“Thirty years ago, when Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris (a stepping stone en route to the Presidency of France),” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis from the City of Light, “he dug a great hole where the city’s stomach, the wholesale food market, had been, filled it with trendy clothes shops, and put a formal garden on top, the grass off-limits to everything but dogs.
“Today if you want to revisit those immense cast-iron caverns that once made Les Halles the most romantic and exciting of world food markets, you have to fly down to Manaus in the Brazilian heart of the steamy Amazonian jungle, where a carbon copy of what Paris once boasted still stands. As mayor, Chirac destroyed one of his city’s most famous landmarks.
“But now Paris’ current mayor is taking his revenge. This summer Bertrand Delanoe, socialist and self-outed homosexual, sent in the jackhammers and the bulldozers to raze Chirac’s monument to himself. Delanoe has already shown himself a clever innovator, constructing a summer-time beach on the banks of the Seine for those too poor to visit the sea and hiring out thousands of municipal bicycles to make Paris a pedal-power city.
“His gamble with Les Halles is far bolder, however. He is keeping the subterranean shopping center but making the shops smaller and more friendly, installing long elegant escalators to move shoppers in and out and covering the whole area with an immense translucent canopy. Around the edges are planned libraries, music and drama halls, a conservatory, and even an entertainment center for the deaf. The old angular, formal gardens are to be replaced by generous lawns, open to everyone and shaded by trees.
“But what really undermined Chirac’s vision of Les Halles was the new, fast, long-distance subway system known as the RER, which gave the dispossessed unemployed youth of the crumbling suburbs easy access to this area of Paris. On summer evenings, Les Halles quickly became crowded with noisy, drinking young men, mostly of North African origin (called Beurs), who covered the place with garbage and frightened away shoppers and local residents. Can Delanoe stop that from happening again?”