Paris may not be celebrating the Olympics in 2012 but presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy is promising to build a string of sensational new buildings

Paris 2012. French people won’t be swept by the Olympics frenzy. Instead of the new iconic (or not) sports facilities of London, Paris will see the completion of ambitious office schemes. The design of one of them, Thom Mayne’s 300m Phare tower for Unibail in the Défense business district, was unveiled recently.

The Phare is a fresh departure from the soulless, bland, office blocks that surround the French capital. One visit to these drab commercial areas makes it easier to understand why France’s bright financial brains are more likely to be found in Canary Wharf or Wall Street than La Défense.

Paris may not be the poor relation to London, New York and Milan for much longer. Around 450,000m² of office space is being planned over the next five years and it won’t be run of the mill.

Almost 20 new towers, which have to be ‘écolo’, that’s French for energy efficient, will sprout from the ground. Signature architects such as Jean Nouvel are expected to redesign the commercial face of Paris. It’ll be an urban revolution in a town scarred by failed attempts at building high. Two words shall suffice in summing up previous efforts: Tour Montparnasse.

The driving force behind this building boom? 2007 presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of the region and the man in charge of a development committee for the Défense district. He does not have everyone’s backing. The socialist mayor of Paris opposes the high-density projects and others are concerned the commercial expansion will jeopardise the badly-needed increase in housing stock.

Avant-garde art lover George Pompidou got his Piano-Rogers art gallery. Classical history and literature aficionado François Mitterrand left a national library and the Louvre pyramid. Jacques Chirac commissioned Jean Nouvel’s Quay Branly museum. If elected president, Sarkozy’s legacy might not be that arty. He wants to be the man who shakes France from her inertia, apathy and malaise. For him this can only be achieved through competitive businesses.

The next presidential election but one will be held in 2012. It’ll be also the year in which observers will assess whether the 2007 winner has brought France into the 21st century, with architecture to match.