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Foreign Affairs -- AUGUST 1995

Paris Is Finished

It has finished building this century's
public monuments, that is--and it goes out
of the millenium gloriously

by David Lawday

ONE must not underestimate the French, but perhaps their reputation for being impossible needs re-examining. In theory, you cannot slip an opinion across a French café counter without being challenged. So when a single Frenchman gets away with imposing his taste and vision on something as fundamental as Paris--indeed, with changing the face of the French capital to suit himself--one is inclined to wonder how he did it.

With the departure of President François Mitterrand, Paris has come to the end of a grand age of architectural renewal. The scope has been colossal. In architectural terms the City of Light slept for the better part of a century after a pair of world exhibitions, in 1889 and 1900, gave it the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais, and other wonders. These appeared scarcely a generation after Emperor Napoleon III had Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann tear up the capital and crisscross it with boulevards. Now, from east to west, the cityscape has changed once more. The world's most visited city has never had more to admire, or at least to gawk at.

That the change happened so fast--well within two decades--and on so vast a scale explains better than any reading of the French constitution how incorrigibly imperial are the powers of a French leader. Without the tiring distraction of debate in Parliament, a good $6 billion of taxpayers' money was spent at the President's personal behest on the renewal of Paris: a splendid revamping of the Louvre, a monumental national library in the east, a celestial arch in the west, an opera house at the Bastille, and enough striking novelties in between to shake up every tourist's yellowing fantasies of the city.

If this were America, Congress would still be haggling over the opera-house staircase. State architectural sprees do not happen in America. Nor do they in England or Germany or the capitals of most places like them--which may be the worse for it.

In most democratic countries these days, prestige-building is privately financed. Queen Elizabeth was required to dip into her own purse to repair Windsor Castle after it burned. This is not the French way. Bernard Latarget, Mitterrand's construction chamberlain, was still smiling at remarks to the effect that his boss was a latter-day pharaoh when I interviewed him in his office as Mitterrand's reign came to a close. Looking out over the leafy lower reaches of the Champs Elysées and the handsome roof of the Grand Palais, Latarget was at pains to indicate that culture has an essential place in French public life--is, indeed, an essential public service, like health, education, and transport. He said, "You do not leave such things to private enterprise." Certainly, Latarget conceded, the age of construction bore Mitterrand's personal crest. Certainly his personal tastes and ambitions were on display. But that was not like Louis XIV's having created Versailles for himself. Mitterrand had not built himself a château to live in. His grands travaux were for the glory of France, and in most cases they met pressing needs.

THE renewal of Paris started a few years before Mitterrand's fourteen-year presidency got under way. Its origins were in the soaring of presidential authority that followed Charles de Gaulle's decision to write a new constitution, in 1958, and thus get himself elected President by direct popular vote, in 1965. From then on the President enjoyed powers comparable to those of the old Kings of France.

Fittingly, De Gaulle the democrat was a born autocrat. This revealed itself in memorable ways. For one thing, he had no time for Parliament and political parties. "The more decrees and the less legislation we have the better" was the great man's intimate view on government, as cited in a recent book by Alain Peyrefitte, who served as his Information Minister. One could imagine such a man rebuilding Paris to his own specifications in a trice. But the task De Gaulle set himself was to rebuild the nation, not its capital.

His successor, the ex-banker Georges Pompidou, used the enhanced authority of the presidency to destroy Paris. Of course, he did not see his contribution quite that way. During his term, from 1969 to 1974, his goal was to modernize the capital in order to make it easier to get around by car. He dreamed of a freeway along the Seine past the Latin Quarter. The high esteem he had for his own artistic taste encouraged him to experiment. Property speculation ran wild as aimless high-rises sprang up. Pompidou had the old marketplace of Les Halles and its unforgettable wrought-iron pavilions demolished in favor of an underground commercial maze. It is true that Zola's Belly of Paris had become too cramped and inaccessible to continue as the wholesale-food hub for a metropolis. But the place where Paris famously lived through the night has deteriorated over the years into a nighttime no-go area.

Poor Pompidou is remembered as an architectural Attila because of Les Halles, so there is some irony to the fact that the nearby Centre Pompidou is named after him. The contemporary-art showplace may be something of an eyesore (the "oil refinery," as Parisians call it, gets thumbs down from taxi drivers, the acknowledged arbiters of popular taste), but it occupies a large place in the age of grands travaux. Indeed, the center launched the age. Pompidou had been dead for three years when it opened, in 1977, by which time his conservative successor, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, was devoting himself to halting the all-out modernization drive. This was a genuine public service, but it thwarted any building ambitions of his own the haughty Giscard may have had--as did an abrupt change in the way Paris was run.

Partway through Giscard's presidency Paris elected itself a mayor for the first time, in the person of Jacques Chirac, who was then the leader of the powerful Gaullist Party and is today France's new President. From time immemorial the State--Kings, Emperors, republican governments--had ruled Paris. Now it was ruled by an executive mayor, and His Honor needed to be consulted, even by the President of the Republic. Chirac, a political rival of Giscard's, got in his way, niggling over things like building permits and zoning rights. In the end Giscard made do by embellishing what was already there--in particular by transforming the old Orsay railway terminal on the Left Bank from a handsome Belle Epoque relic into the Orsay Museum. He also began turning the abandoned municipal slaughterhouses at La Villette, in the north, into a science park and exhibition ground, a job Mitterrand completed.

By the time Mitterrand came to power, in 1981, the design of a prestigious building was supposed to be put out for bid, with a jury choosing the winning architect. Mitterrand, who as a man of letters had some reason to trust his own taste, merely kept up appearances when it came to this nicety. In one way or another he made the choices himself. For a man bent on leaving his mark on history, in these times it seemed a safer bet to leave a building or two than a treaty or two. There was nothing very grand about Mitterrand and his travaux, however, until he decided to remake the Louvre.

THE Louvre was a mummy among the world's leading museums. Half the space in the former royal palace was taken up by the Finance Ministry, and the rest was notoriously run down. It had no entryway to speak of. Mitterrand decided that the architect for the job was the American I. M. Pei. Mitterrand was open-minded in choosing an American. Pei was less so: he declined to go through the motions of competing for the $1.2 billion contract. Unperturbed, Mitterrand told him, Eh bien! Go ahead.

The result is the resplendent glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard, a unique entry to a renovated and spacious museum (the Finance Ministry was kicked out) that now attracts some 40 percent more visitors than it did before. The pyramid was not at all sure to please the conservative French. Nor did it. When first glimpsed, it caused café-counter brawls across France. But Frenchmen clashed over the aspect and the appropriateness of Pei's masterstroke--not over the cost. And having grown accustomed to it, they love it. "Someone has to take the big decisions on monuments," says Emile Biasini, the resourceful man whom Mitterrand installed in his government as Minister of Grand Works. "Otherwise, it's like television. Let the public choose, and the level of programs goes down."

Biasini's strategy was to use the will of the President as his bulldozer. He worked things out with Mayor Chirac so that city hall got out of the way. "I told Chirac the State was paying. He's no fool. He saw the advantages for Paris."

The success of the Louvre project gave Mitterrand a free hand to build. As long as his Socialist Party had a majority in Parliament, as it had most of the time, no one demurred; and when it did not have a majority, his projects were usually too far advanced to be stopped. Members of his court say that he did not set out to emulate past builder-Kings--the idea just grew on him. And it had the time to grow: not many elected national leaders have fourteen years to work with. Mitterrand's real whopper ($1.5 billion) is the Bibliothèque de France, the largest book archive on earth in dimension, replacing the hopelessly cramped National Library, near the original Opera. The Bibliothèque, which has a pine forest planted amid its four glass towers, each in the form of an open book and a good deal higher than the Arc de Triomphe, opens up decrepit east Paris along the Seine, a mile upstream from Notre Dame, like the sun appearing through a junkyard. The steps that descend to the Seine along its quarter-mile length are made of ipe, an Amazonian hardwood. Parisians call it the TGB (très grande bibliothèque), in a tilt of the hat to the high-speed TGV train network, the height of French go-aheadness. The building was finished just in time for Mitterrand to inaugurate it before he stepped down, in May, though it will be at least a year until the library opens for business.

Mitterrand chose the design for its grandeur, without consulting the academic grandees who monopolized the old library it replaces. The project's young French architect, Dominique Perrault, did not consult them either. Mitterrand aimed to open his library to the public, and did not want the intellectual elite to get in the way. An unholy wrangle was likely, and it occurred. The architect's glass towers would literally have burned the books in high summer. To prevent that, the towers had to be insulated with an interior concrete wall encased in wooden shutters. Also, two floors were lopped off each tower; no one, it seems, can quite remember why. "They were a bone thrown to a dog to stop it from snarling," says Dominique Jamet, who was the original head of the library project. Jamet was so badly bruised by the academic brigade that Mitterrand retired him mid-contest.

IN my view, France will come to like the TGB a lot--as much as it likes Pei's pyramid and the marble Grande Arche, which form the new ends of an extended east-west axis along which lie the Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysées, and the Arc de Triomphe. The Centre Pompidou earns some sympathy for its quirkiness, and the modernistic new Finance Ministry, another Mitterrand project, forming a high arch over the road along the Seine, into which one side of the arch is sunk, is mercifully unobtrusive. Only Mitterrand's cheap-looking Bastille Opera ranks as a popular flop--such a flop, in fact, that those close to Mitterrand blame not Mitterrand but the busybody Jack Lang, his longtime Culture Minister, for this ungrand affair. Yet even a mistake of this dimension is happily forgiven by a tolerant public. In touring the grands travaux I met not a soul who suggested that the billions might have been spent on shrinking France's social-security deficit or on some other desperate national problem.

"Imagine putting aesthetic choices to a vote in the French Parliament," the injured Jamet muses. "Nothing would ever get done. At least from a monarch you get a decision. It is a very positive system in its way. The French are complainers, anarchists, individualists, and so on, but they have an enormous respect for grandeur."

Not just respect but a passion. The new President, who as mayor kept the streets of Paris remarkably clean, has scant space, either geographic or psychological, to pursue the age of renewal. Surely, it is over. At last the publishers can put out their definitive Paris guides. The fact remains that a French President can impose almost anything on the French if he wraps it up as essential to the nation's gloire. The French display more concern than most for liberty, and a little less than most for democracy. All the better for us tourists. If other rich nations conducted themselves less democratically, they might have capital cities to compare to Paris.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1995; Paris Is Finished; Volume 276, No. 2; pages 22-27.

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