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OPINION: The new luxury Samaritaine store is an example of the ‘Disneyfication’ of Paris

Here is a parable of modern Paris - the parable of La Samaritaine - another piece of authentic Paris grittiness reinvented as a luxury attraction for foreign tourists, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: The new luxury Samaritaine store is an example of the 'Disneyfication' of Paris
President Emmanuel Macron at the reopening of La Samaritaine. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Until 2005, La Samaritaine was the most popular and least fashionable department store in Paris, a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from “Are You Being Served”.

The store’s jumble of five linked buildings between the Rue de Rivoli and the river Seine was one of the few remaining islands of unselfconscious, authentic, non-tourist grittiness in central Paris.  You could find everything in La Samaritaine from underpants to diamond tiaras; from puppies to concrete-mixers; from ready-made curtains to piranha fish.

IN PICTURES See inside the revamped Samaritaine store

Entering La Samaritaine was like playing a game of three dimensional  snakes and ladders. Each floor had six or seven different levels, joined by slopes of worn linoleum or by short flights of steps. To get from curtains to electrical goods, supposedly on the same floor, you climbed a few stairs into showers and bathrooms, turned right and went down again.

After 16 years of dereliction and legal wrangles, La Samaritaine re-opened again this week – as a supermarket for luxury brands, a five-star hotel and a gourmet roof restaurant with an unrivalled view onto the river and the Île de Cité. It will have private viewing rooms for the super-rich. It will have cafés, where you can eat top of the range burgers and caviar-on-baguette.

The staff of the old Samaritaine were the least helpful in Paris and consequently the world. The new staff will wear chinos and sneakers – and a smile.

The slogan of the old store was “The whole of Paris comes to La Samaritaine.”. The new store is aimed at the richer citizens of Yokohama or Shanghai.

The destruction of the old Samaritaine was romantically, historically and socially a calamity. It was also, I suppose, inevitable.

The modern world, and modern retailing methods, passed La Samaritaine by on the other side. People no longer wanted to go to a shop in central Paris to buy a concrete mixer or lawn-mower or even a pet piranha fish. Samaritaine still had 12 models of lawn-mowers when it was closed overnight, allegedly for safety reason, in 2005.

The world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH) – has spent €700 million on re-building and re-imagining La Samaritaine, ripping out the sloping floors and worn lino but preserving its 1907 art nouveau metal stair-cases and galleries.

A spectacular, pale-yellow fresco of peacocks which surrounds the main atrium was all but lost in the old clutter. It has been wonderfully restored.

No doubt the new Samaritaine will be a great success – once the foreign tourists come in great numbers to France again. The new hotel, Le Cheval Blanc, will be the only “palais”, or five-star hotel, in Paris to have rooms and suites with views onto the river Seine.

All the same, the transformation is cruelly emblematic of what has happened to central Paris in the last two or three decades. There is a campaign going on at present against the alleged saccage (destruction) of the French capital by bicycle-lanes,  ugly street furniture and graffiti and poorly maintained gardens. I have sympathy with some, but not all, of the complaints.

What I regret far more – without knowing how it could have been prevented – is the fact that the inner arrondissements of Paris have lost so much of their quirkiness and eccentricity in recent decades.

The international travel boom (pre-Covid) has turned central Paris into a self-conscious, though still beautiful, “Parisland”, a tourist theme-park to match Disneyland 40 kilometres to the east. Even relatively well-off families are being pushed out by high rents and property prices.

The re-opening of La Samaritaine, delayed for a year by the Covid pandemic, is one of a flurry of restorations and recreations of land-mark buildings in central Paris this summer.

The Musée Carnavalet, which traces the history of the city, has been cleverly re-thought and re-designed. The Bourse du Commerce, a spectacular circular building near Les Halles which was moribund for decades, has been resurrected as an art museum and exhibition space by the billionaire art-collector and entrepreneur (Gucci and FNAC) François Pinault.

The Hotel de la Marine, one half of the imposing 18th century terrace which stands on the north side of the Place de la Concorde, has been beautifully restored as a series of restaurants and exhibition spaces.

All of these buildings are within 15 minutes walk of one another – and all are a short stroll from the Louvre and the Palais Royal and Notre Dame. They are, in their revived form, great and welcome adornments to the capital which will be appreciated by Parisians and visitors alike.

Except for La Samaritaine.

I cannot see the new version of this once great institution as anything but a theft – a loss, a diminution of what once made central Paris not just beautiful but idiosyncratic and unmistakably itself. 

And, in any case, where in earth does one now go in Paris if you suddenly need to buy a pneumatic drill?

Member comments

  1. This article reminds me of New York City, where I’m temporarily living. Luxury stores line Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue for certain stretches, but nobody I know shops there. It’s all for wealthy tourists. I wonder what is the advantage of buying a designer garment in a luxury store in NY vs. the same garment in a luxury store in Paris.

  2. Believe it or not but shops are there to make money the best way they can. Perhaps the writer of this piece believes that everything should be preserved in aspic very much like the people that move to the countryside and are shocked that it’s a noisy smelly environment where people earn a hard living. It’s a great pity we all cannot sit behind a keyboard and get paid for it.

  3. Those stores are money losers, but there to to show they are there.
    There is very little in them, and nothing to be found to really wear.
    It’s best to shop in tax free states and in USD’s.
    Euro/USD is overvalued, and you pay 20% VAT and in sales tax free states, you pay nothing.

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OPINION: Why Germany’s €49 travel ticket is far better than the previous €9 ticket

The €49 ticket is a lot more expensive than its €9 predecessor - but rightly so, writes Brian Melican. Here's how it's likely to improve train travel in Germany long-term.

OPINION: Why Germany's €49 travel ticket is far better than the previous €9 ticket

In politics, expectations management is crucial. If governments get it wrong, they risk becoming unpopular or – as happened recently in the UK – imploding wholesale: Liz Truss et al. overpromised to win control of the governing Tory party and then did an appalling job of managing market expectations (i.e. they neglected to manage them at all), tanking the UK economy and their own careers at record speed.

Next to this spectacle, of course, Germany’s tripartite government coalition’s performance looks pretty passable. Nevertheless, as the whole 9-Euro-49-Euro-ticket saga demonstrates, Scholz & Co. could well use a lesson in how not to unnecessarily raise expectations.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s €49 ticket

When, this spring, German transport minister Volker Wissing and the Green’s parliamentary leader Ricarda Lang presented a 90-day trial for a travel card covering all local public transport services across Germany at a bargain-basement €9 monthly flat-rate, they set pulses racing – something that, as second-rank figures lacking the heft of their respective party heavyweights Lindner and Habeck, neither of them get to do all that often.

Suddenly, the whole country was electrified by the possibility of riding pretty much everything except ICEs for little more than the cost of a Currywurst and those of us who criticised the idea as an ill-thought-out giveaway which would do little more than clog up an already over-stretched network looked like Scrooges.

Now, of course, after the end of the 90-day bonanza and months of wrangling, it is Wissing, Lang and the 16 state transport ministers who were, presenting its successor, left sounding like they are barking “Bah humbug!” in the run-up to Christmas. “€49 Euros a month?!” For those arguing for an extension of the €9 ticket, that is a difference of €40; even advocates of Austria’s more realistic 365-Euro-ticket are around €19 out. And so all the relief that there will now be a permanent cheap ticket is tinged with disappointment that it won’t be that cheap.

‘Public equivalent of joyriding’

Yes, the political expectations management here was awful, because, considered on its own merits, the €49 ticket is sound policy which will have a long-lasting effect on real incomes and travel patterns without the deleterious effects of its short-lived gimmicky predecessor.

So what was wrong with the €9 ticket and how is the €49 ticket better? The biggest problem with this summer’s eye-catching initiative was that, while it did achieve one stated aim of putting money in the pockets of existing season-ticket holders, the price was so crazily low as to encourage the public-transport equivalent of joyriding.

In milder instances, people who could perfectly well have afforded to use long-distance services switched to far slower and far more complicated itineraries because they were unbeatably cheap, contributing to overcrowding on regional lines; at its worst (i.e. on warm weekends), the ticket encouraged people to head to already busy tourist hotspots when they otherwise wouldn’t have travelled at all

READ ALSO: What happens to Germany’s €9 ticket at the end of August?

This ran completely counter to another of the policy’s aims of reducing emissions (the most carbon-neutral journey is, after all, the one that never happens). It was also counterproductive insofar as it added disruption to a network already struggling with staffing shortages and a chronic lack of capacity: rather than attracting new riders, in many instances, the overcrowded and heavily-delayed services of this summer will have confirmed car-drivers’ suspicions that public transport is a sweaty hell-hole best avoided.

Deutsche Bahn regional trains leave Munich station

Regional trains of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn leave the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, on March 28, 2022. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

All of this explains why the €9 ticket was a failure: studies tracking its effect showed that, more than anything, it created more traffic without making a serious dent in the number of car journeys undertaken. And while doing that, it drained the coffers of public transport operators who are now reliant on Berlin making up for missing ticket receipts, in turn adding a couple of billion Euros to an already maxed-out governmental credit card.

Avoiding excesses

Now, by cranking up the price from “Oh, sure, why the hell not?” up to “Hm, sounds okay, I guess…”, the €49 ticket will avoid these excesses while still offering considerable savings both to season-ticket holders and anyone looking to make more use of public transport options in their free time or on holiday. This will be a helpful tool in the box when it comes to trying to get a grip on rampant inflation and a boon to hard-pressed commuters and low-income households. What it won’t do is actively provoke people into travelling just for the sake of it – and won’t bankrupt either the federal or the state transport departments. 

Yet what is by far the most important thing about the €49 ticket is its radically simplifying effect. In many countries, public transport (especially rail) is plagued by complicated fare structures, and Germany is perhaps Europe’s worst offender here: within each region, there are dozens of local transport authorities who set their own rates, usually based on complicated geographical zoning and often with a peak/off-peak element; some offer 24-hours day-tickets, others passes only valid until midnight or until 6am on the following day; in addition, service operators tend to offer their own flat-rate tickets, weekend travelcards, and various other deals, often for groups of different sizes or with specific characteristics (youths/seniors, students, jobseekers)… 

So for everyone looking to buy a fare with €49.00 to spare but not 40 minutes, the new go-to monthly ticket offers a quick way out. And if €49 sounds like a lot, it’s worth bearing in mind that many longer return journeys with regional trains can end up costing that if an overnight stay is involved.

Anyone planning to take just one trip from, say, Hamburg to Flensburg, staying a few days there and taking the bus to get around, is quids in – and will be delighted that they can use HVV services back in Hamburg and that, if they end up in Berlin or Munich later that month, they can also ride the busses, trams, and underground trains there. 

By taking a machete to the thicket of fares, this new permanent ticket beats a path to a nationwide public transport experience smoother than at any point in the past. As of next year, most people looking to ride on even just a semi-regular basis will no longer have to think twice about ticketing and will be able to use busses and trains in the same way drivers use their cars.

This is genuinely transformative, and if we’d never had the €9 ticket, the €49 ticket would be a headline-grabbing shift in transport policy. As it is, though, this important moment seems like an anti-climax.

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