Parisian bistro owners are looking to have their terraces granted Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage status. The initiative is backed “wholeheartedly” by the city of Paris but has drawn criticism from the New York Times.
The American media is quick to cover anything to do with French culture, especially when there is cause for controversy — a privilege reserved exclusively for France. This trend was confirmed once again this week by the New York Times, with French-American journalist Claire Mufson questioning the legitimacy of the application submitted to Unesco by the French capital’s bistros, brasseries, and cafés.
These businessowners are asking for their terraces — described as “living cultural melting pots” — to be listed as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Paris, they say, would not be Paris without such emblematic eateries and the like. There is no denying that these terraces offer an additional advantage in that people can smoke while sat on them, which is now forbidden indoors. So why such pushback from the New York Times? The journalist in question came to the aid of the French regions, observing, correctly, that bistros are far from a Parisian specificity and are found just as much in Bordeaux and Marseille.
I would like to offer an additional objection. The idea of intangible cultural heritage is meaningless. The list currently features, in no particular order, French cuisine, Chinese calligraphy, the Fest-Noz festival in Brittany, Turkish coffee, lace-making in Alençon, and yoga. And hot on the heels of the Parisian bistros are the sidewalk booksellers and roofers of the City of Light.
The truth is that Unesco is a pointless form of bureaucracy in search of a vocation. The U.N. institution is housed in a sumptuous building in Paris (the United States withdrew its membership due to the organization’s systematically anti-Israeli stance) and has served little or no purpose for a long time. By handing out awards, Unesco is trying to curry favor with the government that finances it. In reality, Unesco needs Parisian bistros more than they need it. And I am certainly not suggesting we list Unesco as part of our world heritage.