Politics & Culture

For Writer and Critic Luc Sante, Paris Is a Museum

"It's becoming something removed, something to be explained with a text or seen behind glass."
Reading time 6 minutes
Adoc-photos\corbis via Getty

In his gritty ode to Paris, 'The Other Paris,' author, essayist, and critic Luc Sante explores the darker corners of the City of Lights. Here, he sits down to discuss how Paris was, for many, less 'la vie en rose' then un 'abîme.' 


What was the genius of The Other Paris? Why did you decide to write it? 

Well, it's very simple. I've written a book about New York City. I know Paris, my native language is French, and so my editor said to me, "Why not do a book about Paris?" 


But why the "other" Paris? As you write in the introduction, "this book is not intended as a polemic, for which it is much too late anyway." Shortly after, you note, "It's mostly a reminder of what life was like in cities when they were as vivid and savage and uncontrollable as they were for so many centuries." If not polemic, what is it? You say The Other Paris "might be something of a cenotaph." What do you mean by that? 

Well, first of all, on a practical level once I realized I was about to write a book about Paris, I started looking at just how many books about Paris there are out there for English readers. And there are thousands. Obviously, I didn't want to write the book that everybody had already written- and it's been written many, many, many times over. Taking into account the fact that my own background is working class and the longest continuous time I've spent in Paris was in the early '70s, the Paris I knew was very, very different from the way it is now.

You could easily get the impression walking around Paris today that the whole thing has been done for the benefit of the rich. Everything is preserved, everything is under glass, everything is sandblasted. It seemed necessary to me to get back and write about the way Paris had been for so many centuries really until the threshold of the twenty-first century. Paris was one type of city, and now it's a different one. I'm still spiritually a citizen of the twentieth century, so I wanted to talk about that period in time. 


In many ways, in reading The Other Paris, Georges Eugene Haussmann seems to be the pioneering force in the gentrification of Paris. Would you say that's a fair assessment? 

I mean he was—it's absolutely true. Of course, his efforts were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, including the effects of the war's civilian death toll, which meant that his project to completely reconfigure Paris then had to adjust for a diminished population. Also, Paris had yet to expand fully into the borders established by Napoleon III, which incorporated all these rural villages on the outskirts.

But yes, Haussmann was a tremendous force of gentrification—that's what he was all about. Fortunately for Paris, he did not complete his work and managed only to affect a very large sector of its center. 

"Paris was one type of city, and now it's a different type of city. I'm still spiritually a citizen of the twentieth century, so I wanted to talk about that." 

While reading your book, I was reminded of George Bataille's surrealist publication, Documents. In particular, I recall Eli Lotar's 1929 photograph of cow hoofs, lined up in a row against a wall, at the famous Parisian–and Haussmann-designed–abattoir, La Villette. It would seem to me that Bataille was aiming for something similar to yours, examining or bringing to the fore the ways in which the urban experience was, with modernization​​, being pushed out of the city, to the margins.

Those photographs by Eli Lotar are extremely powerful, but they're not about anything going away; they're more about getting Parisians to look at what was under their noses at that time. If you look at the full work by Lotar, some 40 or 50 pictures, each of them is more incredible than the next– people are washing gore off the sidewalk and there are piles of intestines. People during that time knew La Villette was there and chose not to go there. Lotar is not being so literal as to say, "Here's what is lying under your feet," but he's enough of a surrealist to say, "These are the mysteries of life and death, co-existing with your daily reality, very close to where you live." 


As someone who has written about Paris, particularly with such focus on the subject of the disenfranchised and the disparity between the wealthy and the working class, I was curious about your thoughts around the current gilets jaunes or "Yellow Jacket," movement taking place in Paris now. 

Well, it's been pointed out that, among the gilets juanes, there are a lot of people who used to live in Paris—I mean the older contingent of the movement. But it is a complicated movement to explain. There has been an air of tension between those who live in Paris and the rest of France. During the French revolution, there was a reactionary sentiment from the provinces directed at Paris because Paris was seen as the hotbed of the revolution and the peasants were in favor of monarchism and the church. There is a degree of this with the gilets juanes, too.

Paris has been the staging ground for uprising since the fourteenth century. Protests by the gilets juanes are happening all over France, but they get noticed more when they happen in Paris because the news media are more likely to cover it. Whereas, when the gilets juanes are occupying a roundabout somewhere in the provinces, only the local papers will pick it up. 

But yes, absolutely, these days, Paris has become even more of what it imagined itself to be, this center of luxury and power and privilege, lording it over the rest of the country.


The Other Paris takes a historical lens to the city. How do you see or experience the Paris of today? 

I see a Paris that is a very beautiful city. There are neighborhoods where you still have markets, you still have some kind of connection to reality—it's not all about people sitting in their twenty-seventh story apartments ordering from Seamless. But, even there, over time, there's going to be increasingly less of that. It's becoming something removed, something to be explained with a text or seen behind glass. It's becoming a charming museum. 

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