“Paris is France and France is Paris,” remarked a journalist on a recent BBC radio discussion on 1968. Forget the rest of the country, she meant: it’s what happens in Paris that counts.
Later, she claimed she was being ironic but it is an equivalence you hear a lot outside France: if you know what’s happening in the capital then you’ve got the country sussed.
International reporters often get taken in by “capitalism”.
They live and work in Paris and come to believe, like generations of writers and artists before them, that it’s the only place to be. Everywhere else is so much duller and the gossip there doesn’t matter.
They may make the occasional day-trip into the provinces to gather local charm and colour but basically they, along with many native Parisians, think everywhere south of the Seine is “additional France”: good for holidays but where nothing serious ever happens.
And so the doings of melting pot, pressure-cooker Paris are endlessly raked over as if the city were “hyper-typically French”. This distorts reality. The regions’ great diversity and intrinsic dignity is ignored; the world gets the impression of a homogenous Gallic culture and identity; the history that is told is distinctly “Paris-o-centric”.
No one is saying Paris is not a wonderful place or that, as home to the institutions of government, media and culture it is not the fulcrum of French power, prestige and civilisation ... it’s just Paris needs to be put in its place; put into context, lose a little self-importance.
The Paris region covers a mere 2% of the surface area of France and while it is densely populated it still has only 18% of the population.
In no way is it a typical, let alone archetypal, French community. It is very much a northern city geographically and, it could be said, spiritually remote from half the country.
Southwest France is closer to Madrid than to Paris. To the inhabitants of the Midi, Paris is the capital of the Franks and of the langue d’oil (as opposed to the langue d’oc) that only became capital of the kingdom of France through conquest and often dictatorship.
To be truly the centre of the nation, it would have to move a couple of hundred kilometres due south and rebuilt. (That would make a nice project for a president who is truly committed to the devolution of power.)
The important point many Parisians (by birth or adoption) miss – and it should be a source of humility – is that their city cannot be understood as a standalone unit, somehow self-contained and aloof in a territory of second-class provincials. Paris depends for every advantage it enjoys on its symbiotic relationship with the greater France, including the overseas territories.
Tribute – the best food, drink, craftwork, performing arts etc – is sent to Paris to be shown to the rest of the world; but Paris should not forget that in this sense it is just a shop display for the less celebrated places of authentic France.
Paris cannot speak for France or be used as a representative example of things French.
Instead, it should be seen for what it is: a beautiful collection of regal and imperial monuments; a cosmopolitan melting pot; an eclectic boarding house occupied by millionaires, students, immigrants, creative types and members of the nation’s various elites.
Paris may be the international symbol for the country it presides over but it should not be used as the basis for exaggeration or extrapolation.
No one – least of all residents of the city, including foreign correspondents – should ever confuse a symbol with reality.