The City of Love has done away with the locks that lovers chained to an iconic bridge, an invented tradition that many Parisians saw as an eyesore – and as a perversion of the freedom and abandon that l’amour is all about.Paris: “We’ll always have Paris”. If the world fails us, if our paths diverge and the flame slowly withers, the French capital shall stand as an eternal memento of a passion long gone. This is what Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. And this is what scores of couples must have thought when they put locks on the railing of the Pont des Arts (Bridge of the Arts), a metal and wood bridge on the Seine, in order to symbolise their affection. Many thought that the padlocks, nicknamed ‘love locks’ and often displaying painfully engraved or written initials, were a long standing tradition, a sweet gesture repeated by lovers since time immemorial in the heart of the city of love. The coins tossed in the Trevi Fountain, the Roman landmark made famous by Anita Ekberg’s iconic night-time dip in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita enabled the Rome municipality to collect up to a million euros every year. But unlike the Roman coins, the Paris padlocks are neither traditional nor lucrative for the local authorities, who finally removed them on the June 1.
“Love locks” are relatively new. They sprung up in Eastern Europe about twenty years ago. More recently, European travellers, inspired by Federico Moccia’s film Ho Voglia Di Te (I want you) started installing “love locks” in Rome in 2007. The following year, they started the practice in Paris. The French daily Le Monde compares this phenomenon to “a mysterious and contagious disease”.
Most adults – and many teenagers – in Paris have dear memories of strolling, partying, picnicking and romancing on this much-filmed and sung about centrally-located bridge that links the “rive gauche”, the southern bank of the river where the Latin Quarter, the student district and Saint-Germain des Prés, are located, and the Louvre on the “rive droite”, the northern bank. Before the “love locks” appeared, one could look through the grate of the bridge and lay eyes on the Île de la Cité, where the first settlements are believed to have appeared at the time of Julius Caesar, the Notre-Dame cathedral, a jewel of Gothic architecture built in the XIIth and XIIIth century, the Grand Palais, a museum constructed for the 1900 Universal Exposition. The simplicity of the bridge’s construction and the delicacy of its architecture highlighted the magnificence and historical depth of the view it offered.
And then, suddenly, this panorama was obliterated. Parisians, who are famous complainers, complained about the locks that the tourists kept installing and, as Camille, a 23 year old art student who likes to practice sketching on the bridge, told me: “no real lover of this city would ever dream of putting a padlock here. The whole thing was a disgrace and really, really dumb”. “Ah, the bloody locks! They were such an eye-sore and dangerous too!” exclaimed Patrice, a middle-aged jogger, as he overheard our conversation. Patrice was not being over dramatic: the locks weighed around 45 tons at the time of removal, according to a local elected representative. The Paris municipality had first expressed concern in 2013, arguing that the railings could collapse under the weight. Before that, anonymous people had removed the locks but they always seem to find their way back onto the beloved bridge. In June 2014, 37 grates that were on the verge of collapse had to be removed by the municipality, after one pane broke. Besides this unnecessary cost for tax-payers, the official reason behind the June 2015 removal was safety – both of the monument and of the public.
Besides, the keys to the locks were generally thrown into the river, adding to the already existing pollution, which also prompted the municipality’s decision, especially since Paris will host the COP-21, the UN World Climate Conference in November and December 2015. This global event is supposed to be the diplomatic height of Francois Hollande’s lack-lustre presidency. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, a woman elected to office a year ago, belongs to Hollande’s Socialist party. Her willingness to remove polluting artefacts in the heart of Paris is quite timely. Of course, the locks are gone but the keys remain under water. Whether the authorities decide to invest funds to retrieve them and end a real but yet invisible pollution is another matter.
But what most Parisians found disgraceful was not so much the change in the bridge’s look or the pollution of the river but the fact that love could be symbolized by locks, an antithesis of the freedom and abandon that “l’amour” should be. What the rest of the world felt was a symbol of commitment, locals saw as the saddest possible misunderstanding of love. Paris could not be at the same time the city of love and the city of locks.
A few however do not share this view and were sensitive, if not to the use of locks as symbols of love, then at least to the genuine intentions behind this invented tradition. Christophe, a Parisian friend wrote on Facebook: “It was nice and refreshing to see naive smiling tourists with their locks (and Indians selling them) and to imagine this would bring thousands of Euros to the municipality (check the price at any scrap dealer). Now we’ll have ugly tax-funded “street art” (see how débile it looks on the pictures), but proud Parisians who never use this bridge and moan about selfies will be happy. I am sad.” Indeed, the municipality chose to momentarily cover the railings with street art by artists Jace, El Seed, Brusk and Pantonio until September, when transparent panes will be installed. The paintings are already covered in graffiti, some of which are urging for the locks to come back. However the municipality never gained any money from these locks and the cost of even dismantling the railings in order to collect them and sell them would have far exceed any possible benefit. The removal made financial and political sense.
Although Christophe’s feelings are not shared by most Parisians, I wondered what the Indians and Bangladeshi vendors who used to sell the locks thought about the whole affair. These street sellers had been quick to spot a business opportunity and used to sell the locks (and markers to tag them) for about 10 Euros, twice the retail price. They found a willing pool of customers, foreigners unaware of the availability of the contraptions in nearby supermarkets and willing to pay a relatively small amount to partake in what they thought was the magic and the spirit of Paris. Shafiq, who used to sell locks on the bridge and now sells cold drinks and small made-in-China gadgets near Notre-Dame laughs it off: “Tourists will keep coming to this bridge, locks or no locks. The locks are gone now, maybe for good, maybe not. If people start putting them again, I will go back and sell the locks again. I’ll adapt. I have to, you know”. Ahmed, one of his acolytes who used to work on the Pont des Arts, nods in agreement while attending to a group of Dutch tourists. Both Shafiq and Ahmed are undocumented migrants.
Paris can be many things at once: the city of light, the city of love, the city of freedom and of human rights. After all, it is in Paris that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was written and proclaimed in 1789 and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed after World War II. The fate of the “love locks” on the Pont des Arts says something about how Paris and Parisians engage with love and beauty. But the city has a darker side too. Under the pretence of public hygiene, and in order to keep with the gentrification and the beautification of Paris, the police recently came down on a camp of migrants living near a metro station in the city’s “Little India” (actually more of a Sri Lankan neighbourhood). Most of these migrants are asylum seekers from Eritrea and Somalia. They have been dislodged, scattered and their meagre personal belongings discarded. The authorities only provided temporary housing once several activists started to agitate. Of course Paris should remain beautiful – albeit not in a fossilized, stuck-in-the-past manner – but it should also remain welcoming. It owes it to itself and to the rest of the world. Parisians, migrants and tourists alike need to be able to say, “We’ll always have Paris”. For some, it is a matter of romance. For others, it is a matter of life and death.
Ingrid Therwath is a Paris-based journalist working for the French news weekly Courrier International