John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

The City of Light? Truth is, it's more like the City of Leaks


Leaks are usually welcome in newspaper offices. My office, shared with the BBC, has been showered with leaks over the years, few of them welcome.

The building is new by Paris standards but the internal plumbing - like the plumbing throughout the city - is a rusting, rotting mess. Unwelcome liquids cascaded down upon the BBC bureau from the apartments upstairs the other day: probably the 20th time this has happened in the past 10 years.

Our flat, in a much older building, is even worse. Barely a month goes by without us causing, or suffering, a serious leak. The permanently angry man downstairs has virtually accused us of boring holes in the pipes.

The facades of buildings in Paris are mostly impeccable. The owners, or co-owners, are obliged by a city by-law to blast-clean them every 10 years. Hence, in part, the extraordinary beauty and neatness of the City of Light. Behind those shining, uniform exteriors lies a shambles, a swamp. Most buildings are co-owned by the proprietors of the individual apartments and offices. They manage the buildings through owners' committees and share expenses on the "common" parts or services, such as the plumbing.

For decades, centuries in some cases, the committees have delayed, refused or cheese-pared expenditure on fundamentals such as sewerage and water pipes. Thousands of former chambres de bonnes (maids' rooms) in the attics have been converted to smart bed-sitters and flats with bathrooms and lavatories. Communal pipes have remained untouched.

Result: the City of Light is also the City of Leaks and even, in one character-building incident that I suffered, the City of ...

After fire and theft, claims for damage caused by fuites d'eau, flights of water, or leaks, are the single largest burden for French insurance companies. You have, by law, to be insured against leaks. There is no law - like the facade-cleaning law - to force the co-owners of buildings to invest in plumbing.

All of this could, in this puzzling election year, be made a metaphor for the "state of France".

On the one hand, you have a country whose quality of life and public services are the envy of the world. You have a country that loves planning and still has a national, strategic document called Le Plan. You have a country that has just broken (again) the record for the world's fastest train.

On the other hand (behind the facade), you have a country where selfish, short-term interests - from jurassic trades unions, to conceited, immobile politicians, to dominant businessmen with political connections - have blocked the pipes of sensible, long-term policy-making for nearly three decades.

Every so often, the pipes burst or overflow and unpleasant substances pour into the nation's living room. A decision is then made to do nothing very much until the next time.

Here is a tale of two riots. On Tuesday, 27 March 2007, a 33-year-old Congolese man was arrested for attacking an inspector while travelling without a ticket at the Gare du Nord in Paris. He was dragged along the ground by police. An angry, multiracial crowd of young people gathered. The police prematurely fired tear-gas, making the crowd more angry. During several hours of scuffling and vandalism and looting of shops, 13 people were arrested.

There was a national outcry, blanket coverage on the television news. The centre-right presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, used the incident to stir fear of renewed violence in the multiracial suburbs. He accused his Socialist and centrist opponents of being "morally deficient" and supporting free-loading and violence. He rose in the opinion polls.

On Thursday, 5 April, 10 hooded people smashed their way into a government office in Nîmes. Wielding iron bars, they destroyed 20 computers and all the furniture.

No national outcry. No coverage on the national television news. M. Sarkozy said nothing.

Who were the hooded vandals? They were farmers, taking part in a demonstration called by the local farmers' union, associated with the largest national farming federation, the FNSEA.

This federation's favourite candidate in the presidential election is ... Nicolas Sarkozy.

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