We will always have Paris. It is the permanence of the French capital, its predictability, its uniformity, that sets it apart from other great cities. London and New York are always in movement, always changing and yet always themselves. The same might once have been said of Paris. The elegant, timeless, almost frozen city that visitors love today used to be an avant-garde, cutting-edge kind of place: the home of revolutionaries, from Marat to Monet. It used to be a city of shade, as well as light.

The shade, and much of the city's energy, have been swept over the boulevard pripherique (ring road) into the dreaded (but lively and interesting) banlieues (suburbs). Paris proper a small place, not much larger than London within the Circle Line, plus a chunk of the South Bank has become mostly a safe, sedate, well-heeled, haut-bourgeois or bourgeois-bohmien kind of town.

All the same, what other city could seriously pretend to be the capital of Continental Europe? Brussels can claim the role, politically and administratively, but not culturally or spiritually. Berlin, reunited, is youthful and energetic but not yet the intellectual and artistic maelstrom of the 1920s. Rome, for all its beauty and history and charm, is scarcely the capital of Italy, never mind Europe.

Paris is still the world capital of fashion. It remains, with 10 three-Michelin-star restaurants, one of the world capitals of gastronomy. Is the gastronomic reputation of Paris also in need of a blast in the microwave? Yes and no. Paris may not have the ethnic variety and daring of London restaurants. You can, if you insist, eat badly and expensively in the tourist areas of the French capital. But starred restaurants apart the sheer multitude of good, and reasonably priced, local restaurants, brasseries, bistrots and cafs in Paris makes mincemeat (and gravy) of the overpriced gastropubs of London. And if you like your tourist sites classified, the Michelin Green Guide to the capital gives Paris five of the "three-star" top ratings.

The French capital has one of the three busiest airports in Europe, and Charles de Gaulle is not quite as miserable an experience for travellers as Heathrow. Paris can also claim to be the hub, and spiritual home, of the marvellous high-speed train network spreading across Europe. London, by comparison, is at the end of a high-speed branch line and, foolishly, likely to remain so.

Paris has two opera houses (when they are not on strike) and four symphony orchestras but, mysteriously, no proper, world-class concert hall. Bertrand Delanoë, the great and good mayor of Paris, plans to build one. Paris has, in the Louvre, the world's largest and richest art gallery. It has, in the Muse d'Orsay, the world's best collection of late-19th-century art. It has two excellent museums of contemporary art (the Centre Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo).

Paris is, arguably (and Frankfurt might argue) Europe's second-biggest financial centre, after London. It is the home of Europe's only fully functioning, though heavily subsidised, film industry. It still has around 350 cinema screens showing daily everything from the Marx Brothers to Grard Depardieu's film of the month.

Paris still publishes a torrent of literature over 1,000 novels a year. It is no longer the intellectual powerhouse of the 1950s or 1960s; the celebrated literary brasseries of Montparnasse and St-Germain-des-Prs are now mostly frequented by Japanese wannabe Existentialists.

How about Paris as a place to live, rather than visit? Parisians regard rents and house prices as astronomical, but they are still much cheaper than London or New York. A two-bedroom flat in the centre might cost around 300,000 to buy, 250 a week to rent. The transport system is cheap and marvellous. Public schools and health services within Paris (although the locals complain) remain, on the whole, pretty good. Crime exists, but the French capital, within the city proper, is one of the safest large towns in Europe.

And the future? Paris has a municipal election in March. One of the main issues in the campaign will be where Paris should go next. Should it grow outwards, or upwards, or both? The Socialist mayor, the aforementioned M. Delanoë, is popular and likely to be re-elected. He believes that Paris, for all its cultural strength and beauty, is in danger of stagnating within its present tight boundaries and anti-high-rise planning laws. M. Delanoë has taken the risk of introducing two highly controversial issues into the campaign. Should some means be found short of actually expanding the city boundaries of reconnecting Paris to the effervescent, sometimes violent, energy and youth of its banlieues?

Second, should Paris lift its embargo on tall buildings and allow adventurous, exciting new structures to be built, not in the historic centre, but on the tattier northern and eastern fringes?

We will always have Paris. But the Paris of the future may not remain frozen in elegant, genteel, predictable uniformity. Tant mieux.

Paris went way ahead of the rest of Continental Europe thanks to its extremely busy airports, having hosted the Olympics twice (though some time ago: 1900 and 1924), and hits on the Google-o-meter

Comments