by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak
After instituting week-end confinements in two French departments experiencing exponentially exploding Covid outbreaks last week, the Alpes-Maritime county around Nice and the county around Dunkerque, the national French government announced consultations with leaders in 18 other counties also experiencing elevated levels of cases. The mayor of Paris’s initial response (albeit floated by a deputy mayor) was to suggest a three-week confinement, with the goal of being able to re-open bars, restaurants, and cultural establishments. In other words, so that the mayor could repeat the same conneries of last summer and early fall, when she declined to cancel three typically crowd-intensive events: an outdoor summer film festival, the month-long “Paris Plage” festival which pretends that the Seine is a beach, and the “Nuit Blanche” all-night art event night in early October, when France was already riding the crest of a second wave. Giving the mayor the benefit of the doubt, I ignore what crowd limitations may have been imposed on any of these events. What I do know is that masks were not required for Paris Plage. (I was shocked at the time to see a photo of young people with “Paris health department” tee-shirts passing out information, presumably on safety measures, while standing shoulder to shoulder and not wearing masks.)
After the idea of a three-week new confinement fell flat, the mayor back-peddled and
** Called the idea of a week-end confinement “inhuman,” in and of itself not inaccurate to objectively qualify such an imposition, but given the mayor’s presidential ambitions and previous denigrations of, for example, the pace of the government’s vaccine roll-out, implicitly impugning this quality to president Emmanuel Macron’s government, lead by prime minister Jean Castex.
**Proposed opening classroom windows and holding class outside — as if no one else had already thought of this.
** And, most solipsistically in my view, said the vaccine allotment for the Ile de France region which includes Paris should be quadrupled — when she well knows that vaccine supply in France as in Europe is still limited. (As of last weekend, according to the European Centers for Disease Control, 40 million doses had been distributed to the 27 member states, and 32 million administered.) The implication here being that Parisians are more important than the rest of us.
The frank-talking Castex promptly and properly characterized Madame Hidalgo’s pronouncements as “des fadaises.” (Oxford: “Fiddle-faddle, trifle, nonsense, insipid, silly speech.”)
Meanwhile, while the mayor of Paris was fiddle-faddling, her counterpart in the Southwestern city of Toulouse was taking concrete, practical measures. After residents flooded the banks of the Garonne last week-end, many ignoring social distancing measures and leaving local police to hand out fines, he announced that henceforth the quays would be closed on week-ends. He evidently realizes that it would be … inhuman… to expect the police to act as hall monitors.
Why am I making more of a federal case out of Mayor Hidalgo’s actions and statements than the federal government is?
I think we need to examine the Paris mayor’s recent words in the context of both her reported presidential ambitions and an overall administration of the city frequently characterized by more concern with opportunistic ‘show’ than actual effects, particularly as concerns pollution, the ecology (in a large sense that includes ombrage — tree protection — and water flowing), and privatization.
Let’s look first at that characterization of a possible week-end confinement — and by association the strategy, or at least part of the strategy, of Mr. Macron and Mr. Castex’s government — as “inhuman,” with the concomitant assumption that Madame Hidalgo has a monopoly on that quality. Where exactly does a mayor whose approach to resolving the city’s ongoing homeless population dilemma has included replacing benches in public parks and on the boulevards with single-unit monstrosities (so the homeless can’t sleep on them; out of sight, out of mind) get off applying the epithet ‘inhuman’ to a proposed measure by a government whose president, Mr. Macron, began his tenure by earnestly announcing that he wanted to see 0 people sleeping on the street? On my very first visit to Paris in the fall of 2000, I remember reclining on a bench in a tiny square off the Butte aux Cailles across from the place Paul Verlaine, which still boasts an accessible water source and where the first manned balloons first landed (or took off) in the late 18th century, my arms stretched out along the bench-back as I basked in the gentle fall afternoon sunlight and thinking, “This is the life, and this is where I want to live.” When I returned to that square in 2019, the long benches had been replaced by a row of one-person units, the pigeon-shit that covered all of them leaving me with no desire to rest my fanny at that particular moment. (Benches aren’t just places for homeless people who can’t find correct shelter to sleep; they are also incredible aubaines for the type of ‘vivre-ensemble’ Anne Hidalgo claims to champion. And settings for intrigues; if Georges Simenon were alive today, he would not be able to write “Maigret and the man on the bench” in Anne Hidalgo’s Paris.)
Next let’s consider the sanitary environment — or at least one aspect of it on which I have some expertise — in Paris that preceded the Covid outbreak. (Madame Hidalgo has been in power since 2014.) On my last extended stay in the capitol, from early January through late May of 2019, I observed that the sinks in about three quarters of the public sanitaires (at least the ones I visited, and when it comes to the sanitaires of Paris, I’m the guy Leonard Cohen was talking about when he said “I’m your man”) or outdoor toilet huts weren’t working. That’s an awful lot of people running around the streets of Paris with unwashed hands. Public toilets in general haven’t fared well on Madame Hidalgo’s watch. (Which is relevant because, in a city where people have a propensity to piss on the street, it’s a question of propriety. “Everybody pees on Paris; watch me now.” — Malcolm McLaren) The free public toilets in the Metro stations were sold off by the mayor to a private concession which charged as much to relieve oneself — 1.50 — as a Metro ticket. And soon shuttered most of them. The pissoir off an alley midway up the parc Butte Chaumont was blocked off by debris for years. And the most luxurious toilet in the world, an Art Deco model below the Place Madeleine between the storied church which took 100 years to build as the country alternated between church-friendly and church-hostile regimes, the Maille Mustard Boutique, and the Ladurée Macaron bakery, where each client had his own mahogany stall with private sink and could get his shoes shined as the attendants played Piaf on the radio, was closed by the mayor with the excuse that it was too expensive to maintain. The last time I saw my favorite toilets in Paris — I used to take visitors there before we went across the street to sample the latest mustard concoction — garbage was piled up before the locked door at the bottom of the entry stairs. Never mind that the city spends, under Madame Hidalgo’s instruction, the same amount, 100,000 Euros, on a 30-minute New Year’s Eve light show, as if Paris needs the extra publicity.
Speaking of running water, one of the most elegant — and egalitarian — features of this most elegant and proletarian city used to be the fountains that dotted neighborhood gardens. The last time I saw Paris, most of those fountains had stopped flowing… except for those in the busiest tourist zones. This is one of the egalitarian qualities that first impressed me about Paris: You didn’t need to live in the city center, or a tourist zone, to have access to well-kept garden — and green space — with a fountain, pond, or even creek. (The Japanese-style one that borders a summit at the parc Georges Brassens in the 15th arrondisement, famous for its weekend old book market, has been dry for at least a decade, so that can’t be put on Madame Hidalgo.) Fountains now gone dry include, as I’ve previously noted in the Lutèce Diaries, a limestone naked lady reclining in a recessed basin just behind the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce whose spout no longer spouts, and a metal sculpture-fountain nestled in a little park on the boulevard Arago in the 13eme arrondissement designed by Cesar Domela, who used to live in the Villa Fleuri next door. Even the cascading fountain that intersects the parc Belleville high above Paris sometimes runs dry. (And I’m not counting fountains like the ring of spouting tortoises under the four breasty beauties from around the world holding up the globe in the Carpeaux fountain at the entrance to the Explorers or Marco Polo garden which abuts the Luxembourg, which seem to be turned on in April and off in October, as there may be a good reason for that seasonality.)
And then there’s the trees.
As part of what I consider the mayor’s ecology de facade campaign — because apart from promises to eventually ban diesel engines from the city, as with her predecessor Hidalgo’s ecology program, cautioned by her Green party collaborators, is more about show than substance — City Hall has been lining certain streets, like the rue des Envierges which leads to the esplanade above the parc Belleville (offering the best view of the Eiffel Tower on the Right Bank) with cumbersome square wooden planter boxes hosting unidentifiable shrubs, presumably meant to indicate that the city is getting more green. (Meanwhile, the Arab-French bakery at the end of the street across from the esplanade has been replaced by another BoBo soup shop.)
I never thought the day would come when I’d favorably compare anything in Texas with anything in France, but contrast this superficial greening with the ‘shading’ policy of the city of Fort Worth, where I lived for nearly four years, and whose official policy dictates that a certain percentage of the municipality’s streets must offer tree coverage, or protection from the Sun.
In Paris, on the other hand, in 2015 I watched with horror from the window of my apartment on the rue Tourtille in lower Belleville as city-funded construction workers chopped down two hundred-year-old cherry trees (no doubt relics of the time when Belleville was a semi-rural suburb of Paris) in the back courtyard as they replaced an existing apartment building with a new one which would extend farther into the courtyard. (Residents had fought City Hall for years to try to stop that project, as the Bellevilloises have had to fight Madame Hidalgo on other projects aimed at privatizing different aspects of this oasis of a neighborhood, be it an apartment conversion project — allocated to a private builder by the city — on the rue Ramponeau, named after the sector’s most famous cabaret owner, which would have torn down one of the neighborhood’s last artisan ateliers, or her attempts to convert the space that once housed the “Museum of Air” above the park’s lower esplanade and amphitheater to a restaurant or private meeting hall.)
And what about the pollution? When I moved out of Paris in 2007, in large part because I couldn’t breathe, pollution was killing on average 40,000 people per year in France. In the most recent year studied, it was killing 48,000, with about 2000 of those in Paris, also the fifth most polluted city in Europe. The point isn’t that this is Madame Hidalgo’s fault; it’s not. But at the least the steady progression of the numbers confirms that for all the bally-hoo around measures like banning cars from the periphery of the Right Bank of the Seine (which only displace the cars, and the pollution they promote, to other sectors), her much-publicized actions have (apparently) had very little real effect on the pollution she’s supposed to be targeting. (I also remember, during my Spring 2019 stay, gasping for breath in front of a sign off the Butte aux Cailles assuring me, “Paris respire,” “Paris is breathing,” as if closing small sectors of the city on Sundays for six months of the year was sufficient.
I guess what I’m saying — and the link to Hidalgo’s ‘inhuman’ comment with its implicit criticism of Mr. Macron’s government — is that if the mayor of Paris is concerned with humanity, perhaps she should be taking more steps to humanize — and civilize — the city of which she has the honor to be the steward and whose propriety has only diminished under her reign. (Turning those fountains back on and gettiing that water running in the bathrooms would be a good start.) And to bring back some of the elegance which since the epochs of Benjamin Franklin and Henry James has drawn Americans to Lutèce, making us feel that we too have some investment in its future.