September 2006

It’s a silent revolution. Few people have been paying attention, but it’s a profound change: Books are deserting the Left Bank. Every month, it seems, a new bookstore leaves the Latin Quarter and emigrates to Bastille, the Marais, the 16th arrondissement, even the eastern fringes of Paris. Bookstores’ natural territory had been the Latin Quarter since 1257, when 26 theologians started the Sorbonne. Now there are now as many bookstores in the 11th arrondissement as there are in the fifth and the sixth (less than a decade ago, there were none). Paris’s biggest independent bookstore, Le Merle Moqueur, has relocated to a former garage on Rue Bagnolet, in the 20th-another planet.

Of course, in a world where millions of people are displaced by ethnic warfare, this peaceful redrawing of the capital’s boundaries isn’t front-page news. But in the emotional geography of the city, it’s an enormous change. As if Seventh Avenue were moving to Jersey City, or the Hollywood studios to Palm Springs.

Paris was traditionally divided into two tribes: Left Bank and Right Bank. Two opposites. Left brain, right brain. The bourgeois on the Right Bank, the intellectuals on the Left. The Stock Exchange on the right, the Sorbonne on the Left. The split goes back to the Middle Ages. According to historian Jacques Le Goff, the division between Left and Right started in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the banks of the river in the area that is now City Hall were teeming with merchants, fishmongers and craftsmen, while the Left Bank was still country, with winemakers and the leather trade.

Business vs. pleasure

Even in modern times, each bank was a world unto itself. You could grow up around the Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement and never go to the Champs-Élysées. Marcel Carné’s characters in Les Tricheurs never even thought of going to the Right Bank. Many Parisians still define themselves according to the bank where they live. “I am from the Right Bank,” says designer Thierry Conquet, French designer extraordinaire Andrée Putman’s former partner and the third generation of his family to live in the same 16th-arrondissement neighborhood. “When I go to the Left Bank, I feel I’m in tourist territory. […] For me, crossing the river is an adventure.”

Best-selling author, journalist and filmmaker Philippe Labro, who directed a movie called Rive Droite, Rive Gauche, sees things differently. When he won a major literary prize, “I had lunch with my editor at Lipp’s,” he recalls. “If I’m meeting with a record executive”-Labro has also written songs for some of France’s best-known artists-“we’ll go to Fouquet’s” on the Champs-Élysées. “There’s a Left Bank style: You don’t see the same people, the same look, not even the same body language. It’s a very subtle difference. It’s the influence of publishing, intellectual life, young people.”

The Right Bank was business, the Left, pleasure. In the years right after the war, nightlife for hip young Parisians, as well as Sartre and other existentialists, centered on the caves around St-Germain-des-Prés. Later, Jim Morrison hung out at Whisky à GoGo, while playboys and jet setters spent their night at Jean Castel’s club or chez Régine, the “Queen of the Night.” No más. Now, the hip places are Mathis, Le Baron, Le Milliardaire, ParisParis, La Nouvelle Eve-not a single one on the Left Bank, even if Gérald Nanty, the legendary owner of Mathis, which he bought after his best friend, Françoise Sagan, took him there in her little Mini Cooper 10 years before her death, claims that “my place is on the Right Bank but it’s spirit is very much Left Bank, the spirit of the writers and artists.”

Luxury goods replace librairies

“What has changed,” explains sociologist Monique Pinçon-Charlot, who wrote the book Sociologie de Paris, “is that Paris is becoming more bourgeois.” In 1954, only 19 percent of the Paris population was made up of professionals and managers, says Pinçon-Charlot. Today, they make up 58.5 percent. In the same time span, the percentage of employees and blue-collar workers dropped from 65 to 35. In 2000, she adds, 44 percent of those who paid the Impôt sur les Grandes Fortunes (ISF)-France’s richest people-lived in Ile-de-France (the region around Paris), and 47.8 percent of those were Paris residents. The grandest of the grandes fortune still lodge in the western part of the city: The average ISF in the eastern neighborhoods amounted to €7,470 euros, vs. €19,140 in the west.

Real estate in the sixth arrondissement, the blocks around the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg, long the haunts of intellectuals and the liberal bourgeoisie (as opposed to the seventh, home to the grande bourgeoisie who always voted conservative), became the most expensive in the capital. One by one, bookstores closed; bistrots where students dreamed of changing the world were bought by luxury-goods companies. Vuitton became Les Deux Magots’ neighbor. Cartier opened a store on Place St-Germain. Dior is now in the space occupied by the legendary bookstore Le Divan. Armani took over the beloved Drugstore, where you could buy books and cigarettes in the middle of the night.

Says Pinçon-Charlot, “It’s as if luxury goods companies needed the cultural and intellectual legitimacy of a neighborhood famous all over the world thanks to Sartre and Beauvoir, Prévert, Hemingway, Juliette Gréco and many others.”

The jet set moves east

As the Left Bank becomes like Avenue Montaigne and other northern arrondissements, a new geography is taking shape. On both banks of the river, the west was traditionally bourgeois, the east more proletarian. The middle class that stormed the Bastille in 1789 is reclaiming it today-at least its neighborhood. The opera, built under François Mitterrand, helped the transformation along.

“The move to the east,” says journalist Frédéric Taddeï, “started in 1978 when the Palace, the huge disco in a former theater, a sort of French Studio 54, opened on Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. It was the very first time that the jet set went that far east. The neighborhood was then the territory of the Zemmour brothers, a gang of mobsters. It was dangerous and exciting. Then the frontier was pushed further east, with Les Halles, and it kept pushing: Bastille and now Oberkampf.”

The population of the Bastille neighborhood has changed dramatically. Between 1954 and 1990, artisans who worked in the furniture factories disappeared and the number of professionals rose 44 percent. Suddenly, “bourgeois bohemians” were a very important minority. In 2000 the area boasted 120 artists’ studios! “Now,” says Pinçon-Charlot, “the division of the city is no longer between left and right, but between the western neighborhoods, bourgeois and chic, and the eastern arrondissements. [Bastille] residents are young bourgeois bohêmes, but they are not heirs to family fortunes and they lead a different lifestyle.” That’s why the Socialist Party won City Hall after almost 30 years of total control by the conservatives. Older people and the working class tend to vote conservative; “BoBos” prefer the Socialist Party-Green Alliance.

New Left Bank dress code

“Now,” says Vincent Grégoire, one of the country’s best-known trend forecasters, “the real Rive Droite is the sixth or seventh arrondissement, and the new Rive Gauche is the Marais, Ménilmontant and the eastern neighborhoods of the 19th and 20th arrondissements. That’s where you’ll find the true ‘esprit St-Germain,’ whereas St-Germain-des-Prés has become very conservative. In the fifth, people are protected by 10 different codes and buzzers and security systems. At the tiniest noise in the street, they call the cops.”

Today, just as in the old days when you could almost guess if someone was Left Bank or Right Bank, east and west have very distinct styles. “The dress code for the new ‘Left Bank’ is about rediscovering your roots,” says Grégoire. “Young BoBos are reinterpreting the old blue-collar style, the ‘esprit faubourg,’ the guinguettes, the little dress with flower motifs. It’s Arletty”-the lead actress in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis-“revisited, it’s Amélie Poulain. Not too long ago, clothes were about métissage, world music applied to fashion. Now, there’s a reexploration of the roots of traditional Parisian style.”

The next turn in Paris evolution? Stay tuned….

Choose your tribe

If you are Rive Droite…

Bar Hôtel Raphael, 17 ave Kléber, 16e, 01 53.64.32.00

Café Café Beaubourg, 100 rue St-Martin, 4e, 01.48.87.63.96

Museum The Louvre

Gallery Marian Goodman, 79 rue du Temple, 3e, 01.48.04.70.52

Three-star Restaurant Alain Senderens, 9 place de la Madeleine, 8e, 01.42.65.22.90

Bistrot Aux Lyonnais, 32 rue St-Marc, 2e, 01.42.96.65.04

Hotel L’Amour, 8 rue Navarin, 9e, 01.48.78.31.80

Night spot Mathis, 3 rue de Ponthieu, 8e, 01.53.76.01.62

Store Colette, 213 rue St-Honoré, 1e, 01.55.35.33.90

 

If you are Rive Gauche…

Bar Le Rosebud, 11 bis rue Delambre, 14e, 01.43.20.44.13

Café La Palette, 43 rue de Seine, 6e, 01.43.26.68.15

Museum Fondation Cartier, 261 blvd Raspail, 14e, 01.42.18.56.50

Gallery Kamel Mennour, 60 rue Mazarine, 6e, 01.56.24.03.63

Three-star Restaurant L’Arpège, 84 rue de Varenne, 7e, 01.47.05.09.06

Bistrot Le Comptoir, 9 carrefour de l’Odéon, 6e, 01.44.22.07.97

Hotel L’Hôtel, 13 rue des Beaux-Arts, 6e, 01 44.41.99.00

Night spot La Mezzanine de l’Alcazar, 62 rue Mazarine, 6e, 01.53.10.19.99

Store Librairie La Hune, 170 blvd St-Germain, 6e, 01.45.48.35.85

 

 

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