How Paris Has Changed Since the Turn of the 21st Century

Paris bridge

Mental Art + Design

Many view Paris as a timeless city that remains reassuringly familiar, or even predictable. The Eiffel Tower lights up the skies every night without fail. The sloped 19th-century rooftops that have graced guidebooks and postcards for decades remain mostly intact. Independent bakeries, shops, and markets are still thriving in the city center, seemingly resistant to the pressures of globalization that have transformed other metropolitan capitals beyond recognition. If London, Beijing, or Los Angeles tirelessly change their faces, Paris keeps its own proudly intact—or so the myth goes.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Paris has in fact profoundly changed, in ways that are both remarkable and subtle. I moved there in the summer of 2001, right at the brink of another period of global crisis, fear, and disruption.

Today, the capital still seems very much itself and has probably resisted the "homogenizing" effects of globalization more than many cities. But in certain respects, it has radically transformed. Here's how Paris has embraced the new millennium while maintaining many of its proud traditions—and why I think its future remains bright, despite the current global crisis.

English Is Now Widely Spoken

One of the most noticeable changes in the capital? A rise in locals comfortably speaking English. When I first arrived in 2001, it was still somewhat unusual to encounter servers, staff, and other locals who spoke English semi-fluently or fluently—at least outside of major tourist areas. Those who could often were reluctant to, perhaps out of shyness.

I often attribute my relatively quick mastery of French to this fact. In Northern European countries such as Germany, locals have often met my clumsy efforts at the language by responding in English. But my early years in Paris offered a crash course in French. No matter how awkward things got or how badly I expressed myself, I had to find a way to communicate in the Gallic tongue.

A more globalized generation of young Parisians has arguably changed that. The advent of YouTube, streaming TV services with subtitled shows in English, and a greater emphasis on oral expression in language education all seem to have pushed the needle. In recent years, more locals have responded to me in English when I approach them in French. They ostensibly hear my slight American accent and respond in turn. I often get the sense that they're enthusiastic about showing off their skills, rather than questioning my own abilities in French.

Statistics seem to support my impression of more English being spoken in recent years. According to one European study conducted in 2019, 55 percent of French people speak English (with varying degrees of fluency). While that number remains low compared to many other countries in Europe—France ranks 25th in the EU on that metric—it's almost certainly a higher percentage than it was at the start of the millennium. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a matter of opinion.

Pedestrian-Only Zones and Green Spaces Have Flourished

Cars were still king at the start of the aughts. Paris was a noisy, moderately polluted place where pedestrians were at risk crossing busy intersections, and riding a bike to work was a laughable (and dangerous) gamble.

But the city is being radically reshaped for the 21st century. Paris's mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has rapidly added pedestrian-only zones, bike paths, and green belts to the city, including stretches along the Seine River that were previously busy roads. Most recently, she unveiled an ambitious project to add an expansive green belt around the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero. While these initiatives have been controversial, especially among some car owners, they've made the city a greener, healthier place, and reduced risks for walkers and cyclists.

Vegetarians & Vegans Can Now Find Plenty to Eat

As few as five or six years ago, it was difficult—even next to impossible—for vegetarians to find something to eat in traditional French restaurants, save omelets, salads, and raw vegetable platters. Creperies, falafel shops, and a cluster of "crunchy-granola" restaurants dating to the 1970s were your only other options. Servers often wrongly assumed anyone asking about vegetarian menu items could still eat fish (which is generally not considered meat in France). And if you were vegan, it was even more challenging to eat out. Most in Paris were unfamiliar with the concept altogether

All that has dramatically changed, and with remarkable speed. You can now find dozens of restaurants, from casual canteens to formal tables, that cater partly or entirely to vegetarians and vegans. The culinary landscape is surprisingly creative, and even Michelin-starred restaurants such as L'Arpège have put fresh produce and vegetables at the center of their menus. While the "veggie turn" probably has more to do with growing ecological concerns than it does with animal rights, one thing is sure: if you don't eat meat or want to cut back on animal products, it's never been a better time to visit Paris.

Cupcake Shops, Artisan Coffeehouses & Craft Breweries Abound

At the turn of the 21st century, the most successful exports from outside France were pubs and bars centered around "authentic" food, beer, and music from the neighboring United Kingdom, Australia, or the United States. With a few exceptions, most of these were frankly terrible.

But somewhere in the 2010s, a new crop of trendy concepts imported from elsewhere took root in Paris. Breweries making craft beer changed the nocturnal landscape (but remained French in their own right). Coffee bars serving decent pour-overs and single-origin macchiatos popped up right and left.

Concept bakeries centered around a single specialty—from cupcakes to meringues—were suddenly fashionable. Diners stood in long lines to eat (or at least pretend to eat) pizzas accompanied by Italian cocktails at a trendy chain of restaurants launched by young residents from Italy. And gourmet breakfast became serious business, rather than an excuse to imbibe cocktails over mediocre, pricey afternoon brunch.

In short, a new generation of Parisians made it cool to indulge in all things artisanal, especially if those things weren't especially traditional to France.

The City Is Becoming More Accessible

Paris has generally ranked quite poorly when it comes to accessibility. Narrow sidewalks with steep curbs and metal barriers placed near crosswalks, inaccessible metro stations with endless stairs, and cobblestoned streets have historically made it difficult for people with disabilities to navigate the city.

The local and national governments have been working hard to turn that lousy track record around. In the run-up to Paris hosting the 2024 Olympics, the city has charted an ambitious course to make hundreds of public sites around the city more accessible, including in city museums, parks, squares, and green spaces. The city is spending millions of Euros on new ramps and other refurbishments. Also, the past few years have seen the arrival of free, automated, and fully accessible public toilets, as well as a higher number of buses and metro stations equipped with ramps. Many museums and famous city monuments are also working to increase accessibility.

There's still a long way to go, of course. But it's an encouraging trend.

Service Is Often Friendlier (In Some Corners, at Least)

I often tell a story about my first week in Paris: I ventured into a bakery, ordered a "croissant au chocolat," and was promptly chastised by the owner. "Mais non! C'est un pain au chocolat, Madame!" ("No, Madame—it's called a pain au chocolat!") When I humbly corrected myself and smiled, she disapprovingly scowled and gave me my change without saying a further word. I left the bakery, a tad mortified.

This is just one (subjective) anecdote, and certainly shouldn't be used to make broad overgeneralizations about Parisian culture. Nevertheless, I sense that service has (on the whole) become friendlier in the capital since I first moved there. This may have to do with a couple of crucial factors: younger, more globally-minded generations of locals increasingly staffing or owning businesses, and a concerted effort on the part of local tourism officials to convey a sense of warmth and hospitality. Their mission? To combat stereotypes about grouchy and unhelpful locals.

Of course, what many tourists perceive as "rude" service in France often boils down to cultural differences and misunderstandings. But at least in my experience, local efforts over the past years to make the city seem like a friendlier place for tourists have started paying off.

Cigarette Smoke Is Much Rarer

In 2001, you couldn't go out to a restaurant, bar, café, or club in Paris without being accosted by cigarette smoke. Whether you smoked yourself or not, you returned home with clothes reeking of nicotine after a night out. There was little sense that this was unfair for non-smokers, or that secondhand smoke was a serious problem.

That swiftly changed with a firm and nationwide smoking ban that became law in early 2006. While many predicted that locals would simply flout the rules and that they wouldn't stick, France surprised the world by strictly observing and enforcing the new law. Parisians followed along without much issue, aside from new hordes of smokers occupying sidewalks outside bars at night—and prompting noise-reduction rules in residential areas.

Of course, the ban still allows smokers to light up in open or partly enclosed terrace areas, so during the winter, you'll often still get a pretty strong whiff of cigarette smoke when entering many restaurants and bars. Plus ca change... (The more things change...)

Dog Droppings are Less Present Underfoot

Another unpleasant environmental "irritant" that's become only slightly less rare than bearded men sporting berets and black turtlenecks? Dog droppings. Avoiding it on your path was a genuine art at the turn of the 21st century, requiring a hawk eye and nimble feet. It was particularly treacherous on rainy days, or when thin layers of ice covered it just enough to render it invisible. Many unpleasant falls ensued. Not to mention lively bickering between dog owners and fellow pedestrians.

Then in the mid-2000s, strict new fines appeared to discourage owners from leaving canine companions' droppings behind to pollute sidewalks and streets. While it's still not particularly unusual to come across these foul "packages," it's become rarer. What's more, fines for derelict doggie owners may soon rise to 200 euros or more. Paris now spends around 400 million euros a year on keeping streets, sidewalks, metros, and other public areas clean, working hard to reverse its (unfair) image as a dirty city. It's not likely to let careless animal owners off the hook.

Forward Glance: Why Paris Has a Bright Future

Now, in May 2020, France remains under strict lockdown. The COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe and brought much of the world to a standstill means potential devastation for the city. Tourism is one of its most important economic drivers, and thousands of jobs in the sector have been and will be lost. While restrictions are expected to lift starting in mid-May, no one knows when international tourism (much less domestic) will safely resume. The city's future seems uncertain.

Yet as its brave motto in Latin attests—Fluctuat, nec mergitur (tossed, but not sunk)—Paris has endured numerous upsets and upheavals over the centuries, from violent revolutions to wartime occupations and devastating terrorist attacks. It has generally emerged more robust and more creative each time. With more bold initiatives to reshape Paris for the 21st century well underway, the city remains on track to becoming greener, healthier—and yes, even friendlier. It will eventually re-blossom, perhaps opening itself to even more dramatic changes in the wake of the current crisis. And that's arguably something to look forward to.

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