Paris’s poor neighbour hopes city makes good on Olympic promise
It was gamble that Paris couldn’t afford to lose. After decades of humiliating failures in bids to host the Olympics – including tearfully losing to London in 2012 – the French capital has finally won the 2024 Games.
The city is now under pressure to prove it can deliver its promised new style of organising the event: cheaper, greener, with no white-elephant building projects and able to change the fortunes of local communities.
Local politicians pleaded that Paris hosting the world’s biggest sporting spectacle would restore the city’s pride, bring back the tourists who have stayed away after terrorist attacks and reconcile the thriving capital with its poorer, deprived northern suburbs.
Paris’s argument was also that, after decades of overspending and waste in other Olympic host cities such as Athens and Barcelona, France could do things more efficiently. Paris already has 95% of the sporting facilities in place and does not need to build a main stadium, unlike London in 2012.
But Paris was seen to have lost to London in 2012 in part because it was too focused on its city centre while the British vaunted the regeneration of Stratford in east London. So the focus of the 2024 plan is regenerating Saint-Denis, the diverse, deindustrialised town that nudges up against the north of Paris.
Saint-Denis was promised sporting transformation 20 years ago when the Stade de France was built there for the 1998 football World Cup, but it still has far higher rates of poverty and unemployment than the capital and suffers overcrowding on public transport.
Only a few new Olympic venues will be built and these will be mostly in Saint-Denis, including a vast aquatics facility. Politicians promise the pools will then serve residents in an area where half of pre-teens do not know how to swim.
The athletes’ village will also be built in Saint-Denis, near the Cinema City film studios created in a disused power station by the film-maker Luc Besson. After the Games, the village will be turned into housing. France is keen to move on from its reputation for building ghetto housing estates and will allocate half to social housing and the rest to private sales. With private investors leading the project, building work began before Paris secured the Games.
Valérie Pecresse, the rightwing head of the Île-de-France region outside Paris, has spoken of “reconnecting” the town of Saint-Denis. Plans to extend the Paris area’s public transport network were in the pipeline before the Olympic bid.
But also at play is the future of the wider Seine-Saint-Denis département, the poorest county in France, which stretches well beyond the town of Saint-Denis towards the deprived housing estates north-east of Paris where the 2005 urban riots began.
Laurent Russier, the communist mayor of the town of Saint-Denis, said the Olympics were an “an opportunity to end the bad image that is often stuck to us”, hinting at snobbery towards the diverse town where some of the 2015 Paris attackers hid out in a slum flat before a police siege. On the night of the Paris attacks, the first bombers struck outside the Stade de France.
Some fear that the Olympic development in Saint-Denis could lead to gentrification, forcing locals out. Pierre Mansat, an adviser to the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, told the website Enlarge Your Paris this week: “Elected officials in SeineSaint-Denis have an urban vision that is sufficiently inclusive and based on solidarity to prevent that phenomenon.”
The Paris Olympics budget, at around €6.6bn, is historically low and already some economists say costs are likely to rise. London in 2012, Athens in 2004 and Sydney in 2000 all saw their budgets for hosting the Summer Olympics at least double between the launch of their bids and the final bill.
Paris argues that it will build temporary sites at key landmarks using eco-materials that will keep the carbon footprint and cost down. Open-water and triathlon swimming are planned to be held in the river Seine after authorities clean up dirty waterways. The Grand Palais will host fencing and taekwondo. Triathlon and marathon events will be based around the Eiffel Tower.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has said the Olympics will be crucial for France, describing the award of the Games as “a gesture that shows that in our long-term battle against terrorism, we don’t stop big events”.
Children of Saint-Denis celebrate before the formal award of the 2024 Olympic Games to Paris.
A construction site which will become part of the athletes’ village in SaintDenis.