It seems that imposing our romantic expectations on Paris has yielded certain health hazards. This article provides an insight into the murkier, yet authentic, side to the city.
With 42 million tourists per year, Paris is the most visited city in the world. Films such as Breathless and Amelie celebrated the city’s beauty. The Louvre, Notre Dame and much of the wealthy Paris Ouest live up to the postcard images of the famous city of romance, but many visitors are unprepared for Paris’s dirt and poverty. The disillusionment visitors experience now even has a medical name: Paris Syndrome.
This transient psychological disorder was first noted in French psychiatry in 2004. The Japanese have been found to be most susceptible to it and of the one million Japanese visitors to Paris each year, the Japanese Embassy estimates around twenty suffer from the syndrome.
Symptoms of the disorder include hallucinations, de-realisation and depersonalisation. The popular image of Paris in Japan can make the reality hard for Japanese tourists to comprehend. However, language and cultural barriers also contribute to the illness. The Japanese Embassy now runs a twenty-four hour helpline for the syndrome, though the only permanent cure is to return to Japan, often accompanied by a doctor or nurse on the flight, and never visit Paris again.
Paris Syndrome does not prove the city is on its knees with filth and poverty, but shows how visitor expectations and standards can hinder Paris’s ability to deliver the reputation it thrives on.
Paul, 55, who lived in Paris for a year, said: “I view Paris as like Venice, it’s a different kind of picturesque, that can be a bit smelly or dirty. You have to understand its charm for what it is”.
“Many of the French people I knew when I lived there – he went on to say – believed most beggars were on benefits and trying to earn extra money. If the beggars were mutilated, people assumed they had a military pension. I have no idea if that was ever the case. I think that as so many Parisians ignored them, the beggars targeted tourists.”
Any government policies about moving the homeless on from tourist hotspots are obviously either not put into practice or prove too difficult to administer. As Paris is much smaller than many other capitals the problems are condensed and have fewer places to hide.
Natasha, 23, who lives in Paris, told me: “I have become disappointed with Paris since living here. It really upsets me that the authorities don’t want to take more pride in their city.” As I walked with Natasha, we passed a street where the Sunday morning market had finished many hours earlier. It was still strewn with litter, vegetables and fruit. Natasha remarked: “This won’t be tidied up much at all before next week’s market.”
When asked about the homeless, Natasha said: “I still haven’t adjusted to all the people sleeping rough. I’m also uncomfortable with the way some wealthy Parisians regard people from the suburbs. There’s always raised eyebrows and faces made when a group of people, who don’t look too middle class, get on public transport or enter a shop or cafe.”
One of Paris’s greatest social problems is the divide between the centre and the suburbs. Unlike most major cities, the administrative boundaries of Paris have not been altered since 1860. There is no inter-communal council addressing the problems of the region as a whole. Nineteen of the twenty-two French regions are regularly subsidised by Parisian resources, whilst Paris’s suburbs lack provisions. Even within the city, 13% of Parisians live below the poverty line and the gap between rich and poor is widening.
However, Paris’s strengths should not be underestimated. In both the 2009 Global Power City Index and the 2010 Knight Frank Wealth Report Paris ranked amongst the top three most important and influential cities in the World. Much is being done to address the problems. Poverty in Paris had fallen by 60% in the last 3 decades of the twentieth century and during this last winter the city council opened gymnasiums to shelter the homeless.