Some say the centre of Paris is prettier than the centre of London. That may or may not be true. What is true is that physically Paris has changed a lot less than its British counterpart in the last 150 years.
Pyramide and Pompidou notwithstanding, Baron Haussman’s grand vision is remarkably intact, and so consequently attractive to tourists that, at times, the city can feel like one big theme park. Irony upon irony then, that the uniquely French ‘exception culturelle’ and so the concomitant instinct to preserve has in fact led to Paris’ Disneyfication. Quelle horreur!
London, on the other hand, is dirty and gritty, emanating not so much from a fastidiously planned top-down approach, but from the bottom-up. The result is, admittedly, not always pretty, but it is diverse.
And it’s not just in architecture or town-planning where we see this difference.
The French tendency to dirigisme extends to fashion (compare London’s embracing of ‘the street’ with Paris’ haute-couture), cuisine (it might well be the best in the world, but it has to be prepared – and consumed – according to a very strict formula; don’t dare order anything other than a Sauternes with your foie gras), wine (look at how silly the Aussies made the French look when they started labelling wine by the grape, as opposed to terroir); the whole kit and caboodle.
This goes deep – to each nation’s understanding of the rule of law, and nature of freedom. The underlying tenet of the common law of England and Wales is an assumption towards things being permissable unless they have previously been expressly prohibited. In France, and indeed most of the rest of the continent, informed first by Roman law and then the Napoleonic Code, the starting point is a list of things one cannot do. A nuanced, but hugely important, distinction.
For creativity, all of this has a profound impact.
Not only does the relative uniformity produced by France’s dirigisme rob creative minds of the diversity that inspires but also the implicit green light of individual empowerment that a bottom-up culture offers; the basic, instinctive freedom to express at every level of society.
I don’t hate France, or the French. I speak the language and spent a lot of my childhood growing up there. And this isn’t a perfidious Englishman simply taking a cheap shot at the old enemy.
It’s a bona fide, one-time francophile lamenting the needless shackles that for too long have put a nation that once led the way, creatively speaking, in such a bureaucratic bind.
That, and the inexplicable, continued tolerance of squatter toilets.