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Impossible City: Paris in the Twenty-First Century – A place like no other

The author analyses the French art of conversation and ritual of Parisian dinner parties, which can be ‘genuinely joyous’

Impossible City, Paris in the Twenty-First Century
Impossible City, Paris in the Twenty-First Century
Author: Simon Kuper
ISBN-13: 978-1800816480
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £ 18.99

Simon Kuper has what he describes as his dream job, writing a weekly column for the Financial Times on the topic of his choosing while living in Paris with his wife and three children. In the run-up to next summer’s Paris Olympics, he has published a charming book about his first 20 years in the French capital. Impossible City is an absorbing, affectionate, astutely observed, cliche-free study of contemporary France.

It is also funny. “Parisians have many qualities,” begins a chapter on traffic in the city, “but they should never have been allowed to drive”.

This reviewer has lived in Paris more than twice as long as Kuper, but our experiences have been very similar: stroppy waiters and salespeople; obnoxious neighbours; sadistic bureaucrats at the préfecture who keep inventing new requirements for one’s citizenship application; interrogation by agents of the interior ministry to ensure you are not a spy. Balzac’s title Lost Illusions would be an apt summary of our mutual assessment of corruption and cronyism in French politics.

And yet, the pleasure of living in Paris never fades. Kuper analyses the French art of conversation and the ritual of Parisian dinner parties, which can be “genuinely joyous ... the conversation, food, beauty, friendships and flirtations could transport you to a higher realm”. His house guests from New York don’t get it. “After an hour they thought: ‘really? You’re just going to sit here all evening, with the same group of people?’”


Taking his children to football practice beyond the Périphérique ring road was Kuper’s “bridge to the banlieues” where, in the words of the French footballer Paul Pogba, “There is only football.” The success of Zinedine Zidane and Kylian Mbappé has been transformative for two generations of French Africans and Arabs. The 1998 World Cup victory was doubtless “the happiest French communal moment since the Liberation of 1944″.

Kuper makes a convincing argument that France invented international sporting events. He is (over?) optimistic that the 20-year, €42 billion Grand Paris project will reconcile two million inhabitants of Paris intra muros with ten million others on the far side of the Périphérique.

Kuper captures the theatricality of Paris, the way the cafe terraces “turn Paris into a stage set, where the waiters, customers and pedestrians became the actors. That’s why the cafe chairs faced outward, so that the diners could inspect passersby. Since everyone was a part of the decor, you were expected to dress for your role.”

Because Paris is the most densely populated city in Europe, Parisians are afflicted with permanent cabin fever, “trying to have private conversations in cafes while sitting six inches from the next table, trying to keep their toilet visits and orgasms silent, and managing the neighbours”.

As Jean-Paul Sartre observed, hell is other people. One of Kuper’s neighbours in the Marais district turns the family’s pram upside down to show his annoyance at its presence in the stairwell. Another neighbour spoils a child’s birthday party by bursting in to complain about the noise. When Kuper and his wife, the American journalist Pamela Druckerman, propose that children be allowed to play in the courtyard for an hour every Saturday, the building manager tells her, “You’re American, so you do not understand, but what you want is unthinkable”.

In France’s endless re-enactment of the 1789 revolution, the inhabitants of rural France ransacked the heart of Paris during the gilets jaunes revolt. “The Parisian court runs France beyond the Périph almost as if it were a colony, or at best a holiday resort, inhabited by smelly ploucs [culchies] who hadn’t absorbed any of the Parisian culture they were taught at school, and who vote far right or far left,” writes Kuper.

European and US observers often perceive French president Emmanuel Macron as an intelligent, dynamic leader and eloquent proponent of European integration. Kuper explains why many of Macron’s compatriots see him as “a jumped-up little banker dressed up as king”.

La séduction is an integral part of French social interaction, contrary to the US, where people are uneasy with any hint of sexuality. “It is forbidden to forbid,” was a rallying cry of the May ‘68 cultural revolution. The French long derided American “puritanism” and were willing to indulge serial predators including the television presenter Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and the former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Film star Catherine Deneuve led the backlash to the #MeToo movement in France. It took searing books about the paedophilia of the writer Gabriel Matzneff and political science professor Olivier Duhamel to finally dent the belief that, in the words of Duhamel’s wife, “F*cking is our liberty”.

Unlike Americans, the French are endlessly curious about how people in other countries see them. Kuper’s readers have sometimes accused him of “frenchbashing”. But as he notes, we foreign journalists will never “frenchbash” half as well as the French do themselves.

  • Lara Marlowe is a Paris-based author and journalist who was for 23 years The Irish Times’ Paris correspondent
Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor