Impossible City: Paris in the Twenty-First Century by Simon Kuper - review by Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin

Bobos versus Beaufs

Impossible City: Paris in the Twenty-First Century


Profile 272pp £18.99

Those of us who romanticise France are familiar with books in which a British person attempts to ‘live the dream’ there. They’re essentially travel books, evocations of sunsets and cosy bistros offset with the social comedy of dealing with the less cosy French. Impossible City is almost that sort of book, but perhaps a bit more like a portrait of Parisian society with autobiographical elements. 

The style is elegant and flinty, the humour dry. Kuper quotes his wife’s response to gaining French nationality: ‘I was hoping I’d become thinner.’ Kuper doesn’t rhapsodise about the beauty of Paris – or rather, he does so only glancingly. When he writes that he might ‘rush across the bridge behind Notre Dame at sunset sending a text message’, we do see that sunset. He is slightly more fulsome about Parisian food, suggesting that ‘lunch may have been the main reason I stayed … In one restaurant a few doors from my flat, I ate a chestnut soup so perfect that it was almost funny.’

Kuper moved to Paris from London in 2001, not because he had fallen in love with it, but because he could afford a centrally located flat there, which he couldn’t in London. He wasn’t the classic Englishman abroad, being already an international person, born to South African parents in Uganda and raised largely in the Netherlands. He was joined in Paris by his wife-to-be, a New Yorker, and while they found the city ‘liveable’, they regularly discussed where to move to next. 

But then three children arrived. Kuper bought a bigger flat on the edge of the trendy Marais, centre of the bobos, ‘bourgeoise people with bohemian tastes such as cycling, coffee and bio food’. Here, Kuper became embroiled in a ‘battle for space’, arising from the fact that Paris proper – that ‘small splodge’ of two million relatively privileged people separated by the Périphérique ring road from the ten million in the poorer, more ethnically diverse banlieues – is Europe’s most densely populated city. ‘Our days began at 6.45 am when our next-door neighbour opened her door, about two metres from our bed, to go to work,’ Kuper writes. If one of his children fell over while learning to walk or ‘crawled too loudly’, the lawyer who lived below would thump on his ceiling in protest. 

Neighbourliness, he found, is less important than adherence to abstruse rules of behaviour. If you have to ask about the dress code for dinner, ‘you are revealing yourself as an incorrigible plouc or beauf (broadly: peasant, yokel)’. Being elegant is an absolute necessity in this city where ‘everybody stares’. If you’re married, don’t go on about ‘we’, but flirt with your interlocutor, always remembering that French flirtation is a game – it doesn’t mean anything. 

These codes are distilled from the behaviour of the tiny French ruling class, and Kuper enjoys watching their ‘status dance’, relieved at being ineligible, as a foreigner, to join in. (He was closer to the dance in England. Arriving at Oxford just after Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had left, he wrote a bestselling book, Chums, about how Brexit arose from their network.) The French elite emerges from the grandes écoles, and a permanent solidarity is created among these copains (or chums), who are dazzled by one another’s intellects. Kuper tells how the supposed brilliance of François Hollande at the grande école both attended drew the allegiance of Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a career civil servant who became an éminence grise of the elite and served as Hollande’s chief of staff during his presidency. (‘Running a country turned out not to be [Hollande’s] thing,’ Kuper observes.) Kuper also gives us glimpses of Emmanuel Macron as he ‘ate his way to the top’, usually at the brasserie La Rotonde on Boulevard du Montparnasse. A colleague recalled, ‘He never ate alone.’ 

Impossible City describes a slow acclimatisation to Parisian society. Kuper speaks of first coming to love Parisians when joining the 1.5-million-strong ‘March for the Republic’ held in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015. He describes Paris as ‘the most ethnically mixed city on the European continent’. Kuper has experienced this mixité through his children’s keenness on football, which perhaps owes something to his own background in sports journalism. His daughter began playing for a team with her best friend from nursery school, a French-Senegalese boy. Their home ground was an artificial pitch backing onto the Périphérique. Players and coaches ranged ‘from Arab to Christian to pagan to Jew’. Then came the Bataclan attacks, but children’s football continued to be Kuper’s passport to the banlieues. ‘Depictions of a “Paris intifada” that united all Muslims’, he writes, ‘couldn’t survive ten minutes’ contact with local reality.’

Paris appeared on the wane when Kuper moved there. Its bids to host the 2008 and 2012 Olympics had failed. The internet was enshrining English as the world language. Paris was becoming ‘more like Rome: a dusty open-air museum with food hall attached … a suburb of global London’. Then came Brexit and Paris’s chance for revenge. It was indignation at Brexit that prompted Kuper to apply for French citizenship, ‘the biggest personal admin challenge of my time in France’. It looks today like he backed a winner. The Grand Paris Express project seeks to unite Paris with its banlieues through a huge expansion of the Metro (about whose early history, incidentally, Kuper makes a strange statement, suggesting that the lines have frequent stops because private companies were incentivised to build lots of stations, even though most of the early Metro was built by the Paris city authority). Perhaps the baleful Périphérique will eventually dissolve, or at least shrink, becoming anointed with cafes and trees. Kuper is heartened to see that fromageries (‘symbols of French civilisation’) are sprouting even in the poorest northern banlieues, where the 2024 Olympics will be focused. 

Kuper’s Parisian experiment turned out well in the end, but I am haunted by the title of his book, most of which I read in a cafe in Genoa. Whereas Kuper reports that his neighbours reproached him for overindulging his sometimes-noisy children, I turned the pages of Impossible City while Italian children raced each other across the cafe floor on mini scooters, with the proprietor beaming down at them. In Genoa, I didn’t care about the missing button on my coat or how I pronounced grazie, because I always got a cheerful prego in return. This is by way of saying that while I admired and enjoyed Kuper’s depiction of Parisian society – as merciless and revealing as an X-ray – it has, at least for now, quelled my own vague dream of moving to Paris.

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