At once a crown jewel of the Belle Époque era and a vector epitomizing the turning point of the Art Nouveau movement, the Paris Metro has been central to life in the French capital since its inception in 1900.  Revolutionary from the beginning, the metro — which derives its name from the French La compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris, or Paris Metropolitan Railway Company — has since figured prominently in the national discourse and inspired tributes in film (Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro), art (L’Illustration magazine’s 1899 photography spread on the raw beauty of construction), and literature (Ezra Pound’s imagist poem In a Station of the Metro).  Under the guidance of Fulgence Bienvenüe, affectionately referred to today as “le père du métro” or the “father of the metro,” the first pickaxe was swung in 1896 1). Yet his unifying project was not proposed without many concerns; Parisians inhabiting the wealthy core of the city worried that any metropolitan rail system linking Paris with “industrial suburbs” or banlieues would destabilize the capital 2. Shockingly enough, these initial fears remained a force that shaped future expansions of the Parisian rail system through the late 20th century.  While the advent of the Paris Metro increased prosperity within Paris proper by reducing surface congestion and improving economic opportunities, this success often came at the expense of the increasingly marginalized peripheral regions.  Although the building of the Réseau express régional (RER) suburban train system helped to alleviate these disparities by facilitating integration, the socioeconomic and ethnic differences between the wealthier areas served by the Paris Metro and the immigrant-majority towns served by the RER still beg the question of the level of égalité that these networks actually provide.

Uniting culture and modernity under one (glass) roof of the newly erected Grand-Palais des Champs-Elysées, the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) of 1900 ushered in a new century with displays of technological progress.  The exhibition showcased a reborn Paris following the Haussmannian renovations of the city and in the eyes of many French historians was the “pinnacle” of Paris’ reign as capital of the 19th century 3). Although the fair showcased the recently completed Eiffel Tower, Ferris wheels, escalators, and motion pictures, the Paris Metro quite literally opened its doors to the millions of visitors as a uniting piece of infrastructure that ferried passengers from one corner of Paris to another.  Designed largely to avoid being eclipsed by cities including London and New York that had already begun developing independent underground rail systems, the Paris Metro quickly grew as a rival.  Not only did it overtake the London Underground in passenger numbers or the New York Subway in speed, but it also earned the reputation of the most aesthetically pleasing metropolitan rail system in the world 4. Following his studies at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, French architect Hector Guimard was commissioned to design the now-iconic entrances to the metro.  His ornamented, cast-iron and glass structures incorporated harmonious proportions, sweeping angles, and an idiosyncratic color scheme.  This decorative work became the best-known symbol of the Art Nouveau movement and the remaining entrances — larger-than-life objets d’art — are among the best-preserved pieces from this period, featuring prominently in collections in Paris, Montréal, and Washington today.  So great was the worldwide recognition of the Paris Metro, its cultural and economic effects, and its associated art movements that it cemented Paris’ status as the cornerstone of French and international social life 5.

The history of the construction of the Paris Metro parallels the history of its host city.  Following the opening of the first two lines — aptly named Lines 1 and 2 — just before the World Fair of 1900, construction continued steadily throughout the prosperous final years of the Belle Époque era.  Line 1 was originally designed taking into account the geography of the greater Parisian agglomeration and the geospatial distribution of its residents and landmarks.  Stretching from Porte Maillot in the northwest to Porte de Vincennes in the southeast, the route facilitated the east-west flow of traffic rendered difficult by the presence of the snaking Seine River 6. Equally notably, Line 1 took into account the new avenues and monuments along the grand sections of Paris from Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman’s renovation 7. It traces the Avenue de la Grande-Armée before crossing directly underneath the nationalist Arc de Triomphe and stretches along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées until Concorde station.  At Place de la Concorde, the metro station is located across from the Obélisque de Louxor that evokes the power and prestige of the French Republic and its worldly empire 8. Continuing along this eastward trajectory, the route passes through the esteemed Tuileries gardens, the palatial Hôtel de Ville de Paris, and the great hotels particuliers (mansions) that dot the Marais before reaching the other side of the city.  Although Line 1 winds from one side of Paris to the other across all manner of neighborhoods, one characteristic unites its trajectory: each of these neighborhoods, or quartiers, of Paris is home to wealthier residents, so much so that this trajectory is referred to as the axe historique, or historical axis, of Paris 9.

Other lines of the Paris Metro followed this pattern.  Line 2, also finished for the Universal Exposition of 1900, follows the prestigious Avenue Victor-Hugo and terminates near the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the resting place of rich and notable figures like Balzac, Apollinaire, Wilde, and La Fontaine.  Line 3, completed in 1904, brings riders to the Place de l’Opéra; Line 5, open by 1906, is centered around the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est train stations, evoking the golden age of luxury rail travel; Line 4, which began operations in 1908, is home to the exclusive intellectual bastion of Saint-Germain-des-Prés; and Line 7, functional by 1910, connects Le Bourget airport with the Louvre Museum and Pont Neuf, the oldest and arguably most beautiful bridge in Paris 10. This rapid expansion of the Paris Metro system spanned both the left and right banks of the city and brought inter-city rail travel within the grasp of a majority of Parisian residents for the first time.  The outbreak of World War I in 1914, however, had a significant effect on the French economy and, consequently, on the metro system.  By 1915, upwards of 45 percent of workers in the metallurgy and printing fields were unemployed, with the rate of job contraction more severe than in either London or Berlin.  By September of the same year, more than 300,000 Parisian gentlemen “had been drafted into the armed forces,” who comprised “30 percent of the total male workforce” 11. The problems associated with mobilization “were further compounded” by the military takeover of the Paris Metro and national train network “to carry men and materials to the front.”  Government funding was redirected from infrastructure expansion projects to weapons manufacturing as well as to “raw materials” and “overseas transport.”  Small firms in Paris and in the capital’s major trade partner towns suffered from an inability to interact with “sources of supply” and with “non-local markets” 12. Middle-class merchants and traders who had grown to depend on the metro became unable to sustain their sources of livelihood as general unemployment swelled through 1918.

Despite high debt and unpredictable inflation following the end of the conflict, the wartime bourgeois outcries helped to persuade the government to resume its metro expansion program 13. In 1922, the government opened up the new 20-kilometer Line 9 that connected the northeast and southwest corners of the city.  The next year, in 1923, 11 kilometers of track designated Line 10 ferried passengers across the Seine.  Rather than bore underground to create new train tunnels during the 1930’s, the Paris government pursued a policy of existing line expansion, replacing the Belleville funicular with Line 11 and extending several of the lines to the wealthier innermost core of suburbs: Line 1 to Neuilly-sur-Seine, Line 3 to Levallois-Perret, and Line 9 to Boulogne-Bilancourt, among others 14). Perhaps surprisingly, little protest was waged in response to these extensions for two reasons.  Not only were such extensions called for in Bienvenüe’s original metro framework, but these adjacent suburbs were also almost entirely composed of bourgeois, ethnically homogenous residents.

World War II proved to be a turning point for the operation of the Paris Metro and for future expansion plans.  Bomb raids during the war closed nearly all of the major lines of the system, with the few remaining routes running only sporadically. Unlike the London Underground, which utilized stations built deeper into the earth, the relatively shallow cut-and-cover method stations of the Paris Metro could not be used as bomb shelters, with the notable exception of Montmartre’s Abbesses ((Bobrick, 87)). Consequently, much of the rail system sustained considerable damage during the conflict, with stations such as Arsenal and Croix-Rouge never reopening.  The demographic changes following World War II, however, were the impetus for a major overhaul of the entire Parisian inter-city rail network.  The 30-year period following World War II is referred to as the Trente Glorieuses, or the Glorious Thirty (years).  These three decades were marked by a high birthrate, economic growth, increased consumption, and mass urbanization15. Paris swelled with new residents, only a fraction of whom could afford to live in its more expensive urban core.  The remainder of new arrivals settled in the burgeoning peripheries that ringed the capital city and grew just as quickly as Paris proper.  The few existing suburban rail stations grew overcrowded; the metro was full to capacity during operating hours; the new banlieues stretched too far from the center of Paris that building further extensions would have been impractical.  As decolonization accelerated — Vietnam in 1945, India in 1954, Guinea in 1958, Senegal in 1960, and Algeria in 1962, among others — both educated citizens of these territories and pieds noirs and other French colonists returned to mainland France.  While some settled in Marseille and other southern port cities with a “temperate Mediterranean climate,” the majority flocked to the greater Paris region, putting further strain on an already overburdened public transportation network16. Government officials realized that the existing metro framework needed to be adapted to serve the immigrant-heavy suburbs.

Such new transport links would have to reach where the new suburban centers of population were.  Beginning with the 1950 baby boom, the French government under Housing Minister Pierre Courant began constructing urban, subsidized, rental residences deemed HLMs, or habitations à loyer modéré (low-rent housing)17. With the advent of former colony immigration, the government realized that immigrants tended to move where the existing rents were cheaper.  New waves of immigrants led to further new developments, which remained clustered in border towns relatively free of restrictions on new housing developments.  This low rent-immigration wave positive feedback loop continued until many of these “towns” now housed hundreds of thousands of people18. Quickly branded villes nouvelles (new cities) by Le Figaro and other center-right dailies, the cities became known for their large foreign populations, imposing language barriers, and geographic isolation.  Poverty, unemployment, and inadequate living conditions plagued the HLM residents, who were nearly always too destitute to have automobile access.  Barring the extremely limited suburban rail services, cars were the only method of travel between the peripheral territories and central Paris, which were unaffordable for these populations where nearly 95 percent of residents received some form of governmental assistance19.

In 1948, the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), a government-backed public transport conglomerate, was formed when the operator of the Paris Metro joined forces with the city’s bus company.  Although RATP floated the idea of an express suburban rail network in the 1950’s, it was not until the group was able to purchase two failing rail lines from the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) state rail operator that the idea of widespread suburban train lines seemed feasible20. Although the company publicly stressed the benefits of the idea, it was met with moderate backlash.  The plan to integrate the ethnically distinct banlieues with the wealthier and relatively homogenous Parisian core struck a chord with French people.  The Organisation de l’armée secrète paramilitary group, which had fought to maintain French control over Algeria, now fought against immigrant integration into mainstream society21. Moreover, the large number of immigrants in the suburbs reminded all French citizens of their colonial failures and collapsing empire.  In 1972, the far-right Front national political party unified several anti-immigrant fringe groups under one political philosophy that stressed nationalist principles and began to receive significant numbers of votes (five percent of the Paris vote in 1973).  The Front national ran effective advertising campaigns emphasizing racial differences and pandering to prejudices22. Yet the political discourse in French society was still heavily influenced by the May 1968 youth and worker protests just four years prior.  The manifestations played a role in tearing down hyper-conservative culture and promoting new ideas.  In the end, work began on the first Réseau express régional line in 1969 and it was operational by 1977.

Consistent, subsequent expansions of the express suburban rail network were intended to promote “a flow of people and goods” between Paris and its outer suburbs23. Line A of the RER system was quickly joined by Lines B through E that extended from central hubs in Paris in 9 different directions (line E, unlike the others, extends outwards in one single spike).  On one hand, the RER system has proved extremely popular with French residents.  Line A boards and detrains approximately 120,000 passengers per hour during peak periods, one of the highest figures in the world.  The network was expanded and currently consists of 587 kilometers of track that not only covers the Île-de-France administrative region but even reaches north into the adjacent Picardie region at Creil station and south into the Centre region at Malsherbes station24. Yet despite this progress, the “overpopulation of the Paris region” has led to extreme congestion and “deteriorating quality” of the RER trains and network, unfairly hurting its reputation25. The last renovation of any RER line, Line C, was performed more than a decade ago, with other lines, notably Line B, not significantly overhauled in more than 30 years.  The Paris Metro, however, received an upgrade to Line 14 in 2007, Line 13 in 2008, Line 8 in 2011, and Line 12 in 201226. Furthermore, Line 1 just finished an 18-month renovation resulting in full automation and three other lines have received platform screen doors and updated signage.  While the RER carries approximately 800 million passengers per year compared to the Paris Metro’s 1.5 billion, the discrepancy in funding remains more pronounced and prompts questions about the efficacy of and motives behind French infrastructure spending.

The differences in quality between the Paris Metro and RER systems are symptoms of a larger issue.  While the development of the RER and its integration into the larger Parisian public transport network allowed residents of the banlieues to easily access Paris proper and the services it offers, the socioeconomic and ethnic composition of the suburbs remains incredibly distinct from the wealthier, more homogenous profile of the city center.  French residents born into or who grow up in these peripheral cities have the lowest residential mobility of any demographic group in the Île-de-France region.  Children of banlieue parents leave home later and achieve “lower than average rates of residential independence”27. Residents of these disadvantaged neighborhoods also have fewer incidences of marriage, more children out of wedlock, and lower rates of home ownership28. French suburban immigrants feel ostracized both “au travail” (at work) and “dans des endroits publiques” (in public places) due to physical appearance, regional variations in speech, and socioeconomic status29. Many immigrants feel more comfortable remaining in like-minded communities where the risk of exclusion is reduced30. With the obvious exceptions of airports and sports matches, bourgeois residents of Paris have historically had little need to venture into the extended suburbs and are thus largely able to confine themselves to the metro31. Although the RER suburban lines have helped to improve the flow of people and goods among formerly geographically isolated communities, this expansion is clearly not enough in itself to correct the ethnic, economic, and linguistic stratification present in the greater Paris region.


  1. Christian Delaunay, “Fulgence Bienvenüe, père du métro parisien,” Sciences ouest (1995)
  2. Lucien Bolotte, “Transport in Paris and the Île-de-France,” Built Environment 17.2 (1991): 160-171 
  3. Jean-Christophe Mabire, L’Exposition universelle de 1900, (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000)
  4. Taras Grescoe, “Secrets of the Paris Metro,” New York Times, November 19, 2000
  5. Claude Frontisi, “Hector Guimard entre deux siècles,” Revue d’histoire 20 (1988): 51-61
  6. J. Tuppen, “Public Transport in France: The Development and Extension of the Métro,” Geography 65.2 (1980): 127-130
  7. Colin Jones, “Theodore Vacquer and the Archaeology of Modernity in Haussman’s Paris,” Transactions of the Royal
  8. Ibid., 166
  9. Françoise Choay, “L’Histoire et la méthode en urbanisme,” Annales: Histoire, Sciences sociales 4 (1970): 1143-1154
  10. R. M. Sillard, “In the Cemetary of Père Lachaise,” The Irish Monthly 35.414 (1907): 673-676
  11. Jon Lawrence et al., “The Outbreak of War and the Urban Economy: Paris, Berlin, and London in 1914,” The Economic History Review 45.3 (1992): 564-593
  12. Lawrence, 565
  13. Lawrence, 570
  14. Benson Bobrick, Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World’s Subways (New York: Newsweek, 1981
  15. Juliet Carpentier et al., “Marginalization, Polarization, and Planning in Paris,” Built Environment 20.3 (1994): 218-230
  16. Andrea Smith, “Place Replaced: Colonial Nostalgia and Pied-Noir Pilgramages to Malta,” Cultural Anthropology 18.3 (2003): 329-364
  17. Denis la Mache, “Univers domestiques en HLM,” Ethnologie française 33.3 (2003): 473-482
  18. Catherine Bonvalet and Eva Lelievre, “Residential Mobility in France and in Paris Since 1945: The History of a Cohort,” Population 2 (1990); 187-212
  19. Koffi Anyinefa, “Le Métro parisien: Figure de l’exotisme postcolonial,” French Forum 28.2 (2003): 77-98
  20. Bolotte, 165-168 
  21. J. Vernet, “L’Armée de terre en 1945-1946,” Revue d’histoire 110 (1978): 45-78
  22. Pierre Milza, “Le front national crée-t-il une culture politique?” Vingtième siècle: revue d’histoire 16 (1987): 3-20
  23. Bolotte, 166
  24. Ibid., 169
  25. Ibid., 160
  26. Carpenter, 222-224
  27. Bonvalet, 198-203
  28. Ibid., 205
  29. Jean-Marie Marconot, “Le Français parlé dans un quartier HLM,” Langue française: approaches sociolinguistiques (1990): 68-81
  30. Anyinefa, 81-85
  31. Carpenter, 223-224