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Posted:
September 9, 2002.

Life's a 'Beach' for Paris Mayor

More than two million people have visited the beach

(from Reuters, August 18, 2002)
PARIS, France (Reuters) -- Some said building an artificial beach on a central Paris highway along a river out of bounds to swimmers was not the best idea that Bertrand Delanoe, the city's Socialist mayor, ever had. But the four-week experiment ending Sunday not only proved a runaway popular success, it has turned Delanoe into a political hero of the French left and is being hailed as a first step in handing more of the car-choked capital back to pedestrians.

Over two million Parisians and tourists have been lured down to the banks of the River Seine by imported sand, palm trees and an array of street entertainers along a reclaimed stretch of road from Notre Dame cathedral to the Louvre museum. Semi-naked sunworshippers have stretched out alongside fully-clothed office workers on 180 cubic metres (yards) of sand heaped into two beach areas. Children seemingly unconcerned by a swimming ban in the Seine work happily away at sandcastles.

As night falls, hand-in-hand lovers are serenaded by street musicians as passers-by linger to chat, laugh and flirt. In four weeks, just two minor cases of drunken vandalism were recorded. "There has been a real sense of people mingling together, in an atmosphere of total mutual respect," said Yvan Hinemann, who ran the 1.5 million euro (dollar) project for the city. The same cannot be said for the unseemly political row that welcomed the arrival of the beach, now due to become an annual fixture and inspire other pedestrian experiments in the city.

Cars on the run
Paris's right-wing former rulers, ousted by Delanoe in town hall elections last year, heaped vitriol on an idea they said was a waste of money and even posed a major drowning risk. One conservative deputy blasted the project as typical of a "sequin left always at the head of gay, lesbian and sex-change pride marches," an attack on Delanoe's open homosexuality and support of minority groups and projects. Such hostility may appear surprising. But the political stakes of the experiment were always clear.

The idea has proved a public relations coup for Delanoe. By siting the beach on a stretch of the Seine that was turned into an urban motorway by conservative former President Georges Pompidou in the 1970s, the French left is saying loud and clear: Pro-car policies are out. "Paris Beach is the antidote to the notion 'Adapt the town to the car'," Delanoe's deputy mayor Denis Beaupin, recalling an infamous remark by Pompidou, told FranceSoir newspaper. Moves by Delanoe last year to create new lanes reserved for buses, bicycles and taxis were widely criticised, as the reduced space available to car drivers produced hellish traffic jams. But "Paris Beach" -- the first good news for the French left since their disastrous showing in national elections this year -- has turned Delanoe into the rising star of the Socialist Party and is seen encouraging him to more ambitious moves.

Now the city hopes the highways along both sides of the Seine through central Paris could be fully pedestrianised as soon as 2007 if current policies to boost bus, underground and tram transport reduce car traffic enough. And therein lies the snag. For while public transport in Paris may appear more than adequate to visitors from comparable cities, many Parisians still doggedly swear by the car for getting from one end of town to the other.


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