Re-claiming the river banks

For his second term as Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë set as one of his major goals the “transformation of the Seine riverbanks” so that “Parisians and visitors alike can once again access the magnificent landscape provided by the river.”

The first step of this project was the transformation of a 2.5 kilometer stretch of the left bank from Pont Royal to Passerelle Debilly. Here a former urban expressway, the Voie Express Rive Gauche, was completely closed off to motor vehicles and replaced by “a 4.5-hectare promenade” which was “converted into a hub of nature, culture and sport with a program that offers activities for all and that changes according to the season.”

The mayor explained: “A busy highway previously dominated the area around the Musée d’Orsay and the Alma Bridge. A new and well-equipped public space has taken over the space. Cars have been replaced with a wide variety of cultural activities. An area that had become a confined passageway has now been opened up to outdoor activities and entertainment for all.”

Orchard at Les Berges

The old left bank expressway was closed to motor traffic on January 28, 2013. Despite the dire warnings of conservative politicians and the automotive lobbies, this did not create any major traffic jams and did not cause the traffic situation in Paris to become any worse than it was before.

After four and a half months of construction work, the newly created car-free public space was inaugurated under the name of Les Berges, meaning ‘The Banks’. (The word les in French is the plural form of ‘the’, pronounced sort of like the English word ‘lay’. Both s’s in Les Berges are silent.)

Sign at Les Berges

This is a sign that was set up in 2013 at one of the entrances to Les Berges. The two curved lines constitute a (very) stylized map of the Seine River in Paris. On the left, the four marks below the river indicate the newly opened riverside attractions on the left bank. On the right, the four marks above the river represent similar attractions further upstream on the right bank, which in fact were not made completely and permanently accessible until four years later.

The Emmarchement at Les Berges

The Emmarchement is a “palace staircase” which links the Musée d’Orsay to the Seine and descends from the upper to the lower quay. They say it has “600 seats in the amphitheater-style setting and it is the perfect place to stop to rest or have lunch with friends.” It also “enables easy access to events that are organized on the river.”

The component parts of the Emmarchement were made in the Alsatian town of Bischwiller, north of Strasbourg and eight kilometers from the German border, by a metalworking company called SIRC (Société Industrielle de Réalisation et de Commercialisation). This is a company which specializes in the “management, designing, manufacturing and assembly of exceptional structures.”

Large segments of the Emmarchement were constructed at the company’s plant in Bischwiller, as shown in this video on Daily Motion (in French), in such a way that the structure could be assembled and installed by the Seine in Paris within 24 hours.

People on the Emmarchement

Along with the rest of Les Berges, the Emmarchement was inaugurated on June 19, 2013, by the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, and by his deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was elected as his successor in 2014 and re-elected in 2020.

Games at Les Berges

Although the conservative opposition in the city parliament made a show of being outraged at the cost of Les Berges, many features of the project are simply good ideas which did not cost very much at all. Some of the most popular features are simply games that were painted onto the road surface of the old expressway.

Pointing at her home town, for a photo

This is a popular spot for international tourists, taking each other’s photos while pointing at their home towns.

Game tables and container

At this container (and others like it) people can get information and buy refreshments. They can also borrow the pieces needed to play chess, checkers, backgammon or board games at the square tables.

Everything is stored in the containers overnight, and all the containers can be transported to higher ground within a day in case of flooding.

Chants de Café by Reza

At Les Berges in the summer of 2013 there was an exhibition of photographs called Chants de Café by Reza. These were excellent photographs, mainly portraits, by the Iranian-French photojournalist Reza Deghati. The photos were intended to display “the culture of coffee and the lives of the communities involved in its production.”

Large reproductions on the right bank

The photos were on display at Les Berges on the left bank of the Seine. At the same time, large reproductions of them were on display across the river.

Although I liked the photos, I must admit that they left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth, and not just the taste of stale coffee. The exhibition was sponsored by a large company that sells instant coffee worldwide, and one of the display panels was devoted to praising this company and its dedication to sustainable coffee production. It all sounded fine until you recalled that this company is part of a huge conglomerate which among other things is trying to corner the world’s supply of fresh drinking water.

This dubious sponsorship gave rise to criticism at the time, particularly by the Green (Ecological) Party, who understandably wanted the banks of the Seine to be “free, peaceful and non-commercial”.

On the other hand, some degree of corporate sponsorship is probably inevitable, given the fact that large corporations have so much money and large cities have so little. This is why the city of Paris is actively recruiting sponsors and patrons, saying that the riverbanks “are situated in the heart of Paris and provide a perfect platform for businesses and brands to showcase their expertise and skills and communicate directly with their target audience.” They say that entering into a partnership with the Seine Riverbank Project “gives companies the opportunity to join a community of values, conviviality and exchange. It offers a means of developing a new and sustainable relationship with consumers.”

Hmm . . .

As I wrote at the time: “In ten years of Paris Plages the City of Paris has shown that it can make use of discreet corporate sponsorship without allowing the event to be blatantly commercialized. Hopefully they will be able to achieve the same balance with Les Berges.”

Another possible advantage of corporate sponsorship is that if corporations get involved in the project and perhaps even develop a vested interest in it, then conservative politicians will have less incentive to destroy it when they get back into power.

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2020.

See also: Paris Beaches.
See more posts on the pernicious effects of cars.

5 thoughts on “Re-claiming the river banks”

  1. I fully understand your concerns about the choice of sponsor for the photos but generally I think these open air photo exhibitions are a great idea as they introduce a much wider range of people to great photography and the idea of photography as art 🙂 I think it’s wonderful that the banks of te Seine are being freed up for people to enjoy!

  2. We love the Berges. It’s a great place to walk and people watch. There are always things going on even in the rain. It is a great idea.

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