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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 June 2006, 18:32 GMT 19:32 UK
How grand is mayor's Paris vision?
Caroline Wyatt picture byline
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

View of Sacre-Coeur
Some Parisians fear the capital is being preserved in aspic for tourists

Paris may have escaped destruction during World War II, but today the battle-lines have been redrawn for the very soul of Paris, with fierce fighting at Paris City Hall over the capital's architectural future.

From Baron Haussmann in the 1850s, to President Francois Mitterrand in more recent times, architects and politicians alike have sought to shape the Paris that tourists know and love.

The French capital remains the world's most-visited tourist destination - thanks to its glorious Haussmann boulevards, contrasted with the modernist shock of the Pompidou centre or the narrow alleyways of Montmartre or the Marais.

Mitterrand's backing for the glass pyramid at the Louvre was intensely controversial at the time, yet now few can imagine the Louvre without it - not least fans of the Da Vinci Code.

These days, though, it is the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, who wants to leave his mark on the city, which has been losing inhabitants to the suburbs at an alarming rate over the past decades: 177,000 left between 1977 and 1999.

Olympic loss

At an acrimonious meeting of Paris City Council, Mr Delanoe's allies, the Greens, were pitted against him, as well as the centre-right UMP and the Communists.

We have to build the Paris for the tourists and residents of the 22nd century, not for the past
Emmanuel Caille
Editor of D'A magazine

In the end, though, the Greens abstained from the final vote, and the mayor's plans squeaked through, defeating Communist proposals for more skyscrapers to ensure housing for the masses, to sighs of relief from many.

Mr Delanoe's master plan for Paris, the Plan Local d'Urbanisme, or PLU for short, will now shape the development of the city until 2020, not only in terms of its architecture but also its economy far into the future.

It will provide for social housing at a rate of 3,500 units a year, as well as taking away some 10% of parking spaces to ensure enough space for new development.

A new park will be created in north-western Paris, and one run-down district, Batignolles, will be redeveloped, although it is no longer to be the planned Olympic village for 2012 after Paris lost out to London.

That crushing and unexpected defeat added to the sense among some Parisians that while their city was on the cutting edge in decades gone by, it has become something of a museum in recent years, in danger of being preserved in aspic for tourists to admire.

Mr Delanoe wants to create new areas of affordable housing, but also to attract more international business headquarters back to the city, as well as keeping families and young Parisians living in the city centre.


However, the mayor's plans remain controversial.

The Greens wanted more focus on, yes, green issues, and more social housing.

Bertrand Delanoe
The mayor has won the first stage in his battle for Paris

Paris is one of Europe's smallest capitals, with just two million inhabitants sharing a space of some 105sq km (40sq miles) and the current restrictions on buildings beyond 37m in height in the city centre will be kept as they are, banishing the spectre of Stalinist monstrosities on the central city skyline.

And French architects and experts are not all thrilled, criticising the timidity of some of the proposals.

Among those watching the plans closely is Emmanuel Caille, editor of D'A architectural magazine in Paris.

"I think Paris is becoming a kind of Disneyland, or the city of the film Amelie, where the tourists just want a kind of dream Paris which never really existed," he says.

"But the problem is for Parisians: a lot of people want to live here, in green spaces, with all the facilities, with shops and parking spaces, but it's hard to ensure that for everyone, and we have ended up with a huge divide between Paris the city and the suburbs beyond the Peripherique ring road."

Les Halles computer projection
The mayor revealed plans in 2004 to redevelop the Les Halles area

Mr Caille believes that a lack of architectural ambition and imagination in recent years has been responsible for what he sees as Paris' relative decline in terms of innovation.

"We have to build the Paris for the tourists and residents of the 22nd century, not for the past, and what makes a city beautiful is the mixing of different styles - finding modern architecture juxtaposed alongside baroque architecture, for example," he says.

But Parisians, he believes, were traumatised by architectural developments in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the universally loathed Montparnasse Tower, a hulking brown skyscraper that sulks all alone on the southern Paris skyline.

For him, the solution would be to ensure that when the Paris plans do begin to be set in concrete, they would also include development in the surrounding suburbs.

This would bring Paris and the troubled areas around it under one political umbrella, avoiding the sensation of neglect and exclusion felt by many beyond the Peripherique.

For now, though, Mr Delanoe has at least won the first stage of the battle for Paris with his argument that a great world city cannot afford to stand still, however much some tourists might like it to.

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