Paris’s poor neigh­bour hopes city makes good on Olympic prom­ise

The Guardian Australia - - World News - An­gelique Chrisafis in Paris

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”.

Pho­to­graph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Chil­dren of Saint-De­nis cel­e­brate be­fore the for­mal award of the 2024 Olympic Games to Paris.

Pho­to­graph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

A con­struc­tion site which will be­come part of the ath­letes’ vil­lage in Sain­tDe­nis.

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