Impossible City: Paris in the Twenty-First Century by Simon Kuper review – chronicle of a French revelation

<span>The Arc de Triomphe announces the forthcoming European elections, May 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images</span>
The Arc de Triomphe announces the forthcoming European elections, May 2024.Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

In 1990 the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo published a short essay called Paris, Capital of the 21st Century. By the end of the 20th century, he had decided that Paris was exhausted. The city of avant gardes, ideas, revolutions and class struggle, which had defined so much of European and world history, was now no more than a museum. As almost a lifelong Parisian and a lover of the place, Goytisolo desperately wanted Paris in the 21st century to retake its place as a great metropolis. But this could only happen, he argued, if Paris reinvented itself by “de-Europeanising” itself. By this, he meant it had to look towards the world beyond Europe, welcoming its sometimes dissident non-French, non-European voices to make itself a truly global city. Only in this way could Paris be brought back to life.

More than 30 years on from that essay, Simon Kuper has written a book about what it has actually been like to live in Paris during the past two decades. I have lived in the city for exactly the same period, in the working-class district of Pernety, and seen all the changes that Kuper has. The view from Pernety and the view from his hipster right bank world have not always been the same. He often underestimates, for example, the severity of racial and class tensions in Paris. To his credit, however, he is always aware of his limitations as a foreigner and as an apprentice Parisian.

The author, a journalist for the Financial Times, begins by describing his arrival in the city in the early 00s, a refugee from extortionate property prices in London. He finds in Paris an alternative economic universe, where decent city centre apartments were affordable along with a good quality of life that wasn’t dependent on a big salary.

Initially, Kuper bought into the shibboleth that Paris was a dead place – economically moribund, artistically bankrupt, something very much like Goytisolo’s museum. Over the years and decades, however, as he settled in, established a family and a way of life, Kuper began to change his mind as he navigated the unpredictable joys and vicissitudes of Parisian daily life. This involved wrangling with tough neighbours, taking kids to football matches in the banlieues (the outer suburbs, which are definitely not museum-ified), learning schoolyard slang from his kids (which contains a surprising amount of street Arabic), dealing with his wife’s cancer diagnosis, negotiating the daunting French social security system and, perhaps hardest of all, learning how to act as a proper Parisian – a performance that demands mastery of an almost infinite number of behavioural codes.

He cries in front of a friend, broken by the strain of living in a city that seemed about to go mad

Kuper is a self-confessed “Bobo”, a member of the middle-class elites and as such most of the behaviours he has to acquire revolve around the right way to wear clothes or making the right sort of conversation. Above all, you should never appear to be provincial (an old Gaulish word, plouc, is still used by Parisians to describe out-of-towners) or from the banlieues (wearing sports clothes is a giveaway). As he learns to be a local, however, Kuper can seem a little too pleased with himself and there are moments when, as he yet again cycles down a lovely cobbled street to another designer coffee shop, you wish he’d get a puncture.

Nonetheless, Kuper is a clear-eyed observer of the history that is happening all around him. He witnesses the revolt of the gilets jaunes, which he notes are in part a protest “against Paris itself” (against people such as Kuper, in fact), sees the burning of Notre Dame, sweats through historically unprecedented heatwaves and copes with the pandemic. The most momentous – and terrifying – event that marked Kuper’s Parisian life was the night of 13 November 2015, which no Parisian who lived through it will ever forget. He was in the Stade de France when the first bombs went off, the prelude to a night of massacre that finished with 130 innocent people dead. Ever the professional reporter, Kuper keeps his feelings to himself, until a few days later he cries in front of a friend, broken by the strain of living in a city that seemed about to go mad.

Now the Olympic Games are on the horizon and Paris looks set to announce itself again to the world as a global leader, as the multicultural city imagined by Juan Goytisolo. For all of the transformations of the past two decades, however, Kuper is always alert to the city’s particularity. This is the immutable essence – to be found in the daily pleasure of the menu du jour or just the snarky, nasal banter at your local zinc (bar) – that makes Parisians love their city, and foreigners such as Kuper (and me) love it even more.

• Impossible City: Paris in the Twenty-First Century by Simon Kuper is published by Profile (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply