When Lone Andersen lived in Paris in the 1980s, she says she saw “almost no cyclists. I saw one once and I almost felt that I should take a picture.” Despite the fact that France’s most iconic athletic symbol is a bike race, its capital city has never been known as a biking mecca the way Amsterdam or Copenhagen are.
Today, through a mix of new infrastructure, bike sharing and public transit frustrations, that’s changing. In fact, the city’s deputy mayor for transportation, Christophe Najdovski, recently reported that:
Paris saw a 54 percent increase in cyclists between September 2018 and September 2019.
That’s according to counts by digital meters set up at 56 sites around Paris to monitor biking. The Copenhagenize index, a comprehensive assessment of bike-friendliness, gives the French capital high marks for adding exclusive bike lanes and pushing bike sharing. But this year’s index says that with a paltry 5 percent of its commuters biking, Paris is a long way from catching up to Copenhagen’s 62 percent.
What could account for the explosion? Paris officials told local media that vélotaf — slang for bike commuting — is a big reason for the increase, while Najdovski touts the city’s plan vélo, or bike plan. The plan has realized amenities like the new two-way cycling path along the Seine’s Left Bank, running 1.5 miles from the Quai d’Orsay in the central city to Alma Bridge. It’s among nearly 200 extra miles of bike paths and lanes in the 2015 plan, along with a $780 million bike-sharing system — one that has admittedly been beset by delays and malfunctions.
If you ask longtime Parisian cycling campaigner and municipal cycling adviser Isabelle Lesens, those new commuters aren’t switching from cars. “It’s very well known that people living in Paris are really fed up with the subway because it’s absolutely crowded,” she says. “So when they discovered it could be possible to go by bike, they tried it.” That incentive can only grow with each public transit strike, like the one this week.
And while more liberal municipal governments vow to accommodate cyclists, even more conservative politicians are jumping on the two-wheeled bandwagon, Lesens says, because of the proliferation of app-based bike sharing. They’ve made it possible to be simultaneously bike-friendly and pro-business, while “nobody dares to be opposed to cycling because of the climate problems,” Lesens explains.
Still, Paris’ Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is taking heat in local media for failing to put the mettle to the pedal after completing less than a quarter of the 43 miles of bike pistes separated from cars by curbs that she’d promised in 2015.
Nevertheless, Hidalgo’s determination to “turn Paris into a global cycling capital” seems to be working. In 2013, Paris was ranked 19th on the Copenhagenize index’s list of best cycling cities. This year it’s ranked eighth. Hidalgo has also famously declared war on the electric scooters ubiquitous in the French capital, setting new rules to regulate the machines that riders often abandon in bike lanes.
Cycling in Paris isn’t for everyone, even those who are fit enough to stay balanced and keep pedaling. Frank Andrews, a 26-year-old journalism graduate student, grew up in London and calls the two cities’ biking environments “kind of comically different.”
Back in England, there are rules: “Most of my friends and myself have been fined for running lights,” Andrews says. Not so in Paris, where “it’s a bit survival of the fittest out on those streets.”
It’s easy to see how Andrews, a resident of the 6th Arrondissement, can hold his own on les rues moyennes, commuting with an expensive fixed-wheel bike like ones used in velodromes. Brakes are his only concession to convenience.
Andrews attributes the ridership growth to delivery services and “Uberized” cycling via sharing apps. As for the latter, Andrews sniffs, “I feel like I see them more on their sides, discarded on a bridge.”
And Andersen, now a traffic engineer in Copenhagen, says her more recent forays onto Paris streets haven’t been encouraging: “I have never felt an urge to ride a bike in Paris — simply because I think it is too dangerous.” In April, the prefecture of police released figures indicating bike accidents had increased about 12.5 percent over the previous year, with 147 cyclists hurt (though none killed) in three months.
What the city needs, she believes, is more lanes with solid curb separating bikes from motorized vehicles. “If the infrastructure isn’t there, you will not get people to [cycle] on a large scale because they don’t feel safe,” she says.
The more Paris is willing to sacrifice space occupied by its Citroëns and Peugeots, Andersen adds, the more it’ll be able to coax even the faint of heart to pedal onto the city’s grand boulevards.
Die Wende is what Germans often call the Berlin Wall’s fall 30 years ago: the Turn, or turning point. It was a change Thomas Beyer had rallied for in the waning days of the German Democratic Republic. It was also a painful shift, in some respects, for the East German port of Wismar, as the end of the state-controlled economy led to the evaporation of more than 4,000 jobs at the shipyard. A sugar factory, a furniture plant and other industries closed their gates.
Now Wismar’s mayor, Beyer lists new businesses that have helped the 44,000-strong town in the northeast state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern reinvent itself, such as wood stove fuel pellet and laminate makers. Tourism promotion and the refurbishment of its picturesque old city have helped too. But it’s an unlikely new partner that is finally promising to turn the tide in the city’s — and the state’s — economic fortunes: Genting Berhad, a $5 billion casino conglomerate from faraway Malaysia.
It was a big surprise that now an Asian investor is coming over and says he’s building ships here.
Nils Jörn, WISMAR’S ARCHIVIST
The company’s Hong Kong subsidiary, through its local unit MV Werften, bought the state’s three big Baltic Sea shipyards — Wismar, Stralsund and Rostock-Warnemünde — in 2016. It’s building two large cruise ships. In September, it started work on the second of those ships, aptly called Global Dream and touted by MV Werften as the largest ever cruise liner built in Germany.
Designed to carry 9,000 passengers and a crew of 2,200 in Asian waters, the 1,100-foot vessel will be assembled in Wismar from 30 sections built at the Stralsund shipyards some 78 miles to the east. The 208,000-ton ship’s keel was laid at Warnemünde. The three facilities are bustling again, employing nearly 3,000 people, including highly skilled workers, some of whom have returned east from jobs in the former West Germany, say local observers.
The investment marks a dramatic bridge between East Asia and a state in the former East Germany that was closed to the outside world during the Cold War. For an Asian firm to build ships in Europe also represents a break from recent years when advances by China and South Korea in the industry have led to shipbuilding shifting east.
“It was a big surprise,” says Wismar’s archivist, Nils Jörn, “that now an Asian investor is coming over and says he’s building ships here.”
These seeds of optimism are very different from what followed Germany’s reunification, when as many as a quarter of Wismar’s working-age citizens were unemployed. Restless, unemployed youths got into various forms of trouble — some joining neo-Nazi groups, while many others migrated west to find work. Empty housing blocks fell into disrepair and had to be demolished, says Jörn. A key member of the Medieval Hanseatic League trading bloc that’s often hailed as an inspiration for the European Union, Wismar in the 1990s had to reinvent itself.
Its latest ally on that path is not just any company. With a bargain bid of $126 million, Genting has reportedly acquired Equanimity, the notoriously confiscated gilded 300-foot party yacht equipped with a 20-meter swimming pool and helipad. The previous owner, financier Jho Low, is accused of draining billions from Malaysia’s state development fund — some of which he allegedly sunk into the yacht. From an undisclosed location, he has denied wrongdoing.
And Genting HK’s execs include CEO Lim Kok Thay’s youngest son, Loui Lim, who, according to the glossy Singapore Tatler magazine, is trying to reshape Genting’s cruise business while Instagramming à la Crazy Rich Asians. That reportedly includes exploits like petting tigers displayed at Genting resorts and doing New Year’s in Sydney Harbor, then jetting across the International Date Line to Honolulu for a second rockin’ eve.
For the firm, the investments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern make sense, says Christophe Tytgat, secretary general of Sea Europe, a Brussels-based shipyards and maritime industry association.
While Europe in recent years has lost “almost all” bulk and container ship business to Asia, as well as offshore platform construction, it cornered the complex shipbuilding market, which includes sophisticated mega-cruise ships, he says. By buying shipyards and building cruise liners on its own in Europe, the firm can get ships faster than if it needed to order them from European facilities. Genting Group declined to be interviewed by OZY for this story.
The other side of that coin is that European shipbuilding may suffer further as a result, Tytgat argues. European builders could risk losing their edge to Asian competitors, even in luxury shipbuilding. Tytgat says he’s hoping to convince European governments to fight back. Unions are also wary of the development, saying the new arrivals are using subcontractors to do work previously done by shipyard workers they represent. A spokesman for IG Metall, Germany’s dominant metal workers union, said in an email that subcontracted workers’ wages and working hours are “usually worse than at the shipyards.” Jörn, Wismar’s archivist, says questions linger over whether MV Werften can match western German wages.
But there’s no denying the new jobs that simply didn’t exist before. And the irony in an Asian firm enabling an economic revival in a part of eastern Germany isn’t lost on Beyer, who laughs when asked about it. “I never thought about it,” he admits. “It’s an interesting historical turn.”
Bodo Ramelow doesn’t hesitate when asked about Thuringia’s decision to welcome 25,000 refugees from Syria and other conflict-torn nations. And the 63-year-old minister-president of the state government draws on history in his support.
After World War II, the state in what became East Germany had to absorb 850,000 “strangers,” as they were called, Ramelow reminds the audience at a campaign event in the spa town of Bad Langensalza ahead of Sunday’s elections. “They came from Silesia, and all over the former …” Interrupting, a voice booms from the back of the neat rows of chairs in the primary school auditorium: “They were GERMANS!”
“Seriously?” Ramelow calls the remark “arrogant,” launching into an explanation of how, back then, those expelled from postwar Poland were unwelcome, such that they and their Catholic churches were relegated to the outskirts of towns where they settled. When new asylum seekers arrived in 2015, the families of those 1940s refugees “didn’t talk about who’s German and who’s not,” Ramelow says. “They supported them. I’m very proud of them.”
It’s an exchange that captures the deep divisions and painful history that are shaping the politics of the only state where Die Linke (The Left), Ramelow’s party, is leading a government. Thuringia has been a Left stronghold ever since the 1920s. In 2014, Die Linke, the descendant of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled East Germany with an iron fist, came to power in Thuringia through a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the left-leaning Green Party.
But now, Thuringia’s most popular party is locked in a battle with a new force that’s also shadowed by the ghosts of Germany’s history: the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In Brandenburg and Saxony, two other states where it was in power as part of a coalition, Die Linke suffered major setbacks in September state elections, while AfD made dramatic gains — though not enough to gain power just yet.
it has an echo of the 1930s.
Kai Arzheimer, political science professor
Could Thuringia be next? It was in Thuringia 90 years ago that the Nazis first entered a governing coalition. Ahead of Sunday, AfD posters around Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, extol “Freedom of opinion,” which for many Germans is a dog whistle for the nationalism and intolerance repudiated after the defeat of Nazism.
“It’s not totally mistaken to say that it has an echo of the 1930s,” says Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz.
In the 2017 federal elections, AfD got roughly 23 percent of the vote to Die Linke’s 17 percent among Thuringia voters — a dramatic shift from the 2014 state elections, when AfD had won just shy of 11 percent of the vote against Die Linke’s 27 percent. The right-wing party siphoned away enough votes of the centrist Christian Democratic Union (CDU) nationally to threaten Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ability to build a governing coalition — but she refused to consider AfD or Die Linke as partners.
For now, the math has changed. AfD has seen its meteoric growth curve sputter as authorities report a rise in anti-Semitic and racist incidents like two live-streamed Oct. 9 killings outside a synagogue in Halle in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, just to Thuringia’s north. AfD’s critics blame its rhetoric for encouraging such violence, as well as day-to-day expressions of intolerance. Björn Höcke, Thuringia’s leading AfD candidate, has in the past called the Berlin holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” — though he has since walked back that statement.
The latest polls in Thuringia are showing Die Linke with 27 percent, leading even the long-dominant CDU (26 percent) — the single largest party in 2014 — and AfD with 20 percent, according to German broadcaster ZDF. Even AfD’s state-level party spokesman, Torben Braga, admits that Die Linke isn’t “going anytime soon. … A number of voters are very loyal to them and won’t change parties just like that.”
But AfD’s thrust this year may have particular resonance in Thuringia, where the coalition-leading party talks up socialism and absorbing refugees. In 2015, thousands attending anti-immigrant rallies in eastern cities chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”) — borrowed from anticommunist rallies of the late 1980s. Now AfD hopes to harness that spirit with its slogan “Vollende die Wende.” That translates to “complete the turn,” or finish the process of German reunification that began with the Berlin Wall’s opening on Nov. 9, 1989.
Braga says that while Die Linke wants to boost support for refugees, AfD is campaigning for more police. “If we close our borders,” he says, the state will save enough money to hire 1,000 police officers. It’s the kind of logic both parties use to justify their bread-and-butter promises. Both sides promise more teachers to fill chronically empty positions. The AfD says refugees equal more crime; Die Linke says they provide much-needed labor.
With the unique opportunity Thuringia offers to actually govern rather than rail from the opposition benches, Die Linke is showing it can be “quite pragmatic,” says Arzheimer. Ramelow, for instance, admits that the SED “didn’t allow dissent and choked on its own slogans,” and Die Linke members say theirs is a socially conscious party that simply sees market-driven solutions to society’s problems as ineffective. “They’ve evolved quite a lot” in spite of their “very problematic history,” says Arzheimer.
It’s a history that Steffen Dittes, 46, knows well. Born in Weimar in Thuringia, he was 16 when the Iron Curtain fell. But the celebration was muted at home, where his mother was a teacher and his father worked for the communist party.
“It could have been a new evolution of socialism,” Dittes says, but it was instead a crash course in capitalism resulting in a crippled local economy. “That’s when I became political,” organizing and facing off with neo-Nazi youth through the tumultuous 1990s.
Now with a short salt-and-pepper beard, he’s the state-level campaign organizer for Die Linke, and he’s not happy with the evolution he’s witnessed. What were disjointed, powerless far-right groups have now “become mainstream,” he says. “They have one voice.” And it’s threatening a repeat of history — for Thuringia and Germany.