ByHannah Meltzer, DESTINATION EXPERT28 August 2023 • 8:00am
It was an idyllic night a few summers ago. I had spent the evening with friends on the banks of the Seine, sharing a bottle of rosé in the balmy Paris heat. I unchained my bike, hopped on, and started to make my way home.
As I approached the huge courtyard in front of the Notre-Dame, I gazed up at the twin medieval towers, thinking how lucky I was to have this world-famous monument all to myself.
I was then shaken from my reverie by a sudden movement under my front wheel, and the brief but unmistakable feel of clammy fur.
I had skimmed a rat, which had then leapt upwards and brushed against my ankle before scurrying off into the night. I let out a yelp, looked up, and realised I was cycling across a moving carpet of rodents enjoying a late-night summer aperitif of their own.
With this memory in mind, I wasn’t shocked to see a TikTok video by a young man named Gray Davis doing the rounds last week. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that Paris is literally the most infested rat place you’ll ever go?!” he exclaimed.
Whether Paris is indeed the planet’s “most infested rat place” is difficult to judge. Tourists can expect to spot them. In the summer months especially, they can be seen (and heard) on the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower and in the Tuileries Gardens by the Louvre.
Paris has been cited as the fourth most rat-ridden city in the world, though the claims may be spurious, based more on marketing articles compiled by pest-control companies. According to specialists, figures can be tricky to calculate with any certainty.
And the rat population of Paris long predates TikTok. The creatures were to blame for deadly bouts of bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, and during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870, rats were killed and eaten when the city ran out of meat. More recently, its rodents were anthropomorphised in Ratatouille, the Disney blockbuster that tells the story of Remy, a rat with a passion for gourmet cookery.
But there was certainly recognition that the problem has grown. A 2020 estimate suggested the rat population in Paris may number more than four million, and city authorities launched a new rodent control plan in 2017 in response to public pressure.
The approach has seen the use of traps and poison as well as information campaigns discouraging food waste and litter. Some traditional bins in public gardens and communal bins in apartment buildings have also been replaced by more rat-proof models.
Last year, a study was launched in collaboration with the prestigious Pasteur Institute to monitor the vermin, better understand their true number and where they dwell.
For further inspiration, Paris might look to New York, where Eric Adams said that tackling its own rat population is one of his priorities. Indeed, the mayor appointed a “rat czar”, a former teacher named Kathleen Corradi. “You’ll be seeing a lot of me and a lot less rats,” she said upon her appointment in April.
With Paris gearing up to host next year’s Olympic Games, it is facing more scrutiny than ever – so viral videos featuring gangs of rats are not ideal.
Anne Hidalgo, the city’s socialist mayor, has already faced criticism from some quarters for her pre-Olympics overhaul of the transport network, part of a plan to turn Paris into the greenest city in Europe by 2030. Measures include lower speed limits for cars, hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes and the pedestrianisation of many roads (including, eventually, the Champs-Elysees).
Some even claimed that these roadworks are exacerbating the rodent problem by pushing rats from their underground homes and onto the streets. Other commentators believe rats have been more visible since the Covid lockdowns because they got used to having the streets to themselves.
Refuse worker strikes earlier this year, in response to president Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms, probably didn’t help. Ms Hidalgo’s own team has linked the rising rat population to climate change, with the animals said to reproduce more during long periods of heat.
Should tourists be worried? The scientific community considers the risk posed by rats to most people’s health to be relatively small. Though the creatures can notably spread leptospirosis, they are naturally fearful of humans, so close contact is rare.
When I spoke to a doctor of infectious diseases, who preferred to remain anonymous, she said that while Paris’s homeless population should be cautious, the risk to the general population is low.
When it comes to rat-based outrage, one could also argue that Paris is a victim of its own success. Tourists may be particularly shocked about rats in the City of Lights precisely because they have an idealised image of the French capital which, for the most part, remains undeniably beautiful and charming.
A case of ‘Paris Syndrome’
There is even a term, “Paris Syndrome”, for the intense disappointment visitors feel when the city does not live up to these expectations.
One should also remember that some of the infrastructure issues the city faces, which make it harder to deal with vermin, are the flip side of the city’s picture-book good looks. Underneath Paris, there is a whole network of sewers and hollowed-out gypsum quarries that date back centuries, and this is where the rats largely make their homes.
Upgrading these without trashing many of the beautiful sandstone apartment buildings that characterise the capital is tricky.
As for Parisians, many remained stereotypically philosophical. When I asked a friend and long-time resident what she thought about the rats, she shrugged, adding: “I don’t see them that much, to be honest. They’re just living their best rat lives, and they’ll still be here long after we’re gone.”