Photo by James McConnachie
Defining French cuisine is said to be easy: a coq au vin, perhaps, a croissant at breakfast. But with 20% of Paris’s population born outside France – many in former French colonies such as Algeria – the question of what it means to be “French” is undergoing a dynamic shift.
To the outsider, Paris might look uniform: even static. Every street has the same terrace for the same café, the same wood-paneled shops hawking the same (exquisite) goods. But when I head on a Wednesday or a Saturday to the Barbès Metro – the heart of Paris’s African population – in the shadow of the elevated train tracks, I find shop-stalls that sell not just traditional Parisian specialties, but baklava and rose marzipan, Tunisian spices and cafés that supplement their au laits with mint tea.
Parisian couture is restitched by tailors hailing from the Ivory Coast and Ghana; high-end shops like Ojabtex offer elegant fabrics imported from abroad. As I cycle along Boulevard Barbès, nearly crashing into the stalls and tables that spill over into the street, I’m stopped more than once with a laugh, a smile, an invitation to stay.
France has often come under criticism, sometimes fairly, for the demands of assimilation it makes upon its immigrant population. Wearing the burqa, after all, is still illegal in public, a politically contentious point. But in neighborhoods like Barbès and Goutte-d’Or, I am reminded that Paris – like any other great world city – is a city that never stops changing. There’s more than one way to be “Parisian”.