Magazine

Crossing into the alien north... of Paris

Cyclist on Seine towpath with the Eiffel tower in the background Image copyright Getty Images

In most cities, different neighbourhoods have a different character and those who live in them can develop tribal loyalties - sometimes even a snobbish disdain for some other parts of town. In London the River Thames forms a natural and psychological boundary dividing southerners from northerners, and it's the same in Paris with the Seine, as the BBC's Hugh Schofield explains.

For various reasons, for the last year or so, my social life has taken me out of my normal habitat, and across the river… up north. Not that it's any hardship. The bike ride leads up the back of the Mont Saint Genevieve, the old cobbled streets around the Pantheon, then downhill past where Hemingway used to live, down to the Pont de Sully at the end of the Ile Saint Louis - then on to Bastille and beyond.

It's a treat of a journey, especially on a spring morning, but as I cross the bridge and arrive on the further shore, I always get the same niggling (but not unpleasant) sensation that somehow I've left behind the familiar. Somehow, by crossing the Seine, I've moved into alien territory.

Silly, isn't it? I mean, it's all the one city. North, south, left, right: who cares? Life swirls on regardless. But actually of course, we're all constantly drawing subconscious mental maps of where we live, nursing our fidelity to the bit we've chanced to settle in.

Every city has its rival quarters, every quarter has its genius loci - its spirit of place - and here in Paris, there's a big irrational but unavoidable dividing line: you're either a north-of-the-river person, or… well, the opposite.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Paris, from the south, looking north in 1600

Me, as you'll have surmised, I'm an inveterate southerner, 20 years in the 15th and 14th arrondissements and never prouder. If there was a team, Paris-Sud, I'd have a season ticket.

And as a southerner, I have to say - entre nous - that the real snobs (when it comes to neighbourhoods) are the people from the north. Southerners in my experience are more than happy to visit the other side - viz my bike-rides.


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But northerners are so sniffy when it comes to the south!

Ask someone who lives up in Belleville or what they now call SoPi - that's South Pigalle, the ultra-trendy bit of the 9th arrondissement below Montmartre - ask them if they would ever consider moving to the Left Bank (the south bank), and you'll be laughed to scorn. "What, moi?! Live with all those status-conscious bourgeois mummies and daddies? Leave behind my late-night bistros and the grit and buzz of the real city?!! As Brian Ferry once sang - Jamais, Jamais, Jamais!!!"

It's mad. Because what, after all, has the north got to be so proud about?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Parc Monceau - for toffs, their nannies... and some joggers

What a lot of people say about the Right Bank is true. There's far too little space - everything is crammed together and claustrophobic. There's a paucity of parks, just Parc Monceau for the toffs and their nannies near the Arc de Triomphe, and at the other, poorer, end of town the Buttes de Chaumont - its image not exactly helped by the fact that it lent its name to a gang of jihadis, some of whom went on to carry out the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The guys used to go jogging there.

And that's the other thing about the north. It's so political. Essentially one half of the north is very right-wing and the other half is very left-wing. It all goes back to history. Back in 1789, it was labourers from the working-class Faubourg Saint-Antoine who stormed the Bastille and cut off heads in City Hall. Eighty years later, in the brief civil war that was the Paris Commune, the two sides battled it out again in bloody fashion

And still today north-of-the-river wears its politics on its sleeve, or rather its street.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Planned reforms to the labour law are not popular on the Place de la Republique

The Place de la Republique is a temple of left-wingery. People come there to commune with the faithful, the same way their forefathers-and-mothers would once have dipped into a church for solace and a reminder of bigger themes. Out west, there's a different tribe. There, the young men wear green trousers and moccasins, and understand the stock market. One lot marches to stop economic reform, the other lot marches to stop gay marriage.

Both sides can do what they want - but please, not on my doorstep.

You see, down here, south of the river, we're an unpretentious lot. They - the northerners - they think we're boring because we don't go clubbing on the same street we live in, and we don't take "causes" quite so seriously. In fact we're just normal.

Don't get me wrong - some of my best friends live on the Rive Droite. But let's face it, between you and me… up north they're all a bit… well… different.

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