Monet's green fields are no more

A sprawling industrial town stands where 'Les Coquelicots' once grew. John Lichfield returns to the scenes that inspired Monet – and finds a country rediscovering its past

In 1871, a rebellious young French painter returned from exile in London and set up home in the ancient, riverside town of Argenteuil, just west of Paris. Over the next seven years, Claude Monet produced some of his most glorious paintings. Commuting with his finished canvasses into Paris, 15 minutes by steam train, he founded the movement, L'Impressionisme, which changed the course of art history.

Among the 259 Monet works painted in or near Argenteuil are several of the most iconic paintings of the late 19th century, or any century. They include Les Coquelicots (The Wild Poppies), which shows a well-dressed mother and child – Monet's wife and son – swimming through tall poppies in the lush, French countryside of the early summer of 1873.

Fast-forward 135 years to December 2008. Argenteuil has grown from a pretty riverside resort of 8,000 fishermen, wine-growers and pioneering commuters to a dour, sprawling, surburban-industrial town with a racially-jumbled population of more than 100,000. It has become part of the – dread word to many Parisians – banlieues, the hotch-potch of bungalows, tower-blocks, factories, sink estates, wealthier neighbourhoods, forests, motorways, sporadic violence and six million mostly hard-working lives which surround the French capital.

The slopes where Claude Monet painted "Les Coquelicots" have been engulfed long ago by a maze of suburban streets and tower-blocks. Just a kilometre away, on the next slope above the Seine, is the Val d'Argent estate where the soon-to-be President Nicolas Sarkozy famously dismissed the local, multiracial, youth gangs as racaille (scum) two days before riots erupted in the banlieues in October 2005.

None of which may suggest to you that Argenteuil is ripe for rediscovery as a place for tourism or cultural pilgrimage. Think again. The MP, and former mayor, of Argenteuil, Georges Mothron, wants his town – and all other sites painted by the Impressionists – to be listed by Unesco as part of the world's "cultural and natural heritage". Argenteuil would, if he succeeds, be listed alongside 878 other places, including the Great Wall of China, central Paris and Stonehenge as one of the cultural or natural splendours of the world.

The new Mayor of Argenteuil, Philippe Doucet, has started a series of more local projects. He hopes over the next two or three years to restore the town to its 19th-century status as a pleasure resort and richly historical site on one of the lazy loops of the Seine just west of Paris.

Both ideas may appear ambitious, even misconceived. Is it really a good idea to attract visitors to the dreaded banlieues? There is far more to the Paris suburbs – more energy, more variety, more history, more sense of community – than allowed by the standard images of sink estates and burning cars. Olivier Millot, director of the Argenteuil museum, says: "We already get a steady stream of determined visitors, from Britain, from Japan, even from New Zealand recently, who follow the trail of the Impressionists. Obviously, they are disappointed that so much has changed since the 1870s. But you sometimes get the impression that they are equally disappointed that the banlieues are not the menacing place they have read about, that everything here is so quiet and normal."

The Argenteuil of 2008 is, all the same, no oil painting. Many (not all) of the locations used by Monet – and other Impressionists, such as Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley – have changed beyond recognition or hope of recall.

Tower-blocks, factories and shipping containers crowd the opposite bank of the river, which was still open country in the 1870s. An insanely placed, four-lane by-pass now occupies the whole of the Argenteuil berges, or riverbank, where Monet painted dozens of celebrated canvasses of bridges, regattas, strolling lovers and guingettes, or waterside dance halls.

To reach the exact spots where Monet set up his easel, you must risk your life – and the wrath of the municipal police – by dashing through gaps in the snarling traffic.

The Socialist Mayor, M. Doucet, expects to announce next month that he has won approval for a €160m (£143m) project to bury a 400m stretch of this road in a tunnel and reconnect Argenteuil to the banks of the river Seine. The guingettes, regattas and riverside strolls will, he hopes, rise again. This is part of an ambitious series of cultural projects, including an expansion of the town's museum. Moves are already under way to bring a Monet canvas or two from the "reserve" collection of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and return them to Argenteuil, where they were created.

"We have to reclaim our history," M. Doucet said. "Argenteuil was an important and thriving place long before the urban development of the 20th century engulfed us. We have to reclaim our identity and our pride. If we want young people in the tower-block estates – the people M. Sarkozy called racaille – to be proud of who they are, and where they live, we have to reconnect Argenteuil to its past."

M. Mothron, the former mayor and still the deputé (MP) for the Argenteuil area, believes this should be part of a much wider, national and international, drive to "save the Impressionist sites before it is too late". He wants Unesco to add to its world heritage list the locations used by Impressionist painters, in Argenteuil and elsewhere. M. Mothron says he has the preliminary backing of the French government for his plan.

"For the hillsides where Monet painted the poppies, it is too late. There is nothing left to preserve," he said. "But the most characteristic aspect of many Impressionist paintings is the combination of light and water and especially along the banks of the Seine. Many of those landscapes can still be preserved, or in the case of Argenteuil restored."

M. Mothron, who is a member of President Sarkozy's centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), is a bitter rival of the present mayor, who defeated him in 2007. But both insist that their plans are as harmonious as Monet brush-strokes. M. Doucet said: "I don't see his idea and ours as being opposed in any way." M. Mothron said: "Everything that he is doing, I had already planned to do. But if we obtain Unesco heritage status, we will qualify for far more funding to help us, from Paris and Brussels." The present Mayor's plans go beyond the brief Impressionist period in Argenteuil's 5,000 years of history as a riverside settlement. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Argenteuil was the vineyard for Paris. In the early 20th century, it became one of the centres of the French aviation industry. Some of the world's first sea-planes took off in the 1920s from the long, straight stretch of the Seine which had been painted by Monet and the others 50 years earlier.

The expanded museum, and a new visitor centre, will embrace all of this history as well as the lives of several former Argenteuil residents, from the medieval lovers Eloise and Abelard to Monet and Karl Marx. The founder of Communism and the founder of Impressionism lived two doors apart, next to Argenteuil railway station (convenient for trips into Paris Gare Saint-Lazare). Unfortunately, Claude moved out two years before Karl arrived in 1880. A meeting on the banks of the Seine between two of the most famous, and influential, bearded men in history might have been interesting.

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