OPINION: Emily and the Olympics reveal some uncomfortable truths about Paris

The 'flight' of Parisians from the city and the success of Emily in Paris in encouraging tourism has revealed some confused and contradictory views from the capital's leaders, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: Emily and the Olympics reveal some uncomfortable truths about Paris
Is central Paris becoming a 'tourist Disneyland'? Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, says that she is pleased that people are deserting the city.

Several of her lieutenants say that they would like to evict the world’s most popular fictional Parisienne.

Her deputy, Emmanuel Grégoire, wants to place a super-tax on second homes in the French capital to reverse the population drain.

Maybe they should all get together to script a new series for Netflix: “Anomaly in Paris”.

How can a mayor want her city’s population to shrink? How can senior Parisian politicians detest Emily (in Paris), the imaginary character who has helped to bring crowds of Americans, and other tourists back to the French capital?   

Hear the team from The Local talk about the emptying of Paris on the latest episode of the Talking France podcast. Download it HERE or listen on the link below

Next summer the City of Light will officially be the centre of the world – the position which many Parisians assume to be its natural state. The Olympic Games will come to Paris for the third time (after the second modern games in 1900 and the “Chariots of Fire” games in 1924).

Is the city ready? What is the mood of Paris as the Olympics approach?

It all depends by what you mean by “Paris”. The main stadium for next year’s games is in Saint Denis, a couple of kilometres north of the city boundary.

Banlieue boom: Why Parisians are moving out to the suburbs

That is the permanent “Anomaly in Paris”:  the uneasy relationship between the city proper and its banlieues (suburbs), sprawling 30 kilometres beyond the ring-road which confines the city like a medieval wall.

There has been some rapprochement in recent years but the two worlds remain bizarrely separate. Paris – the densest urban area in Europe – exists in a different dimension to the suburbs which house the workers who are essential to its survival (and contain much of the region’s violence and misery, energy and creativity).  

Emily in her bright yellow or red beret never strays far from the city proper. But neither do most of the non-fictional 2,100,000 Parisians.

READ ALSO ‘Vile snobs’ – what do the French think of Emily in Paris?

In her much-ridiculed comments on the shrinking of Paris, Mayor Hidalgo was addressing, somewhat clumsily, this issue. The city had lost 123,000 people in a decade, she said, but that was “good news”. People were moving into the suburbs because the City had invested financially and politically in developing its relationship with Le Grand Paris (greater Paris).

Making the suburbs more attractive had made the city more liveable because it had “de-densified” its population, she said. That meant “more parks, more gardens, more air, less cars, more nature”.

But as Hidalgo went on to admit, demographic changes are draining character from the city of Paris proper. Younger, middle class people are moving east and north into traditionally working class areas. Reasonably well-off families are being pushed into the suburbs – or beyond – as Paris property prices are inflated by rich foreigners and tourists.  

In a reversal of a centuries’ old pattern, young, educated, ambitious Parisians are fleeing the capital for other thriving French cities – Bordeaux, Grenoble, Toulouse – where rents are lower. The Parisian school population is falling. There has been a 20 percent drop in  primary school enrolment in the last ten five years.

When I first lived in Paris, 45 years ago, it was a very different city: grittier, quirkier. One night, in a bar on the Grands Boulevards, I saw the patron pull out a shiny revolver and invite a noisy customer to leave. On the Rue St Denis, the sex workers were so numerous that they could link arms like a giant chorus line.

In some ways, the city has become dirtier and more dangerous since then. In other ways, it has become duller and more homogenous.

OPINION The real ‘trashing’ of Paris is gentrification

In a recent article for Libération, three of Mayor Hidalgo’s assistant mayors complained that the TV series Emily in Paris presented the French capital as a “Disneyland” of Parisian and French clichés. That is true; but a large part of the city has also become a kind of pastiche of itself.

The success of the series (about a naive and ambitious young marketing executive from Chicago grappling with Parisian business and social life) has transformed American attitudes to Paris and France.

A recent IFOP survey found that 73 percent of Americans had a good image of Paris, compared to 39 percent 15 years ago. Much of the credit is given to the Emily series, which has been seen by one in three Americans.

This is good news for the Paris tourist trade but not necessarily good news for Paris, according to the deputy mayor, Emmanuel Grégoire. He wants a 60 percent tax on second homes in Paris to scare away the rich “Emily wannabes”.

“We have to discourage people who say, ‘I have watched Emily in Paris I’ll buy a pied-à-terre there’,” he said. “Emily in Paris is great for stimulating tourism in Paris but we want people living here as permanent residents. If they want to visit they can stay with friends or in hotels.”

Mr Gregoire says that the proceeds from the tax could be used to build more social housing within Paris to stop the population flight which his boss says is A Good Thing.

Confused? Yes, a little.

The core problem remains the political and psychological  wall between Paris and its suburbs. Hidalgo is right that the conurbation should be increasingly be treated as a “Grand Paris”.

The approach of the Paris – or Saint Denis – Olympics have helped to bring some limited progress in that direction. But social and racial prejudices and vested political interests continue to make the Boulevard Périphérique one of the starkest social frontiers in Europe.

Member comments

  1. As is well known, the nub of the problem is that the mayor’s remit covers only Paris intra muros rather than le grand Paris. As a result the present mayor is only too happy to pursue policies that favour the limited proportion of Parisians who are lucky enough to inhabit central Paris while having no regard for the needs of the banlieusards who travel in to work every day in increasing discomfort.
    Her anti-car traffic measures make getting into and around the city – which some people, delivery vehicles etc have to do – an absolute nightmare. Her active neglect of the public realm, notably the public parks and 19C street furniture, highlighted by the saccageparis movement, is a scandal.

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OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a ‘blocked’ president

The president on Wednesday tried to sell the French people on his new ideas for the next four years of his term in office, but John Lichfield sees little chance of him being able to progress his agenda, even after pension protests have subsided.

OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a 'blocked' president

President Emmanuel Macron has finally made the case for pension reform – six days after his government used special powers to ram it through the National Assembly.

His appearance on the 1pm TV news on Wednesday was both a typical Macron performance and rather strange.

Strange, first of all, because he chose to speak to the lunchtime news bulletins, which are traditionally dominated by old ways making lace or new ways of making cheese.

Strange also because Macron made a rather good case for his pension reform – and it is largely “his” reform – after choosing to evade the debate for months.

There have been six days of sometimes violent protest since the pension bill – gradually increasing France’s official retirement age from 62 to 64 – was pushed through the Assembly without a “normal” vote. There will be a ninth day of nationwide strikes and marches on Thursday.

Macron’s 40-minute interview was not pitched at the strikers or violent protesters. Short of a capitulation, he knew that they had no interest in what he might say.

The interview was pitched at a notional silent majority of French people who detest pension reform but also now want to go on with their lives. Hence the choice of the 1pm TV news bulletins. They are watched by an elderly, provincial audience. The presenters mostly skirt controversy (and the news) to celebrate a universal and eternal France.

In other words, Macron is trying to play a long game. He is waiting for the storm to pass. He is counting on a public backlash to gather against the disruption of the strikes and the violence of a minority of protesters.

The President offered – again somewhat belatedly – a list of the more agreeable reforms which might be completed in the final four years of his mandate if normal political life resumes.

There could, he said, be new legislation to force large companies to share “exceptional profits” with their workers rather than increase their bosses’ salaries or buy back company shares.

You can listen to John Lichfield talk about the political crisis engulfing France in our new Talking France podcast on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts. Download it HERE or listen on the link below.


He invited the unions to put the toys back into the pram and start a new “dialogue” with the government on ways of easing the final working years of people in physically demanding jobs. He did not mention that similar measures once existed but were dismantled during his first term.

His defence of the pension reform was drawn from the “blood, sweat and tears” school of political rhetoric (but accurate enough). France could not preserve its posterity and social model if it persisted in working less than its partners and competitors, he said.

What did people expect of him, he asked ? That he should “do as my predecessors did and sweep the dirt under the carpet?”

It is a pity, and a mystery, that Macron not make this case weeks ago. Instead, he chose to leave the selling of the reform to the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, and her ministers, who alternated between describing it as “tough but fair” and a “left-wing” social advance.

On Borne’s future, Macron was not entirely convincing. Many people, including myself, have predicted that she will pay the traditional price of French prime ministers  and will be dumped by Macron within a month or so to try to clear the air or give a new sense of direction to the government.

Macron said, rather curtly, that Borne had his “confidence”, But he also said that he expected her to enlarge her centrist minority government by finding new parliamentary allies from the centre-right or centre-left.

She has tried that before and failed. My interpretation of Macron’s words is that, if she fails again, he will appoint a new prime minister who may be able to lasso a few of the 30 or so centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies who supported the reform and then helped to defeat opposition censure motions on Monday.

Les Républicains, the rump of the once-great Gaullist movement, have been shattered by the pensions reform crisis. That may eventually be good news for Macron or his would-be centrist successors. It may, however, also be good news for Marine Le Pen.

So what now?

Macron seemed to say at one point that he was anticipating another two to three weeks of demonstrations and strikes before the protests subsided. He may be right. It is worth recalling, however, that the Giles Jaune (yellow vest) rebellion lasted for six months in 2018-9 before it petered out.

The problem facing the trades unions is to keep the protests going. There will be a huge turn-out for the marches on Thursday but the bigger the numbers, the harder they will be to sustain in the days and weeks ahead.

The open-ended oil refinery and rubbish-collection strikes are beginning to cause real problems – and also real annoyance. It is that swing in the public mood that Macron is relying on.

The pension reform law is being studied by the Constitutional Council. The great and good members of the Council must pronounce within three weeks. If they reject the law (possible but unlikely), Macron will be humiliated and the protests will have no reason to continue.

If they approve the law, the protests may subside.

Either way, I see little chance of Macron getting much domestic business done in his final four years. The pension law was supposed to be the gateway to other reforms.

Despite the would-be, feel-good agenda that the President offered, despite the inevitable decline in protests, there is no obvious way forward.

Pensions may end up, not as the gateway to further reform, but as a flaming barricade.