Europe

Parisian luxury hotels mask city's growing poverty

Reception at Royal Monceau Hotel
Image caption The Royal Monceau Hotel is designed to attract the world's super-rich to Paris

The Royal Monceau is a monument to high-class chic.

It is one of several super-deluxe hotels that will open in Paris in the next few months, each tailor-made for the super-rich.

Every sumptuous detail of the hotel, from the glasses behind the bar to the chandeliers hanging above it, has been selected, fashioned, carefully positioned, with no expense spared.

"We are trying to recreate some of the artistic flair of Paris during the 1930s and 40s," says John Johnston, President of Raffles Hotels and Resorts.

"You will notice there is a whimsical, humorous element to the interior decor. We have tried to have some fun with it, while at the same time maintaining that crucial element of luxury you would expect."

The man with the sense of "humour" is the acclaimed French designer Philippe Starck.

He gutted the old Royal Monceau and recast it to the tune of 100m euros (£85m).

Image caption Every detail at the Royal Monceau has been carefully selected and no expense spared

Downstairs there is a private 3D cinema with seats for 100 guests.

The hotel also has its own art exhibitions. This month it is a highly valuable collection by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Upstairs the bathrooms glitter with all-encompassing mirrors. Each bedroom has its own bespoke furniture and a guitar, with free private lessons for those who need them.

For all this the top suite will set you back a not-so-modest 20,000 euros (£17,000) a night

But outside the Royal Monceau and its world of luxury is the kind of poverty that might embarrass the more privileged guest.

At this time of year the beggars of Paris are braving some bone-numbing temperatures.

On the day they were opening the doors of the Royal Monceau to the media, the city council was opening the doors of some of the city's gymnasiums for those without a roof.

Economic crisis

About 13% of Parisians live below the poverty line and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing.

Last week the owner of a caviar restaurant in Paris told me some of his clients are so painfully aware of the gap that they enter his restaurant through the less conspicuous staff entrance.

Image caption Deputy Mayor Olga Trostiansky visits the city's shelters for the homeless

Deputy Mayor Olga Trostiansky, in charge of Family, Solidarity, and the Fight against Exclusion in Paris, is another who recognises the political sensitivities.

This Christmas she is busy visiting the shelters.

"It's a capital city with large economic development," she said.

"We have many foreign visitors that we have to cater for. But you also have to remember we are in the middle of a painful economic crisis.

"Parisians are being hit very hard. We have some foreign visitors who arrive in Paris to luxury and splendour. We have other foreign visitors who arrive in Paris and spend most of their nights on the street."

It is the predominance of the high-class shops and restaurants that forces the rents inside the city beyond those living in the halfway houses.

Niche market

For Gilberte, who has been living in the shelter for two years, the rate for a room at the Royal Monceau is beyond her comprehension.

"20,000 euros! When you hear that, it really makes you think doesn't it? Some people here are struggling to get by with 100 euros a month," she said.

But officials say Paris is surprisingly under served by these super-deluxe hotels.

Laurent Queige, head of tourism in Paris, believes they are essential if the city hopes to compete with other top European destinations.

Image caption The freezing streets of Paris are home to a growing population of homeless people

"With these new hotels we can attract a new kind of visitor that might not have been attracted by the old five-star, palace hotels," he said.

"These are international brands, like Raffles, that people will recognise from their own countries.

"We are catering for a niche market. They are specifically targeted, each at a different tribe of the super rich.

"No, it is not at all vulgar, as long as they create the jobs we need and as long as the people who come are investing in the real economy."

So while the rest of the nation learns to embrace a new age of austerity, there remains the extravagant consumption of those who appear not to have been affected by the recession.

The only hope for those who look on enviously is that some of the wealth spent in these new deluxe surroundings, in some way filters down to those far less fortunate.

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