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Paris: City of Museums or Museum city?

The City of Lights has a problem. It can't decide what kind of world capital it wants to be and it may be gradually losing its soul in an effort to preserve it.

I have been living in London for more than three years and a few weeks ago, I went back to what's essentially my hometown to visit friends and family as I do on a regular basis. Thanks to the Eurostar, it takes about as much time to go to Paris by high-speed train as it does to go across London by tube.

Every time I step out of the Gare du Nord it strikes me again just how much Paris is a magnificent city that boasts incomparable assets. Its reputation as a tourist mecca is unsurpassed.

Landing in the French capital is like a dream come true for millions around the world. Culture is everywhere and the city presents an exceptional mix of atmosphere and history, architecture and "joie de vivre," romance and art. Not surprisingly, France in 2006 was again the number one destination for tourists worldwide.

That's great news for the nation's coffers. The $45.5 billion spent in France represents a vital boost for the national economy and provides jobs for hundred of thousands. Rude waiters and obnoxious taxi drivers did not succeed in deterring 78 million visitors from exploring the country. And most of them came to (or traveled through) Paris.

 And yet, for a world capital, there's something missing. There is no buzz.

Something missing
Unlike cities like London, New York or Barcelona, it sometimes feels provincial, sleepy.

Over dinner, Parisian friends confirmed that they too feel the capital is gradually turning into a gigantic open-air museum. And although some in the "Ville des Lumières" have numerous reasons to be proud of where they live, more and more Parisians resent what's happening to their city. People don't live in museums.

We understand that the local authorities are eager to preserve the splendor of Paris, they'll tell you. But when their determination is compounded with the traditional French illnesses -- layers of bureaucracy, strict and inadequate business rules, and hefty taxes to name a few -- it reinforces the feeling that nothing here can ever change.

Arguably, some of the issues are purely economic and not specific to the French capital. Any big city in the world has to deal with property prices pushing lower-income families away from the center, car pollution, environmental challenges, meeting public transportation needs and the ensuring security of its inhabitants.

But Mayor Bertrand Delanoé is accused of turning the French capital into a "sacred" city where stringent regulations prevent a natural evolution of the city.

Residents associations say Delanoé behaves like a dictator. His opponents claim he never exploited the best of Paris and failed to grab opportunities introduced by world growth and globalization.

As often in France, cultural issues seem particularly divisive.

'Prostituting' the Louvre

A perfect illustration is the petition by art purists criticizing the Louvre's director Henri Loyrette and President Jacques Chirac for "prostituting" the museum's name.

Their mistake? They have signed a multimillion dollar deal to lend some of the museum's 300,000 paintings to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and are negotiating with the United Arab Emirates to create an extension of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi that would allow some of its paintings to be exhibited in a deal worth over $1 billion dollars.

This is symptomatic of the familiar struggle between the old and the new world. Traditionalists say this is a vulgar plan that's not worthy of "our cultural values."

"One can only be shocked by the commercial and promotional use of masterpieces of our national heritage," says the petition signed by 4,400 people so far, mostly civil servants working 35 hours a week and paid by French taxpayers. By lending out the masterpieces, the Louvre's director is copying the "disastrous" example of the Guggenheim Museum in New York "which boasts of being an entertainment business."

Another raging controversy: The Swedish clothing firm H&M had planned to spend $65 million for a megastore on the Champs Elysées, allegedly "the most beautiful avenue on earth." Last month, the Paris city government voted to ban the chain from the avenue saying it was already filled with too many clothing stores and at risk of becoming "banal."

"The avenue is progressively losing its exceptional and symbolic character," the report claimed. So let's ban it.

Slow death?

Such responses are leading to the capital's slow death, in the view of some "modern" Parisians.

Many of my friends believe Paris has long ceased to be an influential city where tomorrow's artistic trends are conceived and launched. It no longer represents an attractive option for creators who prefer the excitement and vibes of other capitals.

And how many Parisians are to be found among the more than 300,000 French now living in London?

Sure, the mayor and his team occasionally come up with a cultural gimmick --"Paris Plage," the summertime beach-on-the-Seine, or the all night music fest of the "Nuit Blanche"-- but this is nothing but the tree hiding the desert.

As the saying goes: "Paris sera toujours Paris"…Paris will always be Paris.

Perhaps THAT is precisely the French capital's problem.