Paris Isn't Dead Yet (and other thoughts)
A conversation with author and journalist Cole Stangler
If there is any genre of Paris literature I am drawn to or fascinated by most it is the kind that attempts to analyze and make sense of the evolving city; work that accurately depict the successes and failures of bringing the French capital into the future. It’s why I contributed my own observations to the canon with The New Paris and The New Parisienne. Naturally, when Cole Stangler, a fellow journalist, author and podcast guest (episode 91 on wokisme!) announced the release of his book Paris Isn’t Dead: Surviving Hypergentrification in the City of Light, I knew I’d need a copy.
Cole looks at the evolving city through the lens of gentrification and, more specifically, the ramifications of inaccessible housing. The people he spoke to for the book have experiences that rarely make it into mainstream stories and reflect real, everyday life for millions living in Paris.
Links to order copies of Cole’s book can be found at the end of our conversation. (More book recommendations coming soon to the newsletter, stay tuned!)
This book really dives deep into issues of gentrification and challenges the notion of Paris as a kind of romantic playground for people of all backgrounds. You specifically look at the cost of housing as a primary reason we no longer see artists and creatives and even journalists in parts of the city, like most of the left bank, where they used to reside. Did you know going into this that the goal was to puncture the abiding myth surrounding Paris and its livability or did that happen as a result of your research?
For quite some time, I've been struck by the contrast between the global image of Paris and the Paris that I know. And I think one of the core realities of the city that often gets overlooked abroad is the growing affordability crisis. This problem has far-reaching implications, and I wanted to shed light on them for an international audience. At the same time, I wanted to pay homage to a certain swath of Paris that remains more accessible to working-class people: the 18th, 19th, and the 20th arrondissements that are home to these incredibly vibrant, diverse, charming and culturally-rich neighborhoods.
So yes, from the get-go, I wanted to chip away at a certain image of Paris. I’d hesitate to call it a “myth” since most residents already know how expensive the city has become.
All that said, I definitely learned a lot in my research! While I've long believed cheap housing can encourage artistic/cultural production, I had no idea just how cheap the city was for much of the 20th century — largely thanks to a series of rent controls on the national level. According to the country’s minister of reconstruction and urbanism, French households spent seven times more on tobacco than rent in 1948. The numbers are stunning. These low rents profoundly shaped the character of Paris.
There is a clear anti-capitalist bent to this book (or at the very least a very clear discomfort with the capitalist system as it functions today). Is there a way to make a global city like Paris continue turning and developing economically while also staving off gentrification? Are the two compatible?
Yes, I have no problem with the word anti-capitalist! I hope one day we can live in a more humane, more egalitarian, and more environmentally-friendly world.
But that doesn't mean writing off policies that can improve things right now. It's possible to have economically dynamic cities where housing is not prohibitively expensive! Look at Vienna, where about 60 percent of the housing stock is what’s known as “social housing”: publicly-managed or publicly-regulated flats that are rented out below market rates to low-to-middle income tenants. The state's role in the housing market there is not discouraging investment.
In the case of Paris, we’re talking about one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, which also happens to be the beating heart of cultural and political life in France. I don't think more regulation in the housing market is going to change any of this.
To what extent are inequities in the workforce responsible for speeding up gentrification or do you see it as an issue primarily tied to a lack of affordable housing ? You touch on this very briefly in the book, but I wonder why that wasn’t a bigger part of your lens in analysing the changing city.
The dramatic changes in neighborhoods I’m describing are driven largely by the spike in housing prices. The increases since the year 2000 are just so significant — they far outpace wage hike demands from labor unions. To put it differently, even if employers extended generous raises to all of their low-wage workers overnight, the latter probably still wouldn't be able to afford to rent in central Paris.
Of course, labor and housing are deeply intertwined. Deindustrialization has helped lay the groundwork for gentrification across North America and Europe. This process didn’t just eliminate decent-paying jobs — it also freed up land for developers and encouraged political authorities to lean more on real estate as a way to generate tax revenue.
At a certain point, though, I had to make choices as an author. I’d love to do another book more focused on labor.
You divide a significant section to Greater Paris, which I recall having been, first and foremost, a project that would attempt to break down many of the psychological and physical barriers between the center of Paris and its neighbouring banlieues. You point out some of the shortcomings of the Greater Paris plan, both in its execution thus far and its scope. If it all rolled out as intended, do you think it could be a strong enough solution to improve what you see as a livability crisis?
I'm all for breaking down barriers between Paris and the suburbs. But the existing institution of Grand Paris is deeply flawed. Its budget is too small, its actual responsibilities aren't clear, its leadership isn't really accountable to voters. It needs an overhaul.
In the book, I propose something even more ambitious: merging Paris with much of the surrounding banlieue to create a single municipality. That would enable more effective resource-sharing when it comes to tax revenue and spending on key public services like education and culture. People who live in places like Aulnay-sous-Bois and Sevran are contributing to the wealth of Paris — they should be getting more in return.
Unfortunately, even the major left-wing parties aren’t in favor of creating a single municipality. They would never say it publicly, but I think a big reason is they’re quite happy with the power and influence that comes from having mayors and elected officials across the banlieue.
On page 158, you write, “As with many of France’s progressive laws, the measures sound great on paper, but they can be tricky to enforce.” What examples come to mind ?
This is a reference to the "enforceable right to housing” — a law on the books since 2007 which, in theory, enables people facing a number of serious financial constraints to obtain housing. But residents don't always know their rights, there's a lot of paperwork to fill out, and there are a lot of delays in responding to requests.
Another great example are rent controls, which have been authorized again in Paris after a long hiatus. Unfortunately, it’s the regional prefecture (i.e. the national government) that determines the price levels — and until this year, the city didn’t even have the right to enforce the law. Which meant a lot of landlords were simply ignoring it.
There are a lot of examples of this phenomenon in the workplace too. Employers in France are barred from retaliating against union activists — and yet, it happens all the time. Or instead of offering standard employment contracts (the CDI), which provide a sense of stability, employers will sometimes offer short-term work contracts or force workers to register as independent contractors. If you're struggling to make ends meet, are you going to take your boss to court?
You write about various neighborhoods and their evolutions, but the example that perhaps most visibly characterises gentrification— which I’ve seen firsthand over the last 16 years— is the Marais. You talk about how the gay culture has all but faded, the dying out of Jewish-run businesses and the price per square meter, which is four times the average French monthly salary. You go so far as to call it a theme park more than a neighbourhood and insist that it offers a preview of what a hyper gentrified Paris of the future could resemble. How far off do you think that scenario might be? And is the city, with its great love of celebrating the past and protecting its cultural totems, capable of a course correction?
I don't want to make predictions that are too specific, but I'd say we're certainly heading toward that scenario! Just look at how much the city has changed even in the last two decades.
But 100%, I think the city is capable of a course correction. I don’t want readers to come away from the book thinking all hope is lost. The expansion of social housing is encouraging. The return of rent controls is a positive development. And, of course, Paris and the banlieue have such a rich tradition of protest and revolt.
Cole Stangler is a French-American journalist based in Marseille covering labor and politics. A contributor to the international news network France 24, Cole has also published work in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Nation, Jacobin, The Atlantic, Dissent, VICE and The New Republic.