One of the more vicious acts of vandalism in recent Paris history was the destruction of the right bank in the 1960s for the purpose of installing the Voie Express Georges Pompidou, an expressway for eastbound motor vehicles by the side of the River Seine.
Georges Pompidou (1911-1974), for whom the expressway was named, was the prime minister of France from 1962 to 1968 and was president from 1969 until his death in 1974. Like many politicians of his generation, he was intent on making cities fit for cars, not people.
Fortunately, times have changed. The first Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, was elected in 2001 and reelected in 2008 on a clear platform of reducing motor traffic and re-allocating urban space to give more of it back to the people.
One of his first major projects, starting in 2002, was Paris Plages (Paris Beaches), in which the Voie Express was closed off to motor vehicles for a month every summer so the people could use it for strolling, cycling, playing music, lying in the sun and generally having a good time by the side of the river. It was open to everyone, but was particularly intended for people with low incomes who couldn’t afford to take expensive vacations.
Paris Plages was very controversial at first, and even now there are still people who wish it had never happened — motorists, of course, who bemoan the loss of their near-monopoly on the use of public space, but also rich people who live nearby and don’t like to have us impecunious folks loitering around near their neighborhoods.
What the motorists suspected, and the rest of us hoped, was that Paris Plages was only the start of a more permanent closure of the expressway. Sure enough, it was soon also closed every Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm, year-round, as part of the city’s program Paris Respire = Paris Breathes.
Then in 2016 the second Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced that after that year’s edition of Paris Plages, the expressway would remain permanently closed to motor vehicles and be transformed into a pedestrian and cycling zone with vegetation, street furniture, light sports equipment, children’s playgrounds and refreshment stands. This applied to 3.3 km of expressway from the tunnel of the Tuileries (1st arrondissement) to the harbor of the Arsenal (4th arrondissement).
In other words, this section of the right bank would become part of Les Berges (= The Banks), now called Parc Rives de Seine, along with the already-existing section on the left bank further downstream.
Deck chairs and sun umbrellas are provided each year at no cost, paid for mainly by corporate sponsors who are identified quite discreetly, because the city made clear right from the start that Paris Plages was not going to be blatantly commercialized.
Here the misting fountains were still running just before sunset — they were turned off shortly after I took this photo. The idea of the misting fountains is that on hot afternoons you can walk under them to cool off.
All along Paris Plages there are cafés and stands where you can buy something to eat or drink. Here a friendly Iranian man is making me a crêpe with nut nougat cream.
Just about any time there are musicians at Paris Plages playing for tips. Also there are free concerts by rock and folk groups in the evenings, free shows by dance and theater groups and dozens of other free activities like dancing lessons, mini-golf, exercise bikes, bodybuilding equipment, rowing machines, Tai Chi, table tennis and fencing. Something is always going on, so it is not only an area for strolling but a month-long summer festival.
Swimming in the river is not allowed, but a temporary outdoor swimming pool was set up opposite the Quai des Célestins. The most controversial rule is that women are not allowed to go topless — they could be fined 38 Euros for doing so.
Even after the expressway was permanently closed, Paris Plages has continued each summer, not only on the right bank of the Seine, but also on the left bank, on the banks of Saint Martin’s canal and by the bassins de la Villette.
In 2020 everyone was expecting it to be canceled because of the corona virus pandemic, but on May 8 the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, announced that Paris Plages would take place as scheduled in July and August — with adaptations, however, depending on how the virus situation had developed by that time.
My photos in this post are from 2008 and 2012. I revised the text in 2020.
See also: Re-claiming the riverbanks.