed by the waves but never sunk.” Paris is the financial, cultural, and political capital of a highly centralized country, and so it will ever remain.
Still—and this may come as a shock to Americans—French leadership understands that it must not let the crisis go to waste. It is prepared to act. When Parisians emerged from their apartments and returned from their country homes after lockdown, they found that 50 kilometers of bright-yellow pop-up “corona lanes” for bicycles had been laid over crowded underground Métro lines. Café tables spilled out onto streets from which cars had been banned, taking over former parking spaces and enabling the city’s restaurants to reopen with minimal risk of contagion.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been on a mission to rid the city of cars for some time, and to reduce the air pollution that kills 6,600 people in the Paris metropolitan area, the majority of them in banlieues, every year. In June, she was handily reelected on a platform to accelerate the ecological transformation of Paris. She has vowed to make permanent some of the changes she enacted during the lockdown and to regreen Paris with urban forests. All diesel cars will be banned from the city by 2024. Hidalgo is also forging ahead with a plan to convert the Périphérique highway, the beltway that surrounds Paris, into a parkland with severely reduced, clean-vehicle traffic, easily crossed by pedestrians and bicyclists. The idea isn’t only to eliminate an unsightly, polluting highway in a city that is aiming to go post-carbon; it’s also to remove the most important physical and psychological barrier to the merging of Paris with its banlieues into the new Metropolis of Grand Paris. That barrier can’t fall soon enough.