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OPINION: The new luxury Samaritaine store is an example of the ‘Disneyfication’ of Paris

Here is a parable of modern Paris - the parable of La Samaritaine - another piece of authentic Paris grittiness reinvented as a luxury attraction for foreign tourists, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: The new luxury Samaritaine store is an example of the 'Disneyfication' of Paris
President Emmanuel Macron at the reopening of La Samaritaine. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Until 2005, La Samaritaine was the most popular and least fashionable department store in Paris, a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from “Are You Being Served”.

The store’s jumble of five linked buildings between the Rue de Rivoli and the river Seine was one of the few remaining islands of unselfconscious, authentic, non-tourist grittiness in central Paris.  You could find everything in La Samaritaine from underpants to diamond tiaras; from puppies to concrete-mixers; from ready-made curtains to piranha fish.

IN PICTURES See inside the revamped Samaritaine store

Entering La Samaritaine was like playing a game of three dimensional  snakes and ladders. Each floor had six or seven different levels, joined by slopes of worn linoleum or by short flights of steps. To get from curtains to electrical goods, supposedly on the same floor, you climbed a few stairs into showers and bathrooms, turned right and went down again.

After 16 years of dereliction and legal wrangles, La Samaritaine re-opened again this week – as a supermarket for luxury brands, a five-star hotel and a gourmet roof restaurant with an unrivalled view onto the river and the Île de Cité. It will have private viewing rooms for the super-rich. It will have cafés, where you can eat top of the range burgers and caviar-on-baguette.

The staff of the old Samaritaine were the least helpful in Paris and consequently the world. The new staff will wear chinos and sneakers – and a smile.

The slogan of the old store was “The whole of Paris comes to La Samaritaine.”. The new store is aimed at the richer citizens of Yokohama or Shanghai.

The destruction of the old Samaritaine was romantically, historically and socially a calamity. It was also, I suppose, inevitable.

The modern world, and modern retailing methods, passed La Samaritaine by on the other side. People no longer wanted to go to a shop in central Paris to buy a concrete mixer or lawn-mower or even a pet piranha fish. Samaritaine still had 12 models of lawn-mowers when it was closed overnight, allegedly for safety reason, in 2005.

The world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH) – has spent €700 million on re-building and re-imagining La Samaritaine, ripping out the sloping floors and worn lino but preserving its 1907 art nouveau metal stair-cases and galleries.

A spectacular, pale-yellow fresco of peacocks which surrounds the main atrium was all but lost in the old clutter. It has been wonderfully restored.

No doubt the new Samaritaine will be a great success – once the foreign tourists come in great numbers to France again. The new hotel, Le Cheval Blanc, will be the only “palais”, or five-star hotel, in Paris to have rooms and suites with views onto the river Seine.

All the same, the transformation is cruelly emblematic of what has happened to central Paris in the last two or three decades. There is a campaign going on at present against the alleged saccage (destruction) of the French capital by bicycle-lanes,  ugly street furniture and graffiti and poorly maintained gardens. I have sympathy with some, but not all, of the complaints.

What I regret far more – without knowing how it could have been prevented – is the fact that the inner arrondissements of Paris have lost so much of their quirkiness and eccentricity in recent decades.

The international travel boom (pre-Covid) has turned central Paris into a self-conscious, though still beautiful, “Parisland”, a tourist theme-park to match Disneyland 40 kilometres to the east. Even relatively well-off families are being pushed out by high rents and property prices.

The re-opening of La Samaritaine, delayed for a year by the Covid pandemic, is one of a flurry of restorations and recreations of land-mark buildings in central Paris this summer.

The Musée Carnavalet, which traces the history of the city, has been cleverly re-thought and re-designed. The Bourse du Commerce, a spectacular circular building near Les Halles which was moribund for decades, has been resurrected as an art museum and exhibition space by the billionaire art-collector and entrepreneur (Gucci and FNAC) François Pinault.

The Hotel de la Marine, one half of the imposing 18th century terrace which stands on the north side of the Place de la Concorde, has been beautifully restored as a series of restaurants and exhibition spaces.

All of these buildings are within 15 minutes walk of one another – and all are a short stroll from the Louvre and the Palais Royal and Notre Dame. They are, in their revived form, great and welcome adornments to the capital which will be appreciated by Parisians and visitors alike.

Except for La Samaritaine.

I cannot see the new version of this once great institution as anything but a theft – a loss, a diminution of what once made central Paris not just beautiful but idiosyncratic and unmistakably itself. 

And, in any case, where in earth does one now go in Paris if you suddenly need to buy a pneumatic drill?

Member comments

  1. This article reminds me of New York City, where I’m temporarily living. Luxury stores line Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue for certain stretches, but nobody I know shops there. It’s all for wealthy tourists. I wonder what is the advantage of buying a designer garment in a luxury store in NY vs. the same garment in a luxury store in Paris.

  2. Believe it or not but shops are there to make money the best way they can. Perhaps the writer of this piece believes that everything should be preserved in aspic very much like the people that move to the countryside and are shocked that it’s a noisy smelly environment where people earn a hard living. It’s a great pity we all cannot sit behind a keyboard and get paid for it.

  3. Those stores are money losers, but there to to show they are there.
    There is very little in them, and nothing to be found to really wear.
    It’s best to shop in tax free states and in USD’s.
    Euro/USD is overvalued, and you pay 20% VAT and in sales tax free states, you pay nothing.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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