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The reinvention of Paris

The French capital’s traditional reputation is being ripped up—and not for the first time

Despite its traditions, Paris has an appetite for rebellion— just recall 1789, 1848, 1871 and 1968. That sense of constant upheaval extends to the physical appearance of the city itself. It’s easy to forget that the linear uniformity of the Parisian boulevards is itself the result of radical 19th-century bulldozing. This is the city where they put up the initially baffling and controversial Eiffel Tower at the centenary of the revolution and, at the bicentenary, slammed a glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre’s immaculate neoclassical precincts.

Then and now, the French aren’t as sentimental as they might seem. Paris is tired of being admired as timeless, classic and rather proper, while its peers, London and Berlin, power ahead as zeitgeist- defining hotbeds of creativity. The capital has set about reinventing its image as global, open and quirky (rather than Gallic, static and traditional.) What’s more, with Brexit dampening the spirits of the British capital, Paris could stand to gain from the losses of its sister city (and historic sparring partner).

The new Parisian sense of dynamism stands as an example of what can be achieved in a modern, ambitious city. Where London spent three years and nearly £50m on a “Garden Bridge” across the Thames that was never built, Paris is running competitions for ideas about how to make better use of the Seine and the city’s under-used spaces. There’s even a public initiative called “Subterranean Secrets of Paris” which is gathering ideas for how to reinvent the city’s car parks, viaducts and former metro stations. City Hall has launched a scheme allowing citizens to propose —and vote on—new projects, from kiosks to rooftop gardens.

This civic renewal comes about after three horrendous years of terror attacks in Paris. The state of emergency in place across France is felt most keenly in the capital and armed soldiers patrol the city’s main tourist attractions. And yet, a decade after losing out to London, Paris has secured its long-awaited Olympic Games, which will take place in 2024. Politically, the city is on the up too, thanks to a reforming mayor, the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, and Emmanuel Macron the new president who, while dipping in the polls, remains popular with Parisians who admire his dynamism.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Joris Luyendijk and Stuart Ward try to uncover the way Britain is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world. Luyendijk—who lived in Britain for six years before recently moving back to his native Netherlands—explains that the Brexit vote has shown Europe that Britain needs time alone to find its identity again, while Ward—a native Australian—argues that its Britain’s imperial backstory that stops it from truly understanding what the world thinks of it. Elsewhere in the issue Jeffrey Lewis argues that US foreign policy has helped North Korea develop the nuclear bomb and we explore the effect that the Palestinian museum near Ramallah is having on the creation of a national identity. Also in this issue: Sameer Rahim profiles Armando Iannucci, Joseph Stiglitz on Britain’s tricky political situation.