How coronavirus will change Paris forever

Financial Times, by Simon Kuper
7th May 2020

‘There is hardly a place on earth less suited to the age of social distancing’.

On Sunday, for the first time in nearly two months of lockdown here in Paris, I met a friend. We rendezvoused outside a closed circus. Shuttered cafés and hotels lined the adjoining boulevard.

I put a flask of coffee on the pavement for him, and backed off. He picked it up. Then we sat on benches three metres apart shouting at each other.

He told me he was planning to leave Paris. He would convert his physical business into a digital one, reduce his staff by half, give up his office and set up in the countryside with Zoom. He had moved to Paris for its networks of people. Without those, the city had lost its point, at least for now.

When France’s lockdown supposedly ends on Monday, Paris won’t suddenly revive. Many shops will reopen and later a few children will restart school. But the pre-coronavirus city has gone, and probably won’t return soon. The pandemic could change Paris even more than most cities.

In the short term, there’s hardly a place on earth less suited to the age of social distancing. This is one of the densest metropolises in the western world.

Apartments are tiny, so Parisians inhabit the city’s unmatched public spaces, cinemas, museums, cafés and restaurants. (The very word “restaurant” originated in 18th-century Paris.) Tourists fuel the economy: this is the world’s second most visited city after Bangkok, and number one for hosting international conventions.

It’s also a city of touch: people cram into packed public transport, and kiss even in work situations. And with the majority of Parisian households consisting of one person, dating is an existential necessity.

Now Paris has shrunk. The lockdown sparked an exodus that recalled June 1940. French provincials on sojourns in the city and foreign visitors evacuated. So did nearly 200,000 Parisians, almost 10 per cent of the city’s population, who fled to second homes or mothers in the countryside.

Friends exiled in almost virus-free Brittany send photos of themselves strolling on empty beaches, eating oysters alone beside the ocean.

The lockdown has changed codes. People now work over lunch at home. Sweaty jogs in public are suddenly socially acceptable. My sons play badminton in our building’s deserted courtyard, cheered on from the windows by formerly child-allergic neighbours.

Generally, Paris has thawed into conviviality: I watched three older people give a concert of American singalongs from their terrace, with neighbours applauding from balconies. (There wasn’t a dry eye for “I Will Survive”.) In the city of fashion, mask chic is developing.

Some innovations may end up sticking, notably clean air. Paris has long been restricting cars. Now that people will shun germ-ridden public transport, the authorities are massively expanding bike paths in the city and its suburbs.

They are setting up park-and-cycles on the fringes of Paris, where you can swap your car for a rented bike. Creating 650km of bike paths would cost an estimated €500m — or about 2 per cent of the price of the metropolitan region’s subway system now being built, continental Europe’s largest infrastructure project.

The cash-strapped state will be tempted to shift permanently from metros to bikes.

More profoundly, Paris may remain shrunken for years. Lord knows when the exiles will return, or whether they can afford to.

One uprooted friend was among many Parisians who had subsidised his life by turning his flat into an Airbnb. Others ran restaurants. Even with the state paying their staff for now, will they keep renting their premises when full reopening is a distant prospect?

Tiny Parisian joints can’t maintain minimum spaces between tables. Many conferences might move permanently online (and soon on to virtual reality), saving everyone time, money and travel.

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A generation of chefs, performers and tour guides may be wiped out and not replaced. Paris had already been considering limiting tourism. Now the government has saved Air France while vowing to slash its emissions, presumably by reducing flights.

Think of service workers such as lawyers, accountants and IT specialists, who have learnt to work from home and are being told to keep doing so.

In a Zoom economy, many could abandon Paris, exchanging their two-bedroom in the 10th arrondissement for a similarly priced rural château. Popping into town once a week by TGV may be enough. Expect a Depression-era fire sale of Parisian flats, shop spaces and offices.

Cities have thrived for 5,000 years, and Paris will survive, but perhaps not with all its old buzz. In 2002, when I bought an apartment here for €100,000, it was a quieter, less-visited, cheaper place. Those days could return.

The pandemic completes a string of shocks to hit the city since 2015, after terrorist attacks, the gilets jaunes’ protests, a 40C-plus-degree heatwave and the longest transport strike since 1968.

The next generation will remake Paris, but in a new way. I suspect that many of the people and places and habits that I knew will be lost for ever, to be romanticised in books and films for decades to come.