Crossing into the alien north… of Paris

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
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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.