Our Man In Paris: John Lichfield

A new view stirs the city to revolution
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My family and I have been living in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe for 10 years. We have rarely bothered to climb the 288 steps to the top.

We did so on a bright, crisp afternoon the other day. The view of Paris was spectacular, more intimate and more interesting than from the remote peak of the Eiffel Tower. In truth, nine- tenths of what you can see from the Arc de Triomphe is not Paris. Most of that splendid vista is - dread phrase - "les banlieues", the suburbs which lie beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, the murderous road which encircles Planet Paris.

The city of Paris is tiny. Imagine London within the Circle Line, plus a little bit of the South Bank. Paris proper occupies 105sq km, compared to the 1,570sq km of Greater London.

Immediately beyond the périphérique, there is a patchwork of 80 independent, suburban towns or "communes", some of them wealthy and dull; most of them a vibrant tangle of factories, offices, motorways, superstores, bungalows and multiracial housing estates. It was here that last year's riots began.

There is no "Greater Paris" like the "Greater London" presided over by Ken Livingstone. There is an Ile-de-France "region", but this is larger still and too far-flung and muddled to impose much sense of identity on its 11 million people.

The psychological, and physical, barriers between the capital and its suburbs explain many Paris's racial and social problems . The historic city, beautiful but frozen in time, also suffers. "Old" Paris has been severed from the pep and creativity of its "young" suburbs.

Politicians, local and national, have discussed the problem for years. Nothing has been done. Now events and political decisions may be conspiring to create a de facto "Big Paris" over the next decade.

Plans are afoot for a series of enormous office blocks just outside the city, including one skyscraper at La Défense, which will be almost as high as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. By 2012, more and more Parisians will be commuting to work in the "banlieues", rather than the other way around.

A series of luxury hotels, with swimming pools and gardens, is mushrooming in the inner suburbs - and not just in the wealthier ones. Plans are also advancing for a new, circular suburban railway system, which will finally link the different banlieues. A new suburban motorway ring, the A-86, is nearing completion. At present, it is difficult to travel from suburb to suburb and often difficult to travel from the banlieues into Paris.

There have been two meetings recently of something new called the "Conférence métropolitaine de l'agglomération parisienne" - an attempt by politicians and planners to put a logical framework on this rather unFrench mishmash.

Roland Castro, a celebrated French architect and urban planner, former adviser to the late president François Mitterrand, believes that it is time to put aside 40 years of selfish political quarrels and self-defeating divisions and create a "Grand Paris". This is one of the issues on which he plans to launch a polemical, independent campaign for the presidency next year.

The boundaries of Paris expanded steadily from Roman times. They have been frozen since 1860. In 1964, the old departement (county) of the Seine, a kind of Greater Paris which included the city and its near suburbs, was divided into four separate departements, with Paris as a city-county to itself.

M. Castro argues that a new "Grand Paris" should be created within the pre-1964 boundaries of the Seine departement, increasing the city's size tenfold and its population from two million to six million. "Of course, there will be the usual opposition of the vested interest of politicians and the administrative technostructure," M. Castro told me. "But this is an idea whose time has come." He is right. Since France is France, however, there is no guarantee that anything will happen soon.