Paris looks beyond city walls to match global rivals
President Sarkozy aims to create a "Greater Paris" that will allow the city to retain its competitive edge in Europe.12 June 2008
PARIS - City of lights, of romance and fine food, the French capital is gearing up for a mighty new challenge: to create a "Greater Paris" that reaches outside its historic walls to compete with global rivals London, Tokyo or New York.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared it a priority to reshape Paris for the 21st century: to attract investors, preserve the environment and build bridges with the capital's poor, restive suburbs.
As the world's major cities "hunt to attract the best", the fight to draw investors is especially fierce within Europe, where workers and capital can move easily from one country to the next, according to urban planning expert Charles Lambert.
Paris still holds its rank as a global player alongside Tokyo or New York, according to geographer Nadine Cattan, but French leaders agree the city needs to expand outside the ring road to compete in the coming decades.
London already outranks Paris by number of company headquarters, attracts more foreign capital and beats it as an international hub for air travel, says Cattan.
"We are still attractive, but we are losing our competitive edge," said Jerome Dubus, a leader of the MEDEF employers federation in the Paris region.
"Over the past 10 years, Greater London has grown by eight percent, Madrid by four and Paris 2.5," he said, while Milan in Italy has recently built Europe's biggest congress centre.
To meet the challenge Sarkozy named Christian Blanc, the man credited with turning around Air France in the 1990s, as junior minister for the Paris region and asked a panel of 10 architects to draw up visions for a "Greater Paris".
Their first job is to decide what a Greater Paris should include. The 29 towns that border the capital? The greater suburbs? Or should it even, as some suggest, reach as far north as the Channel port of Le Havre?
Next comes the question of government. Unlike its European rivals London, Madrid or Lisbon, or even other French cities such as Lyon, Paris has no overarching metropolitan structure linking it with surrounding towns.
Built in the 1970s on the site of the capital's wartime defences, the eight-lane Paris ring road, or Boulevard Peripherique, creates a clear barrier between the city proper and the suburbs.
Two million residents live squeezed inside the ring road, spread over 100 square kilometres - an area 15 times smaller than Greater London - with another 8.5 million living in the greater suburbs.
Paris' last major urban planning project was carried out in the mid-19th century, under the prefect Georges-Eugene Haussmann, a massive renovation programme that shaped the city for 150 years to come.
Grand boulevards were carved out to replace meandering medieval streets across much of the capital, and rules laid down on everything from building shapes and sizes to parks, shops and pavement cafes.
Since then, says Roland Castro, one of the architects chosen by Sarkozy, the gap has grown between a "magnificent" historic centre, fairly attractive western suburbs and "extremely ugly neighbourhoods, cut off from everything."
The disconnect between Paris and its poorer, high-immigrant suburbs is seen as a key reason for the riots of 2005, which started in the Seine-Saint-Denis area northeast of the capital.
"We need to build a Greater Paris based on solidarity, that means breaking the isolation of towns on the Paris outskirts, linking them up and renovating them," said Castro.
Sarkozy has charged Blanc with making Paris a "global city, open and dynamic, attractive, a creator of wealth and jobs."
But the project already faces big political hurdles, as the president's eagerness raises hackles in opposition ranks.
The Ile-de-France region spanning Paris and seven surrounding departments is also controlled by the left, which fears being sidelined in any decision-making process steered from the Elysee.
Meanwhile the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, a rising star and potential rival to Sarkozy, has launched his own round of talks on improving relations between the capital and its suburbs.
[AFP / Expatica]
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