Ticket to ride in Paris

The métro paper ticket will disappear from Parisians’ lives in 14 months’ time, by January 2025. An ubiquitous presence in daily life, the métro ticket had a multi-purpose existence. Its disappearance will be much lamented by Parisians.

Woman looking at Paris metro map. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo.
Woman looking at Paris metro map. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo.

Its demise was postponed, and postponed. It must have been too difficult to conceive of never again seeing or feeling this little piece of rectangular cardboard in the palm of the hand: Paris city councillors probably couldn’t face uttering the sentence ‘le ticket de métro, c’est fini.’ Over the last twenty years, we Parisians had been told that going ticketless was the way forward, that this was so much more ecological, and yet, we resisted. To us, a trip on the London tube felt futuristic: what? No more paper tickets? (Paper tickets are still allowed on the London tube but cost almost double a contactless ticket, hence its near extinction.) Such a dematerialised world felt a little soulless. Back in Paris, we found a ticket in our pocket and felt reassured.

Alas, the dreaded moment has finally come: a date has been agreed on. There is no turning back, all resistance seems futile. The métro paper ticket will disappear from Parisians’ lives in 14 months’ time, by January 2025. And from this week, 180 stations (out of a total of 303 Paris métro stations) have stopped selling them. And to think they have been with us since the beginning of the Métropolitain in 1900, or to be precise since 1pm on 19 July 1900 when the first métro ticket was used to open Line 1, built in time for the Exposition Universelle!

Born in the 1970s, I have always known the 6.5cm x 3 cm métro ticket with a dark brown magnetic strip in the middle. Only its colour changed over the years. They were yellow, then green, purple and now white. I liked the yellow ones best of course as they were the ones which inhabited my childhood. My eldest brother collected them like precious mementoes. He even pinned them on his bedroom’s walls, next to his posters of film noirs and Louis Armstrong.

The Paris métro ticket belongs to our pantheon of Parisian imagery. So many iconic black and white pictures of the French capital, taken by Willy RonisRobert DoisneauCartier-Bresson, and Sabine Weiss, to name but a few great post-war humanist photographers, were taken on the Paris underground. The French New Wave also immortalised its many rituals. Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande A Part has memorable close-ups of Anna Karina riding the métro, a ticket in her pocket. At around the same time, in 1959, French writer Raymond Queneau wrote Zazie dans le métro, the story of an 11-year-old girl who spends the weekend in Paris dreaming of discovering le métro but cannot because of strikes. Louis Malle adapted the novel to the big screen a year later. And of course, still in 1959, Serge Gainsbourg wrote the song Le poinçonneur des Lilas, telling the story of the ticket puncher working at Les Lilas station, in the north-east of Paris. The puncher dreams of leaving his ‘cave’ one day. ‘Sometimes, I dream, I’m even delirious, I see waves and in the fog at the end of the platform I see a ship that comes to take me away.’

I never knew ticket punchers — they disappeared with the arrival of automatic turnstiles in October 1973. This is when métro tickets were adorned with a magnetic stripe of marron glacé hue. I do however remember the last métro coaches with wooden benches, and the first- and second-class coaches. At rush hour in second class, we felt like sardines in a can while first class coaches were almost empty apart from a few impeccably dressed Parisians having enough space to deploy their broadsheet size newspapers and read in peace (first class was finally abolished in 1991).

An ubiquitous presence in our daily life, the métro ticket had a multi-purpose existence, most notably, at least for students and avid readers, as the best ever marque-page or book-mark. Go and buy second-hand books in Paris’s flea markets and you will almost inevitably find one ticket lost deep inside. Smokers used it as filters to their hand-rolled cigarettes, others as toothpicks, lovers to leave sweet words to their beloved. It also carried the potent notion of freedom. For young Parisians learning how to navigate the city, it was a pass to a wider world. Freedom had a tactile feeling, and the touch of this little piece of strong cardboard shaped it. Parisian freedom will now have to take other forms but somehow another plastic credit card size pass in our wallet does not convey the same evocative power.

I for one will use métro tickets until the very last moment, as a tribute to the physicality of the past.


Agnès Poirier