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March 08th 2010 print

Sophie Masson

Paris postcard

It is also a city where things, despite the grandiose scale of the public buildings and sweeping boulevards and windswept quays, are still lived on a small, intimate and human scale, in the back streets and neighbourhoods where Parisians actually live.

I’ve been thinking about the particular enchantment that Paris manages to weave so powerfully for people—including me!– and I think part of the reason is that it is a city where details matter—where the senses matter. Beauty, colour, pattern, texture, seem to be wherever you look; the traditional architecture of course, with its lovely detailing of decoration, is part of it, but it’s also in the way people live today. People still dress with a casual and understated elegance, even if it’s not anymore in the tyrannically chic way I knew from staying with my grandmother many years ago, and you see very few graceless shapes, whether of people or clothes! It is also a city where things, despite the grandiose scale of the public buildings and sweeping boulevards and windswept quays, are still lived on a small, intimate and human scale, in the back streets and neighbourhoods where Parisians actually live. And it’s a city where the shops are generally not big multinational chains or bog-standard franchises(though of course these exist too) but small businesses, individual and individualist, each expressing their owner’s personality powerfully—whether that be the dress designer, jeweller, toy-maker, bookshop owner, greengrocer, cheese shop, butcher, patissier, pharmacy, cafe, florist, even the humble hardware shop. Window displays are tempting and often unusual, with little touches of colour and ‘fantaisie’ or ‘fancy’ and grace, and that includes the less chic areas. It’s more than surface things, thought—products in these little shops are almost invariably good, people taking great pride in what they sell, and though perfectly willing to engage with you on a discussion of such and such a thing on display exhibit strongly that serene French self-belief that what they’re doing is simply the best you could possibly wish for! And being in one of these shops is wonderful for people-watching, with repartee arrowing Parisianly fast (though of course you can get rather tongue-tied when you get to the top of the queue and it’s your turn to add to the general witty sociability!) 

Napoleon once famously sneered that the British were a nation of shopkeepers—but either things have changed since his day or he was simply blind to the true nature of his countrymen, because the French, as well as being a nation of peasants at heart, are also a nation of ‘petits commerçants’ or small-business people. This is especially obvious in Paris, and with its mix of old-fashioned grace and modern sharpness, makes for one of the city’s great charms, for locals and tourists alike.

Going to London last week, I was struck by that big difference between the two cities. Like Paris, London is a very pleasant city to stroll about in and watch people, and it has a charm of its own, quainter and more higgledy-piggledy than Paris—but one thing that is sorely lacking is the individualist charm of the shops. There are so many big stores, chain stores and franchises that they elbow out the smaller and more intimate places, including cafes and the like which in London often seem to be franchises, such as Caffè Nero or Café Rouge, the latter ironically enough mimicking exactly a traditional-type Parisian cafe, down to the menus (though not having eaten there I can’t vouch for the flavoursome fidelity of the actual food!) Pubs are, however, still often traditional and individual—though often staffed and managed these days by Eastern European immigrants!

An English relative who had just been to Paris commented to me that what she didn’t find in Paris much were department stores, aside from the iconic ones clustering around Boulevard Haussmann, such as Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps(which are themselves symbols of Paris)and what she called ‘high street stores’–chains such as WH Smith, Boots, Waterstone’s, etc, the kinds of ubiquitous shops you find the length and breadth of Britain. She’s right—and the other thing you don’t find are shopping malls of the Westfield kind which we’re familiar with and which you also see in Britain—the ‘hypermarkets’, which the French pioneered back in the ‘70’s (in one of those nice ironies of French culture!), are really just enormous supermarkets, and not shopping malls at all, and restricted to the suburbs only.

What makes the contrast doubly interesting—and mysterious!–is that unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries which at least make some gesture towards the encouragement of small business, the small business regime in France is not exactly helpful, official France with its grandiloquent ideas often loftily ignoring the sector altogether in favour of big business, trade unions, and the civil service. There are also many punitive taxes on business and frequent and capricious changes of law which make it confusing and bewildering—and a test of both patience and courage!–for someone to start up a business. The native imaginative dynamism of the French business person is thus constantly frustrated by the rigid and paradoxically whimsical ‘règlement’ which imposes all kinds of petty—and often expensive!–vexations, often it seems just for the heck of it! People are angry about it—but also express that peculiar French brand of cynical stoicism which shrugs its shoulders and then just gets on with it, still grumbling.