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Community / Public space

The story of Paris's controversial "Christmas tree"

On 16 October, a large, 24m tall green sculpture was erected in Paris’s Place Vendôme. The sculpture’s title was “Tree”, but its similarity to another, less seasonal object was immediately noted by the city’s residents.

By the next morning, #Vendome was trending on Twitter, and was swiftly followed by the less subtle #buttplug and #pluggate over the next couple of days. Around the world, headlines lambasted the imposter sculpture for its Yuletide pretensions: “Giant Butt Plug In Paris Is Supposed To Be A Christmas Tree But Clearly Isn’t“; “Sex toy-like Christmas tree ‘humiliates’ Parisians“. 

But the sculpture wasn’t actually meant to be a Christmas tree; was only scheduled to stand in the city for just over a week; and, despite its admittedly sex-toy-esque shape, was intended to be abstract. Here’s what actually happened. 

1. It’s not a Christmas tree.

Paul McCarthy, the sculpture’s designer, told Le Monde that he only realised after designing the piece that his sculpture resembled a Christmas tree. He also said it wasn’t designed to look like a sex toy: “People can be offended if they want to think of it as a plug, but for me it is more of an abstraction” (though to be fair, the resemblence is, er, striking). 

The association with the Christian holiday may well have come from the tree’s detractors, as opposed to its creator. Far right, anti-gay marriage group Printemps Francais tweeted “Place Vendôme disfigured! Paris humiliated!” when the sculpture was erected last Thursday, and later complained that the sculpture was a “waste of tax money”.

While the tree was approved by city authorities as part of the International Contemporary Art Fair, it wasn’t a city-funded Christmas installation (it was scheduled to be dismantled on 26 October, after all). Framing it as such, however, probably helped those campaigning against the sculpture to raise heckles across the city. 

Paris’ most-loved annual Christmas trees are arugably in front of Notre Dame:

Image: Getty.

And inside the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre:

Image: ErasmusofParis at Wikimedia Commons.

As yet, there seem to be no plans to replace either with a giant inflatable this year. 

2. The fact it was controversial wasn’t an accident.

McCarthy’s known for his playful, tongue-in-cheek sculptures. Here’s a cheerful Snow White-inspired sculpture he erected in Rotterdam: 

Image: F. Eveleens at Wikimedia Commons.   

However, he probably wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction against his Paris sculpture. While he was installing “Tree”, a woman punched McCarthy three times in the face, screaming that he wasn’t French and that the sculpture did not belong there. Criticisms on Twitter and in the press have continued in a similar vein since.

Those who were offended can take heart, though, because…    

3. It’s already gone. 

On Sunday, vandals severed the sculpture’s supports in what Fleur Pellerin, France’s Minister of Culture, has since called “an attack on creative freedom”. It collapsed into a sad, bright-green puddle:

Image: Getty.

Anne Hidalgo, Paris’ mayor, took to Twitter to defend McCarthy and his work: 

(The tweet roughly translates as: “Paris will not yield ot the threats of those who, by attacking an artist and his work, attack artistic freedom”) 

McCarthy, however has decided not to re-erect the sculpture. In a statement, he said the piece had invoked a “violent reaction” instead of the intended “discussion about how objects exist as language with layers of meaning”. 

4. It’s sparked a debate about what’s acceptable in public spaces.

Beyond Paris, McCarthy may have succeeded in provoking the calm, punch-free discussion he had hoped for. In this piece at CityLab, Kriston Capps points out that while the reaction against the sculpture in Paris was strong, “Tree would be unthinkable in any square in any city in the U.S.—period”.

Meanwhile, Ellen Jones at The Independent noted that those hoping to erect controversial public statues should take heart: “If they’ll build a giant butt plug in the middle of Paris’s grandest arrondissement, then surely anything’s possible.”
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