The Wordsmith

Say Goodbye to “Ugly France”!

Anyone who has ever driven into a French city will have noticed the vast corridors of charmless shopping centers lined with giant billboards that form a particularly hideous landscape. Now, the government is looking to rehabilitate – and remodel – these suburban areas.
© Sylvie Serprix/France-Amérique

It all started with a government press release on September 11, 2023, announcing a national program to transform commercial zones. Generally located on the outskirts of towns and cities, these areas are the main consumer hubs in France – the same situation can be observed in neighboring countries – and are defined by their architectural and aesthetic mediocrity.

Treading on political eggshells, the government used the adjective disgracieux (best translated as the more polite “unseemly,” not the clearly offensive “disgraceful”). However, other commentators have been less kind, instead referring to la France moche, or “ugly France.” This colloquial adjective gets straight to the point. Taken from the Frankish mokka (“shapeless mass”), it is also used to designate an object of poor quality or a morally reprehensible action. C’est moche, will often be the reply when learning about an unfortunate event.

However, the expression la France moche is hardly new. In an article published by Télérama in February 2010, journalists Vincent Remy and Xavier de Jarcy used it to describe the urban sprawl that began during les Trente Glorieuses, the three decades between 1945 and 1975 that saw a wave of modernization – some may say Americanization – wash across France. This trend then grew to spectacular proportions from the 1980s onwards. From one end of the country to the other, the land around cities witnessed a proliferation of metastatic suburban developments formed of successions of bypass roads and traffic circles, all flanked by giant billboards and leading to endless series of corrugated iron buildings. These areas are clogged with asphalt and have almost no trees or greenery.

Today, there are more than 1,500 of these zones d’activités commerciales (“commercial areas”), or ZACs, across France. Together, they cover almost 200 square miles – five times the area of Paris! Home to grocery stores (Leclerc, Carrefour), specialist superstores (Decathlon, Boulanger, Leroy Merlin), car dealerships, McDonald’s, and other fast-food restaurants, these ZACs are a familiar environment for a large section of the French population. This demographic is generally among the poorest, and lives in the housing projects and developments adjacent to these areas. This is where, around the traffic circles and grocery store parking lots, the Gilets Jaunes protest movement was born and flourished in 2018-2019.

Paysages de France, an otherwise serious organization, awards a Prix de la France Moche (“Ugly France Prize”) every year. In 2023, four places came out on top, so to speak. At the entrances to Chavelot (in the Vosges département), Carnac (Morbihan), and Honfleur (Calvados), the bristling signs and flags are particularly impressive, or rather, appalling. And in a surprise twist, the fourth city was none other than Paris, which won the ironical “Heritage Highlights” category. The site that caught the judges’ attention was none other than the prestigious Place des Vosges, where restoration work on historic buildings has been used as a pretext to install gigantic banners advertising Longchamp, Apple, and CBS.

In light of this grumbling, the French government now intends to put an end to the rows of “shoeboxes” outside the nation’s cities. The plan is to encourage a new kind of urban diversity in areas that are currently entirely devoted to shopping and only accessible by car. According to this project, housing would be built on top of commercial premises. Cultural and sports facilities would be added, along with other public amenities and services. The greening of parking lots would complete the transformation of these areas from soulless, concrete deserts into real living spaces – which should also be easier on the eye.

In our current era of increased environmental protection, all forms of pollution must be combatted – including visual pollution. But there’s a catch. The rise of the shopping-mall periphery has emptied city centers of their traditional boutiques and businesses. After decades of efforts to revitalize city centers, it would be paradoxical to carve out new spaces for big-box stores. As the old saying goes, you can’t have it both ways.

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.