“It’s a trash can”: Parisians fight for the soul of their ruined city | Paris

Amid Paris’ third lockdown last March, a hashtag appeared on Twitter with a photo of a lock on the Canal Saint-Martin that runs through the north of the city clogged with rubbish, plastic bags and bottles.

Images of Paris in disrepair are nothing new but, within days, dozens of photos of overflowing trash cans, shattered sidewalks and graffiti-covered walls have emerged with the same hashtag – #SackageParis – which roughly translates to Trashed Paris.

Now, less than a year later, the hashtag has been used more than 2.7 million times on Twitter alone and has become the battle cry of those who fear the beautiful city is losing its soul. For others, it is a political smear campaign targeting socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, also a candidate in this year’s presidential election.

Unlike traditional demonstrations, Saccage Paris photographs the streets instead of occupying them. The informal campaign gave disgruntled Parisians a catchy hashtag under which to complain about everything from potholed sidewalks and roads to ugly park benches, litter, flytipping and graffiti.

Whatever the motivations behind the hashtag – the PanamePropre account who forged it remains resolutely anonymous – the movement is gaining momentum and has prompted the town hall to publish a “beauty manifesto” to beautify the city which will host the Olympic Games in 2024.

Jacques Desse does not look or sound like an extreme urban warrior. The soft-spoken bookseller would certainly rather pry his nose into a rare manuscript than talk to the press. But he is angry and he is not alone.

A member of Saccage Paris, he deplores the destruction of the city’s historical symbols. Much of the fury of the movement has been aimed at the town hall to remove, neglect or replace Paris’ immediately recognizable architectural heritage, notably street furniture, much of which dates from Napoleon III’s second empire in the 19th century.

“For many of us, Saccage Paris has no political motivation. It is a citizens’ movement and there is a wide mix of political opinions. What we blame Anne Hidalgo and her team for is that they have the power to do something about it but they are not using it positively,” Desse told the Observer. “City Hall is mad at us because what we show is hurting their image…but we have no other way.”

To strangers – especially fans of the Netflix drama Emily in Paris – the French capital is the postcard city of romanticism and dreams, baguettes and boulevards, high culture and haute couture. Parisians, who live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, often paint a different picture. Last month, France’s best-known royal commentator, Stéphane Bern, announced he was leaving Paris because Paris had become dirty, violent and was “a trash can”.

Parisians are mobilizing to ask the authorities to clean up the city on October 10, 2021. Photography: Julien Mattia/Agence Le Pictorium/ZUMA/REX/Shutterstock

“What happened to the City of Light?” he said. However, Bern pointed the finger at ordinary Parisians and not Hidalgo. “Her job is far from easy and, as far as I know, it is not her who soils it, nor the garbage collectors at fault. The biggest culprits are above all the people. It certainly has its share of responsibility but it does not deserve all the attacks that are addressed to it,” added Bern.

Art historian Didier Rykner was less forgiving in his recent book The Disappearance of Paris (The Disappearance of Paris), a detailed critique of Hidalgo’s management of the city. But even writing books about the state of Paris is nothing new. In 1832, Victor Hugo published a pamphlet denouncing the “vandals” razing ruined medieval towers and churches to build replacements in the neoclassical style then in vogue, and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, credited with the vast transformation of Paris in the 19th century and creator of the famous grand boulevardsfaced bitter opposition and controversy.

PanamePropre says it only expresses “the anger to see the city where I have lived for more than 20 years deteriorating before my eyes. Thousands of Parisians and Paris lovers from all over France, ordinary citizens like me, have spontaneously united under this hashtag,” he wrote.

“It’s amazing how it has spread,” said Quentin, a young engineer and Saccage Paris activist, who preferred not to give his full name. We’re in a cafe near Porte Saint-Martin in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, where a local hairdresser has painted a large pair of scissors on the sidewalk under the 17th-century arch. “That’s the kind of thing Saccage Paris is. I reported it, but it’s still there,” he said.

“It’s true that the hashtag has been used by some on the far right, but it’s a hashtag, anyone can use it. It’s just a pretext, the real problem is is the degradation and removal of what makes up the heritage of Paris: its fountains, its lampposts, the railings around the trees, the metro entrances, the benches… if you see a picture of these things, you know exactly where you are You don’t need a picture of the Eiffel Tower to know it’s Paris, it’s instantly recognizable But city officials have been destroying them on purpose for years When they replace an old banquette with a concrete news, it is the identity of Paris that they are destroying.It is deliberate vandalism of the city.

He denied that Saccage Paris supporters were architectural reactionaries. “They say we’re against everything modern, that we are opposed to change, but again that’s an excuse. There are very good modern things, but is a modern concrete bench that is ugly a good thing? »

Below the Porte de la Chapelle, the northern “gate” where visitors arriving by road encounter the chaos of the city head-on. The bookseller, who lives above the shop, says the local community feels the city authorities have abandoned them.

Images of graffiti and trash in Paris
Images of graffiti and litter are regularly posted online by residents. Photography: Kim Willsher/The Observer

“We’ve seen the destruction of the cityscape and the disorganization here and throughout the city over the past 10 to 15 years,” Desse said. “The authorities are trying to do something – more social housing, more cultural centres, more of this and that – but the result is mostly catastrophic, and they don’t listen to us. It’s like a company run by a bad boss – things go wrong all the way and nothing works.

“They are not in contact with reality: perhaps they consider that it is normal, that in the north-east of Paris it is normal to have poor neighborhoods where everything is dirty, where there are social problems and drug problems and where nothing is being done. Maybe they won’t notice these problems until they spread elsewhere. Before it was just a few neighborhoods like ours that suffered, but now…”

The town hall maintains that the movement dates back to supporters of the far right and that it is orchestrated by the enemies of Hidalgo. Like trash in the streets, it’s easy to see why, when a social media post about the state of Paris often sparks virulent, sometimes defamatory, attacks on the mayor.

Still, officials reacted to the deluge of criticism. One of Hidalgo’s deputies, Emmanuel Grégoire, recently announced that the town hall would publish a three-volume “manifesto for beauty” with plans to beautify the city and admitted that Saccage Paris had made some “useful” remarks, although he accused him of exaggerating. Grégoire said the measures included replacing ugly street furniture, zero tolerance for rubbish dumps and increased efforts to tackle graffiti tagging and illegal posting of flies.

Carlos Moreno, a French Colombian scientist, university professor who has lived in Paris for 42 years and acted as an independent adviser to Hidalgo, said the problem was one of centralized authority and a lack of concerted thinking, in particular on the collection and disposal of garbage. He urged officials to delegate more to local mayors and appoint an international “chief city designer” with a team of urban experts to oversee aesthetic changes at street level.

“The beauty manifesto is not enough. These things should not be decided by officials, we need experts,” Moreno said. “Of course, you have to keep the things that are part of the Parisian heritage, but that doesn’t mean that everything that is old should be kept. And, of course, Paris shouldn’t be a museum so we should have cool modern things but not ugly ones.

Moreno pointed out that Paris has unique challenges due to its density and the fact that it is one of the most visited cities in the world.

“It’s not fair to say that Paris is a trash can; there have been failures but there have also been great successes under Anne Hidalgo. Say what you want about her, she has a great vision for the city and I’m optimistic for the future,” he said.

One thing both sides agree on is that the future of the City of Light is, or could be, bright.

“When we started this, the town hall claimed that we were all reactionaries. We’re not, but they have to start listening to us,” “I’m optimistic, but I have to fight for this city and its heritage,” Quentin said. “We have to find a way to restore Paris to its beauty.”

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