Paris Plages brings in the tourists, but not without controversy. It is hard to deny that Paris is a city like no other. With its fabulous architecture, unbelievable restaurants and a vast array of places to visit and marvel at, the French capital has for many decades established itself as one of the most appealing tourist destinations in the modern world.
And yet August, a time that you would be forgiven for thinking would be the height of the French tourist influx, sees the Parisian populace depart the city for the countryside and coastal regions, leaving shops and restaurants closed and deserted. However, to combat this, interesting changes are afoot, none more so than in the shape of Paris Plages.
Paris Plages Scheme
First put into action in 2002, Paris Plages is an attraction run by the Mairie of Paris (Paris City Council) that sees various parts of the riverbank along the Seine cordoned off from traffic and transformed into mini beaches, complete with white sand, deck chairs and even palm trees.
Running throughout August and July, thousands of tons of sand are deposited along the bank of the Bassin de la Villette, a large artificial lake, as well as various parts of the right bank of the Seine and outside the Hotel-de-Ville (city hall.) The Plages, or beaches, attract roughly 4 million visitors each year, boosting the tourist industry that normally falters so badly during the summer months.
Organisers encourage various activities to take place, such as beach volleyball and frisbee, as well as holding beach football matches and tournaments. Each year sees several themes spread across the different locations, Hawaiian and Tahitian beaches being obvious examples, with prizes for visitors who best adhere themselves in dressing up and getting into the spirit of the occasion.
With any public event in Paris, there is inevitably controversy surrounding those that choose to participate, especially if proceedings are free of charge. A notable example is the annual Techno-Parade, in which several DJs aboard enormous carnival floats parade around Paris blasting out their albums and drawing huge crowds which follow the parade dancing and singing.
However, numerous violent outbursts and threats of rioting mar the event each year, due to the racial tension that exists between Parisian authorities and those from the suburbs, usually of immigrant origin who feel oppressed by Nicholas Sarkozy’s often questionable policies.
It was a long-running result of another government policy, albeit well before Sarkozy, that caused controversy at the Paris Plages in 2007. Due to several cost-cutting schemes initiated under various Presidents during the 1980s and 90s, many hostels and psychiatric homes were closed down and the residents effectively turned onto the streets. Thus the number of homeless people in Paris grew considerably, many of them suffering with mental illness, and many of them still live on the streets of the capital today, most notably along the Seine.
And so, naturally, in 2007 hundreds of homeless people took kindly to the beaches and deckchairs as opposed to cold, hard concrete and stationed themselves in amongst the many visitors who, upon seeing this, began to leave. Afraid of a financial crisis due to lack of tourists, the authorities moved in and chased away the homeless people, splitting public opinion as to how the matter should have been handled.
What amused many, and characterized the adaptive nature of the Parisian homeless community, was that they simply stole some sand, moved a few hundred metres down the riverbank and set up their own beach, nicknamed Clodo-Plage (Tramp Beach.)
Thus, as with many things French, Paris Plages is both popular and not without its controversy. And yet it continues to draw in the crowds and, it must be said, is well worth a visit.