France: Paris Rising; Can the City of Light Escape the Shadow of Its Past and Get Its Groove Back?

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Pape (With Marie Valla and Tracy McNicoll)

It was supposed to be a modernist marvel, an architectural icon of the space age. Nowadays most Parisians don't see the sprawling shopping center known as Les Halles quite that way. They call it "Hole of the Halles," a slur on the grimy, subterranean 1970s monstrosity whose outside spaces smell of urine and where drug dealers lurk in the shadows. "Weed? Coke?"

Contrast this with the sublime geometry of historic Paris. The still-innovative needle of the Eiffel Tower. Gothic churches with jagged angles and ancient stone buttresses. The twin-winged Louvre and the verdant Tuileries garden, not to mention the city's hilltop crown, the Roman-Byzantine basilica of Sacre Coeur. Such is the beauty of old Paris that

one can almost forget that the city was born of strife. The Tuileries, after all, is what remained of the original Tuileries Palace, burned by mobs in 1871. The grand boulevards? Napoleon III carved them out so he could more easily deploy troops around the city. As for the Eiffel Tower, wasn't that once considered an eyesore, to be torn down after the 1889 World Expo?

Paris remains a museum piece--beloved by tourists but not exactly a monument to modernity and the forces of globalization that have transformed genuine world cities like London or New York. And since the 1970s, all efforts to make it so have failed dismally, with the possible exception of the Louvre pyramid by I. M. Pei. If the pit that is Les Halles is exhibit A, then the other great urban projects of the recent era--the intestinal Centre Pompidou, the dismal monolith of the Tour Montparnasse, the alienating high rises on the edge of town--would be B, C and D. But things are about to change, if you believe a new generation of civic optimists. After decades of hesitation, Paris is mounting yet another drive to reinvent itself. The hope: to reclaim the energy of the city's past and cast itself as a modern, cutting-edge global center for intellectuals, business and the arts. "Paris needs more dynamism now," says architect Jean-Patrick Fortin. "The goal is to make Paris as innovative as the Eiffel Tower was in its time--to truly transform it."

The force behind this dream is Paris's ambitious mayor--one of France's most popular Socialist politicians--Bertrand Delanoe. "I want the city to take full responsibility for its history, to protect it better," Delanoe told NEWSWEEK in his city-hall office. "I also want it to be daring, and to fully belong to the 21st century." As he sees it, Parisians (even if they don't yet realize it) have been drawn into a competition that will affect their lives and civic identity. Their city is pitted against the other European capitals in a battle for the corporate and cultural energy that makes cities vibrate, not just with money and jobs but with innovation and experimentation. Elsewhere, that kind of energy has sparked urban renewal (as in Barcelona), economic growth (as in London, with its financial hub, the City), high-tech enclaves (as in San Francisco) and artistic awakenings (such as Paris itself experienced in the years before World War II). "For Paris to be Paris, the mayor knows that it must be dynamic," says Fortin. "He doesn't want an embalmed city."

So how to free Paris from museumdom? Delanoe aims to start by capitalizing on its native advantages. Forty-seven percent of business leaders surveyed in France say that the country's chief allure is its quality of life. More than 90 percent of them expressed satisfaction with the city's transportation and telecom infrastructure, to pick another key index of modernity. But comparatively high employment costs and business taxes weigh on the other side of the ledger. That's why the actual texture and flavor of the city remain so important. If corporate leaders choose to live in Paris, their companies will follow.

Of course, winning the battle for the best and the brightest isn't just about attracting and keeping cutting-edge companies. …