The Poverty in Paris You’ll Never See on Instagram

Paris might be picturesque, but it's also pain-stricken with poverty. Put aside your cameras and see the reality of the city without the Instagram filter.

Paris a beautiful place to visit and live in, but its extreme poverty is something you cannot turn your head to and ignore. Tourists come from far and wide just to capture the glamour of the city, all while ignoring everything they do not want to see. Don’t be that tourist. I refused to be. I flew to Paris from Canada for graduate school, in hopes of being a fashion academic and I knew the city would be the perfect place, but I also had to make sure to stay aware of where I moved and how to respect the city.

Paris, a city where authors and singers allow their dreams to dwell. A city filled with culture, couture, and clusters of tourists from all over the world. I see cafés decorated in muted colours and patisseries, and I smell the aroma of freshly-baked French pastries. I see bagged baguettes tucked under the arms of stylishly dressed Parisians, walking back home to their cute but tiny apartments.

Yes, this is Paris, or at least this is what people see and remember.

But that’s also the Paris of social media. When people are busy snapping their Instagram photos, they seem to ignore the less photogenic parts of the city. Paris is not the utopia you think it is. In fact, it is far from it.


Parisians — and the majority of the French population — are poor. Like, I-need-to-vandalize-cultural-landmarks-to-get-the-president’s-attention poor.


A movement called Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Jackets, ignited Paris in a radical display of protest and defiance. Every Saturday, Yellow Jackets holds parades and marches in protest of the French government. Parisians thought that it was so necessary to capture the attention of their government, that they had to resort to weekly protests in order to disrupt the routine order of things. See, this is the thing, Parisians — and the majority of the French population — are poor. Like, I-need-to-vandalize-cultural-landmarks-to-get-the-president’s-attention poor. Like, you-can’t-see-us-but-we-see-everything-poor. So many Parisians are poor and are now refusing to be ignored. The polarizing wealth in Paris is merely an illusion.


Gilets Jaunes – Acte IX by Olivier Ortelpa (Flickr)

While France is definitely not a third world country by any means, the cost of living versus the salary income just doesn’t add up to provide for a lot of the population. According to a recent study, the cost of living in Paris is around 2,000 Euros, while the salary income averages at 1,500 Euros a month. US international students and expats don’t really experience this, usually coming from places of privilege that allow us to study abroad. But French people feel this, and they feel it heavy.

I explored some of the major monuments in Paris — the monuments that are printed on postcards and turned into mini keychains that are made and sold by immigrants. I see how these monuments are always associated with glamorizing wealth, when simultaneously being surrounded by stark poverty. The tourists might be able to ignore it, but the locals can’t and will not.

The Instagram hashtag #paris features regularly top posts including the famous Eiffel Tower and the iconic Arc de Triomphe. Tour guides wave their bright little flags and lead large groups to these landmarks, where visitors of the city marvel at the scenery and capture these memories eternally. This is what they take away from their trips, other than the little keychains and trinkets collected from these locations.

Paris Eiffel Tower Vendor

Under The Eiffel: Adolescent Hawker by jay-chilli (Flickr)

But I wonder whether it burns in their mind, that within the tower itself there are people selling keychains and memorabilia without permits, just to make ends meet. They are usually immigrants, speaking rapidly in their mother tongues to each other and trying their best to sell these trinkets to tourists. They know that this is where the tourists linger, which is usually accompanied with wealth. But I often wonder whether the tourists are chasing an idea of wealth and glamour when they arrive here, and whether they realise that they possess more of it than many of the citizens here.

I am fortunate enough to live in the fifth arrondissement (which means “district” in French), and as a traditional, residential neighbourhood, there are very few, if any, less fortunate street dwellers around where I live. However, the surroundings of my school, in the first arrondissement, houses an array of street panhandlers. That area is considered by Parisians as the downtown of Paris, featuring Avenue Opera as the main street. There you can see the Opera house on one end and the Louvre on the other.

And right in between, you may see a small family sitting peacefully on the side of a Monoprix, an older lady sifting through a trash bin, or an old guy with his dog holding up a sign: “J’ai faim,” / “I’m hungry.” They are mostly quiet, with the occasional “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” greeting pedestrians, who most of the time are just trying to get to the Louvre or the Opera house. Often they are a forced oversight to the tourists, who rush by, as if they do not want to ruin their impressions of Paris with a tainted image.



Paris-Street-Night by Mark Knobil (Flickr)

And that’s just the brighter, warmer daytime, when the homeless can still blend into the busy streets. When it comes to the night, if you are tired enough, the streetside can also act as a home for some. A bench by a popular street of bars in Sentier is where homeless folks frequent, where there is no cover, no nothing, just a naked blanket out by a busy intersection, at 11 p.m., when the night is still young for some in this part of Paris. For others, they just want a good night’s rest.

Roofed areas are a much better choice, as the rain is not a rare find in Parisian weather, and that it’s more comforting to think that you’ve got a rooftop over your head. Doorsteps of storefronts are quite popular for the ones in need, as camps can be found tucked underneath certain little porch areas.

Another safer, dryer and warmer choice is the metro station, brightly lit and open 24/7. I see a person making beds, blankets and forts out of scraps and pieces of cardboard, as they unroll their set-up into the corner area of Champ de Mars (the metro station that gets you to the tower). The owner of that lot spreads their body as comfortably as possible onto the improvised bed, and falls into deep sleep. I have seen this happen with more than one individual, on many occasions. Outside, the Eiffel tower sparkles with a million lights at its last full hour before the AM cycles again, to its new and returning visitors and their lenses. I can’t help but think that these visitors are purposefully shooting their lenses in the places that they only want to look.



Like most things, Paris is not what it seems. Though it has a utopian and fairytale fantasy attached to its name, it can sometimes be anything but. If you pay attention, you can hear the Gilets Jaunes movement which finally breaks the silence, see the very apparent disparity in wealth, and feel the folks in need, who sleep just inches away from somebody’s next Instagram post.

Put aside your glamorous ideals of Paris and notice the poverty that is strewn all around the city. This picturesque city is only photogenic if you ignore the poverty surrounding it.

Lily Li is a Chinese-Canadian fashion creative based between Paris and Vancouver. After her first encounter with the art world in 1999 through a piano, she has stayed with the arts ever since.