The fight to save the trees of Paris
- November 27, 2023
- Agnès Poirier
- Themes: France
Every week, cherished trees disappear from the streets and gardens of Paris — and there is a growing public backlash.
Passers-by hardly notice trees in city centres. It is only when they are gone that their presence, or absence, is felt so keenly. Some are more special than others, but why are we assuming that they are somehow invincible, or at least unmovable? Is it because they are so much bigger and stronger than us? We would have never thought the Sycamore Gap tree would disappear from Hadrian’s Wall, let alone be gratuitously cut down by human hand. Sadness and anger were felt worldwide. For trees, and remarkable trees such as the sycamore, inspire in us all peace and often happiness. We draw from them strength and calm. Some of us even hug them. Why would we want to chop them down?
If Parisians are today much more aware of the many remarkable and vulnerable trees that grace their city it is both to do with the current municipality’s campaign of culling, and those trees’ history. Every week, cherished trees disappear from the streets and gardens of Paris — and there is a growing public backlash. The official reason given for their cutting is usually sickness or frailty. If those trees are sick or become too frail, it is because the Paris municipality is not looking after them properly. It took Parisians months to question the official narrative and it was not until experts explained what was really at stake that they realised the scale of this ecological disaster. Among the experts are Tangui Le Dantec, a botanist and professor at the High School of Garden Architecture (ECJA), and the architect and tree lover Dominique Dupré-Henry, who have become whistleblowers for trees in Paris with their regular columns in the daily newspaper Le Figaro.
A few months ago, in the dead of summer to minimise publicity, four beloved paulownias on the exquisite triangular square at the corner of rue Bréa and rue Vavin in Montparnasse were felled with only a day’s notice. Returning from their holidays, Parisians stopped in their tracks: you could see the dismay in their eyes as they reached the square. Where had the trees gone? Oh no, not them, not again. A few weeks later, another group of paulownias, this time the oldest in Paris, were chopped down from an even more majestic square, the small Place Furstenberg near St Germain-des-Près, where the painter Delacroix used to live and unchanged since the eighteenth century. The news travelled across the world. In Le Figaro, Tangui le Dantec and Dominique Dupré-Henry explained how those imperial trees, bearing the name of Czar Paul I’s daughter, Anna Pavlovna, could have easily been saved had they been properly looked after. Those trees were in perfect health, they said; the problem was their anchorage, an issue easy to address with regular maintenance: ‘The budget allocated to tree maintenance in Paris in 2023, only a few million euros, less than the year before, is laughable when considering today’s ecological challenges. Old trees demand regular care and attention.’ Le Dantec and Dupré-Henry rightly pointed out that while the Paris municipality is failing to protect its trees, it keeps spending hundreds of millions of euros on tourist projects, such as the 107 million euro development of the Champ de Mars, the gardens at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The cruel irony is that this project is undermining a big proportion of its centuries-old plane trees, some dating back to the time of Napoleon.
With Anne Hidalgo’s mayoralty in place till 2026, Parisians can do little more than continue protesting loudly, draw up and sign petitions, and try holding their city councillors to account. They can also find solace by visiting the only preserved garden in Paris, one that is administered directly by the Senate and not by the city of Paris: Jardin du Luxembourg. There, thousands of trees are looked after by an army of dedicated gardeners. While some orange trees date back to the 17th century, the star attraction of this garden is the apple and pear orchard which was conceived in 1650 by a Carthusian monk, Friar Alexis. Today, the Luco, as Parisians have nicknamed the Jardin du Luxembourg, shelters 626 different apple and pear varieties.
The former royal gardens known today as Jardin des Plantes is the other botanical gem of the French capital. Sheltering the Museum of National History, five glasshouses, mineralogy and geology galleries, gardens à l’Anglaise and gardens à la Française, a labyrinth and a zoo, the Jardin des Plantes has been an ecological treasure for 400 years. There, towering trees planted three centuries ago, such as France’s first Lebanon cedar planted in 1734 and a 30-metre-high Ginkgo Biloba planted in 1811 give flâneurs a dizzy feeling of eternity – a welcome sentiment in today’s tumultuous world. Let’s just hope this Ginkgo Biloba, a species that can live 1000 years, will never be harmed by an unscrupulous municipality.