‘The situation is infernal’: Paris hits peak cafe


With less room for cars now – and after COVID-era cycling lanes were made permanent – thousands of people are pedaling to the city’s hottest spots.

“It’s so lovely here,” said Claire-Anne Haines, an event organiser who was hemmed behind a tiny table with her friends at a bistro’s parking-space terrace on the Rue Condorcet in Montmartre. “The terrace looked nice while I was biking past, so I told my friends to come,” she said.

Residents near the Rue des Abbesses have complained about the additional outdoor seating in the area in the evenings.Credit: Getty

It all plays into a bigger blueprint laid out by Hidalgo to make Paris a more environmentally friendly metropolis by liberating public space from cars and repurposing it for pedestrians and communal activity.

Not everyone welcomes the changes. Resident associations have clashed with the city over the noise that the terraces bring and have continued to press authorities over who should control streets and sidewalks.

Critics accuse Hidalgo of allowing businesses to privatise the public domain. Drivers rail about lost parking. And a hashtag, #saccageparis – or “pillage Paris” – has become an outlet for outraged people to post photos of ramshackle terraces that they say are a blot on the beauty of the city.

“The situation is infernal,” said Eric Durand, a spokesperson for Droit au Sommeil, or Right to Sleep, a citizens group with representatives in every section of Paris.


The cacophony has grown exponentially where he lives, near the Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre, he said. Some neighbours have moved away. Those who can’t afford to are forced to keep their windows closed or – a horror to Parisians – buy air-conditioning units to keep cool on summer nights when the terraces are going full blast. “We want this invasion of public space to stop,” Durand said.

But at City Hall, officials say the summer terraces are here to stay. “Paris is the city of cafes; they are part of the French art de vivre,” said Olivia Polski, the deputy mayor of Paris responsible for trade, using a French phrase meaning “the art of living”.

Today, 4000 summer terraces are authorised through a paid license, compared with 14,000 that were free to open under emergency COVID policies. The terraces must meet new guidelines for aesthetics and noise, and must shut by 10pm. Loud music is forbidden, and owners face “an arsenal of sanctions and new legislation for infractions”, Polski said, including steep fines or the loss of their operating licence.

Over 200 were shuttered last year for violations.

In Place de la Reunion, a bucolic square in eastern Paris that is adorned with umbrella pines and an ornamented fountain, cafe operators consulted with local residents to address concerns. “We listened to neighbours and learned to work things out,” said Perrine Virey, a manager at Cafe La Chope, whose summer terrace seats up to 130 people, compared with 40 at the cafe’s regular terrace before COVID. Solutions included not throwing bottles away at night and starting to move diners out of the square at 9.45, she said.

With hundreds of people gathered each night, the area feels safer and more convivial, locals said. A village ambience reigned one recent evening as children capered about while their parents lingered at tables. Friends with pink hair sipped orange spritzes before heading to an LGBTQ dance club.

In addition to the noise complaints, another downside, some Parisians say, is that the success of the terrace project is speeding gentrification in socially mixed areas. “It’s pushing poorer people out of the spaces that they used to inhabit,” said Rafael Ludovici, a graduate student.

But in the Place d’Aligre, terrace supporters said the summer diners had revitalised the working-class neighbourhood. At La Grille, a bistro hangout for over 40 years that nearly went bust as COVID hit, a dozen new employees have been hired to tend to the growing crowds.

On the recent evening, after the Aligre food market closed and street cleaners washed the pavement clean, a vintage 1930s Renault truck loaded with La Grille’s outdoor tables and chairs rolled up. By 5pm, a colourful terrace had sprung seemingly out of nowhere, and an hour later, dozens of patrons had settled in.


“It’s completely added to the charm of the place, and creates a connection between people,” said Omar Hammouche, La Grille’s owner, as a stream of habitués stopped to shake his hand.

At Chez Camille, Zennadi and his family installed new outdoor seating for about 100 people, on top of 400 seats added by other cafes to the square. Last year, the family invested 15,000 euros ($16,500) for the terrace license and to upgrade the outdoor furniture, among other improvements.

Recently, the cafe even started its own microbrewery, Zennadi noted proudly. “Nobody wanted COVID to happen,” Zennadi said as a coterie of friends gathered on the sun-dappled terrace for an aperitif. “But we can be thankful for the good things that have come out of it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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