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.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


OPINION: Why Germans’ famed efficiency makes the country less efficient

Germans are famous for their love of efficiency - and impatience that comes with it. But this desire for getting things done as quickly as possible can backfire, whether at the supermarket or in national politics, writes Brian Melican.

OPINION: Why Germans' famed efficiency makes the country less efficient

A story about a new wave of “check-outs for chatting” caught my eye recently. In a country whose no-nonsense, “Move it or lose it, lady!” approach to supermarket till-staffing can reduce the uninitiated to tears, the idea of introducing a slow lane with a cashier who won’t sigh aggressively or bark at you for trying to strike up conversation is somewhere between quietly subversive and positively revolutionary – and got me thinking.

Why is it that German supermarket check-outs are so hectic in the first place?

READ ALSO: German supermarkets fight loneliness with slower check outs for chatting

If you talk to people here about it – other Germans, long-term foreign residents, and keen observers on shorter visits – you’ll hear a few theories.

One is that Germans tend to shop daily on the way home from work, and so place a higher premium on brisk service than countries where a weekly shop is more common; and it is indeed a well-researched fact that German supermarket shopping patterns are higher-frequency than in many comparable countries.

Bavarian supermarket

A sign at a now-famous supermarket in Bavaria advertises a special counter saying “Here you can have a chat”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Another theory is that, in many parts of the country (such as Bavaria), supermarket opening hours are so short that there is no other way for everyone to get their shopping done than to keep things ticking along at a good old clip.

The most simple (and immediately plausible) explanation, of course, is that supermarkets like to keep both staffing and queuing to a minimum: short-staffing means lower costs, while shorter queues make for fewer abandoned trolleys.

German love of efficiency

Those in the know say that most store chains do indeed set average numbers of articles per minute which their cashiers are required to scan – and that this number is higher at certain discounters notorious for their hard-nosed attitude.

Beyond businesses’ penny-pinching, fast-lane tills are a demonstration of the broader German love of efficiency: after all, customers wouldn’t put up with being given the bum’s rush if there weren’t a cultural premium placed on smooth and speedy operations.

Then again, as many observers not yet blind to the oddness of Germany’s daily ‘Supermarket Sweep’ immediately notice, the race to get purchases over the till at the highest possible rate is wholly counter-productive: once scanned, the items pile up faster than even the best-organised couple can stow away, leaving an embarrassing, sweat-inducing lull – and then, while people in the queue roll their eyes and huff, a race to pay (usually in cash, natch’).

In a way, it’s similar to Germany’s famed autobahns, on which there is theoretically no speed limit and on which some drivers do indeed race ahead – into traffic jams often caused by excessive velocity.

Yes, it is a classic case of more haste, less speed. We think we’re doing something faster, but actually our impatience is proving counterproductive.

German impatience

This is, in my view, the crux of the issue: Germans are a hasty bunch. Indeed, research shows that we have less patience than comparable European populations – especially in retail situations. Yes, impatience is one of our defining national characteristics – and, as I pointed out during last summer’s rail meltdown, it is one of our enduring national tragedies that we are at once impatient and badly organised.

As well as at the tills and on the roads, you can observe German impatience in any queue (which we try to jump) and generally any other situation in which we are expected to wait.

Think back to early 2021, for instance, when the three-month UK-EU vaccine gap caused something approaching a national breakdown here, and the Health Minister was pressured into buying extra doses outside of the European framework.

This infuriated our neighbours and deprived developing countries of much-needed jabs – which, predictably, ended up arriving after the scheduled ones, leaving us with a glut of vaccines which, that very autumn, had to be destroyed.

A health worker prepares a syringe with the Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine by Biontech-Pfizer. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Now, you can see the same phenomenon with heating legislation: frustrated by the slow pace of change, Minister for Energy and the Economy Robert Habeck intended to force property owners to switch their heating systems to low-carbon alternatives within the next few years.

The fact that the supply of said alternatives is nowhere near sufficient – and that there are too few heating engineers to fit them – got lost in the haste…

The positive side of impatience

This example does, however, reveal one strongly positive side of our national impatience: if well- directed, it can create a sense of urgency about tackling thorny issues. Habeck is wrong to force the switch on an arbitrary timescale – but he is right to try and get things moving.

In most advanced economies, buildings are responsible for anything up to 40 percent of carbon emissions and, while major industrials have actually been cutting their CO2 output for decades now, the built environment has hardly seen any real improvements.

Ideally, a sensible compromise will be reached which sets out an ambitious direction of travel – and gets companies to start expanding capacity accordingly, upping output and increasing the number of systems which can be replaced later down the line. Less haste now, more speed later.

The same is true of our defence policy, which – after several directionless decades – is now being remodelled with impressive single-mindedness by a visibly impatient Boris Pistorius.

As for the check-outs for chatting, I’m not sure they’ll catch on. However counterproductive speed at the till may be, I just don’t see a large number of us being happy to sacrifice the illusion of rapidity so that a lonely old biddy can have a chinwag. Not that we are the heartless automatons that makes us sound like: Germany is actually a very chatty country.

It’s just that there’s a time and a place for it: at the weekly farmer’s markets, for instance, or at the bus stop. The latter is the ideal place to get Germans talking, by the way: just start with “About bloody time the bus got here, eh?” So langsam könnte der Bus ja kommen, wie ich finde…

READ ALSO: 7 places where you can actually make small talk with Germans