Saturday, 3 February 2018
On a drizzly Saturday evening in February I joined a queue of hundreds to trudge through the mud of a building site. Not just any building site. The Grand Paris Express, which will bring the metro to millions of residents in the French capital’s famous banlieue, is apparently Europe’s biggest construction project. It will transform towns like mine, perhaps in unforeseen ways. And it will provide a boost to the French economy that will have more tangible effects than the supply-side dogma of this and previous governments.
At 7.00pm, under arc lights and with a commentary broadcast across the site, a gigantic boring machine was lowered into place in a deep Piranesian pit that will be the starting point for drilling line 15 of the Paris metro, which – starting in our town, Champigny-sur-Marne – will eventually encircle the whole of Paris.
At least, I think that’s what happened. I was stuck outside with a couple of hundred other would-be spectators because too many damn other people had already gone in.
But we did hear the applause and were allowed in afterwards to see the beast in its lair, try the limited-production local wine – a pinot noir and not bad at all at 7.30pm on a chilly night – and eat gigot de bitume (more of that later).
Immigration and the banlieue
It was all rather moving – parents showing their children a moment in history, civilians marvelling at a triumph of engineering that is dedicated to the common good, and a feeling of being part of a community that binds people of various origins together.
Although I would say there was perhaps less variety than at the regular festivals our Communist-led local council puts on during the course of the year. Fewer Turks, Maghrebins and Sub-Saharan Africans, I would say, but plenty of Portuguese.
The Portuguese presence is appropriate, poignant even, since the park out of which the pit has been gouged was the site of France’s second-biggest shanty town in the 1960s and it was populated by Portuguese immigrants – some refugees from the Salazar dictatorship, many more economic migrants, a category that had not then acquired the stigma President Emmanuel Macron is working so hard to give it these days.
Up the hill from where we were milling stands a recently constructed, and extremely kitsch, monument to Louis Talamoni, the Communist senator and mayor of Champigny who fought for the immigrants to be decently housed.
Down the hill is the industrial estate where two cops were beaten and one of them kicked outside an unauthorised New Year’s Eve party in a warehouse, leading some right-wing smart-arses to compare the good Portuguese immigrants of yore to the bad banlieusards of today, blacks and north Africans, according to the caricature, although one doubts if they had carried out a demographic survey of the assailants.
Happily, that prompted a group of people of Portuguese origin to publish an open letter in Le Monde newspaper, objecting to being exploited for racist ends and pointing out that their community had not actually been a docile bunch of grateful paupers.
Lamb baked in tar – great French tradition
Anyway, back to Saturday’s soirée because I bet you’re all dying to know about the gigot de bitume.
This is one of those only-in-France things. It’s known as the menu de Sainte Barbe in honour of Saint Barbara, who, even though she may well not have existed, is the patron saint of miners and other people who work with explosives. She bears this distinction because her father is said to have been struck dead by lightning after carrying out the pagans’ order to execute her (by decapitation, if you want to know).
French secularism notwithstanding, the menu de Sainte Barbe is apparently traditional when civil engineering projects finish. It consists of a leg of lamb, well-wrapped and plunged into hot tar to cook, fished out, dunked in cold water, cracked open and served to the horny-handed sons of toil.
We, several hundred of us, ate it on paper plates, accompanied by small potatoes. What did it taste like? Delicious, although not quite as meltingly tender as I had expected.
We partook of our rugged repast in the shadow of a huge piece of machinery, one of the cutters of the digger, if I’m not mistaken, named Steffie-Orbival after a female digger driver who has muscled her way into the masculine world of civil engineering – or am I out of date here? – and suspended – the machine part not the driver – from a gigantic crane, to the delight of selfie-takers.
Then, finally, we could mount a gantry and look down 20 metres at the beast itself, slumbering still but ready to rip into the soil, cutting what will become Line 15 all the way around the capital.
Some pretty impressive stats
I’m going to get a bit breathless here:
- Thirty such machines will dig 170km of tunnels, the longest underground railway in Europe.
- This one will dig up the equivalent of eight pyramids of Giza.
- There will be 68 stations, the deepest of which, next door to us at Saint-Maur-Créteil, will be 52 metres beneath the earth.
- The finished network will comprise 200km of line, as much as the actually existing metro.
Above all, the Greater Paris project will be a long-overdue recognition of reality – the reality that Paris is not just the increasingly socially cleansed city of 2,250,000 inhabitants within its now-notional walls but also the less aesthetically pleasing sprawl around it that is home to seven million people.
Travelling on a commuter train into the city, you catch a glimpse of a nightmare of overcentralisation and overcrowding.
At rush hour on the line I take to work, RER A, there is a train every five minutes. That’s on a line that splits in two at Vincennes and more trains come in on the other fork. It’s a tribute to the network’s staff and the technology that there aren’t collisions. To get to the station, I have already crossed a road – rue Louis Talamoni, as it happens – which will be jammed by 8.00am. Our train takes us over a motorway packed with cars coming from the east, which connects with another equally packed motorway coming from the north and the ring road, which is in a more or less permanent state of congestion.
So the new lines are essential to reduce that congestion and the plague of pollution that goes with it. The Greater Paris project, when the politicians have finished squabbling over how it will be put into practice, should begin to tackle the division between Paris and its outskirts. On the downside, it may get in the way of a serious effort to decentralise France and repopulate deserted rural and semi-rural areas, which should surely be possible in the digital age.
Changes – social and political
Meanwhile, we home-owners are obviously all wondering what it is going to do to house prices. Push them up, presumably, which is good news if you’ve bought but not if you’re thinking of buying, but by how much and when? And what will that mean for our towns?
Champigny has already seen some small demonstrations of anxious home-owners because property developers are buying plots on residential streets to build blocks of flats for future commuters. The householders say that will spoil the tranquil ambiance of their streets>. One suspects they also fear it will affect the value of their properties.
The local council has drawn up a very necessary plan to revamp the scruffy town centre, probably the only Place Lénine in France. But the Communist Party, struggling to keep one of the last major local councils it controls, may also be getting nervous at the prospect of an influx of yuppies, which may account for their eagerness to build more social housing. Although, with a recent opinion poll finding that 83% of under-40s think that capitalism is a system that doesn’t work well, maybe they should be optimistic about the prospect of an influx of younger voters, so long as they do a bit of work on their image.
Public spending v tax handouts
There has been a glitch.
Entirely predictably, the Grand Paris Express will cost more than predicted. Much more. The estimate has gone up from 19 billion euros to 38.4 billion, which has given France’s top financial authority palpitations, committed as it is to the EU’s austerity-inducing target of reducing public debt to 3.0% of GDP.
Fortunately, the government is going against its own economic doctrine and maintaining the project, particularly since some of the lines are needed for when Paris hosts the 2024 Olympics. But there may be some cuts in expenses and some lines may open later than planned. Not ours, fortunately.
And it’s all paid for from our taxes! Which is a good thing. Grand Paris Express will improve people’s lives, be good for the environment, create useful jobs and boost the economy. In fact, when the latest statistics showed that France experienced its highest growth for six years in 2017, there was no real evidence that it was due to tax cuts, labour reforms and the election of a president the bosses adore. But there was a confident prediction that the massive public investment in this project will ensure that the trend continues.
So it’s a worthwhile investment for our collective benefit. That is why the continuous propaganda against taxes, which offers bribes to the majority to go along with huge givebacks to the rich, is so dangerous. It is to the shame of mainstream social democrats that they have gone along with this ideological assault on collectivism and their own legacy.
And it’s part of a process that will lead the rich, relieved of the fear of revolution or even effective mass collective opposition, to destroy their own state and, eventually, their own economic system.