26 Mars 2016
When people find out that I'm French, the question that they ask most often is if I'm from Paris. It turns out that I'm not. However, it completely makes sense that they would ask.
When foreigners think of France, they inevitably think of Paris, and that's not just because of the Eiffel Tower. It is also because Paris is so pivotal to France in its entirety, which is something you don't necessarily think about when you're a foreigner but is very clear to French people.
France functions on a fundamental divide between Paris and the rest of the country, which is often referred to as "la Province" (and not "la Provence" which refers to the South-East of France).
So, Paris = Paris, not Paris = Province (not included: not Paris or province and effing far away = overseas territories and departments aka Tahiti, New Caledonia, Guadeloupe, etc.).
The term province is well known to English speakers, in part thanks to the Brits' colonial history. But in the case that interests us, it has a specific meaning. In her essay, Brown University Phd candidate Anne-Caroline Sieffert explained: "In French, the term 'Province' refers to both a geographical reality and an abstract concept. A province is an archaic way to designate an administrative unit known nowadays as the 'région', but it also refers to the entire country of France with the exclusion of its capital, Paris."
So first, you'll note that "province" is not used in an official setting anymore. Indeed, if you want to refer to a specific place in France you'll have to use the terms "région" or "département" (which are smaller units comprised in régions). For instance, I was born in the Aude département, which is in the région of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Can you find my home?
So "province" is not an official term as much as it is a staple of common language that reflects a cultural construct that is central to French society. It is a major symbol of the contrast existing between Paris and the rest of France, an expression of Paris' special status.
But what makes Paris so special? I don't mean as a place you want to visit, but as a metropolis: a center of activity.
To start with, Paris is significantly bigger than any other city in France. If you include its urban area, you'll find that over 10 million people live in Paris. In comparison, the urban area of France's second biggest city, Marseille, has only about 1.7 million inhabitants.
What if we compare this asymmetry to the situation we know in the US? Well, first, you'll note that in the US, the capital, Washington D.C., is not even the biggest city. New York is, with over 8 million inhabitants.
So, you already have some kind of distribution of power: Washington has the political capacity, New York has the size.
Let's also consider the size of other US cities. According to a 2010 census, 39 more cities in the US constitute an urban area that has over a million inhabitants. In France, if you exclude Paris, only 3 cities (Marseille, Lyon and Lille) can claim that big of an urban area, and all of them are still about 5 or 10 times smaller than Paris' urban area. Of course, it makes sense that the US would have more large cities than France because it has a greater population, but 41 versus 4 is plain disproportionate.
So, if America was more like France, Washington D.C. would not only be the political heart of the US, it would be at least five times bigger than any other city in the country, including New York.
But that's not all.
Paris doesn't only dominate the rest of France because of its size. Let's have a look at something that is part of virtually every person's life: media.
If you look at the top 10 American newspapers in terms of circulation, you'll see 5 cities represented: New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver. The fact that those 3 last cities made this ranking thanks to local newspapers (The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago-Sun Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Denver Post) is another indication of these cities' weight: so many people buy their newspapers that they made the national circulation ranking.
Now let's consider France's top 10 newspapers: literally all of them are located in Paris.
What about TV? Well French TV is a bit different from American TV, but it doesn't take a deep understanding of it to realize that Paris still gets the biggest slice of the cake. I didn't feel I even needed to check, but I did anyway, and indeed all of France's national TV channels are based in Paris or in its suburbs.
You might ask: What about local channels? Well, that's the thing, France doesn't really have a local channel culture. They exist, but they're just not so prominent. You might have already guessed why: we simply accept the fact that our information comes from Paris because that's where things happen.
We've already broached the media issue and came to the conclusion that both newspapers and TV channels are predominantly located in Paris (it is also the case for radio stations, which I didn't talk about because I was afraid I would turn this into a dissertation on French media) and that people didn't seem to mind, considering they continue to massively consume those media sources.
What about other vital activities?
Personally, I thrive on culture. So let's take a look at museums.
It's subjective of course, but I checked out a couple of American museum rankings and realized that the institutions that are showcased on these short-lists are located all over the US. Among the names that came up were the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, etc.
On the other hand, in France, it doesn't even seem fair to try and rank museums on a national level because the sovereignty of Parisian museums is so indisputable. Almost all of France's most visited (and most affluent) museums are located in the capital.
In terms of visitors, the only non-Parisian museum to make the French top 10 in 2014 was the Louvres-Lens, a recently created museum, whose aim is partly to revitalize the Lens area and partly to better dispense the Louvres' incredible collection throughout France (as you can probably guess by now, a more equal distribution of artistic treasures is a welcome initiative).
As for historical monuments, the non-Paris part of France barely fares better. Of course, every French region has its share of beautiful monuments, they simply tend to attract less visitors than Parisian monuments.
According to a ranking, among the 20 most visited national museums in 2014, only 6 where not located in Paris: the Chambord Castle, the Louvres-Lens Museum, the Vizille Castle and Museum, the Chenonceau Castle, the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey and the Pont du Gard.
Wherever you find yourself in France, you can be sure that you're close to an amazing historical monument, but if you ask any foreigner to name French monuments, the first few ones they'll come up with will probably be in Paris. The capital's monuments are still predominant.
What about another aspect of culture like live shows? Well, every major French city has at least one "big" concert hall. But if you consider France's most prestigious venues, the ones that enjoy an international reputation such as the Opéra Garnier, the Comédie Française, the Philarmonie de Paris, the Théatre de l'Odéon, etc. you'll come to the realization that most of them are, again, located in Paris.
What I want you to take from this article is definitely not that there's nothing outside of Paris. I have lived my whole life in the "Province" and have been perfectly happy nonetheless.
What I wanted to address was the fact that, for historical reasons that mostly have to do with the French monarchy's connection with the Paris area as well as with the jacobine endeavor of the 1789 Revolution, Paris has become the nervous system of France, and it can be difficult to circumvent its influence. France's level of centralization is pretty unique.
The Province/Paris divide is a vicious one. Even if some people are trying to push for the use of the denomination "régions," all of France that is not Paris is still very often referred to as "La Province," which does annoy me because it has an obvious negative connotation. As Anne-Caroline Sieffert puts it: "In common language, Province, the abstract concept, often carries a negative or derogatory connotation. The term provincial, derived from Province, can imply a lack of culture, education or manners, by opposition to the refined, worldly and urbane Paris."
Living outside of Paris can give you the feeling that you're "missing out on the action". Open a national newspaper at the "Culture" pages and you'll most likely find yourself reading exclusively about plays and operas that are being shown in some Parisian venue. Browse through the "Travel" pages of a magazine and chances are you'll be given recommendations on "Weekend trips just outside of Paris".
As a result, a very common thing to hear in France is: "On ne peut pas vivre ailleurs qu'à Paris". ("One can't live anywhere else than Paris").
Another typical phrase goes: "Il n'y a pas de vie au-delà du périph'" (There is no life beyond the péripherique, the freeway system that surrounds Paris).
"Is there life beyond the péripherique? An ill-disposed country guide for Parisians considering exile." © Laëtitia Rigaud, Eyrolles Editions - Source: www.eyrolles.com
Those claims are pretty insulting, but, to some extent, their existence makes sense. The important things are happening in Paris. The people that matter, the people who make decisions that affect the whole country, live there.
My hope is that this will change, that Paris will agree to "share" its power. It has started doing so with the Louvres-Lens Museum, so it must be possible.
I am not too worried though. Every French city is unique. Every single one of them has beauty. None of them needs to be Paris.
This article was not supposed to be a lengthy invective against Paris' supremacy (even though it does sometimes suck). Rather, my objective was to allow you to better understand the relationship between the French capital and the rest of the country. So, I hope that I allowed you to get a better grasp on this interesting dynamic.
What's most important though is that all of France is great, therefore you should love all of it equally!!!!
(ok, you can have favorites)
(Although I think it's wrong of them to pluralize "Province.")