Paris Stories

Alex Duval Smith finds the capital's residents resigned to a Seine flood ? at a cost of ?12bn ? but up in arms over a proposed statue of Edith Piaf
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The Independent Online

It's a niggle of Parisian life that never leaves us: 2.74, 2.80, 2.93 ... they are features of our lives that will always be there, like the dog turds on the pavement. Or like the inability of most French banks to clear cheques in less than eight days. "C'est comme ça," as they say here – that's just the way it is.

It's a niggle of Parisian life that never leaves us: 2.74, 2.80, 2.93 ... they are features of our lives that will always be there, like the dog turds on the pavement. Or like the inability of most French banks to clear cheques in less than eight days. "C'est comme ça," as they say here – that's just the way it is.

Whether the level of the Seine at Austerlitz Bridge stands at 2.93 metres, as it did on Wednesday, or at 2.66m, as it did on Thursday, Parisians can do no more about it than afflicted English on the other side of La Manche. But everyone knows that, one day, there will be a flood. And the prime victim will be the Louvre museum.

"It could happen any time," says Pascal Popelin, the chairman of the IIBRBS, a body that manages the four flood reservoirs constructed last century to prevent a repeat of the 1910 flood, when the level reached 8.62m at Austerlitz.

"I cannot say that, just because there is plenty of capacity left in the reservoirs at the moment, we won't have a flood," M Popelin says. "I can say, however, that the soil at the moment is far from saturated, which is a good sign, but if there is a cold snap and the ground freezes – well, then ..."

There is a resigned fatalism about the flood that awaits us. Every day, Le Parisien carries a little article telling us that the situation is slightly better or worse than it was the day before. The ecology minister, Roselyne Bachelot, attempted to address this national state of denial last week when she launched a white paper on environmental protection. "The trouble with floods is that they are catastrophic when they happen, but people muddle through. Then populations change, people move on, and no one thinks about a flood until the next one comes along," she said.

And as M Popelin says: "The Seine rises fairly slowly – so we will have time to limit human loss. But the economic consequences will be disastrous. If we have a similar picture to the flood of 1910, the four flood basins will allow us to reduce the level of the river by 60cm more, and this will keep the cost of property damage to €12bn (£7.8bn)."

The figure is mind-blowing enough, but he says it is a conservative estimate. "The most likely scenario is that the Seine, the Marne and the enfant terrible of rivers, the Yonne, will swell rapidly at the same time. That is when I will run out of ideas," he confesses.

But for now, as sure as the dogs foul the pavements, the bateaux-mouches ply their way up and down the Seine. The last time their traffic was interrupted was during the Millennium celebrations, when the Seine exceeded the 4.30m limit for safe navigation under the bridges. All you can say is "C'est comme ça," and at least a flood would clean the pavements.

If the flood comes this year, the exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville marking the 40th anniversary of Edith Piaf's death will be washed out. But it would take an apocalypse to stop the local festivities in her native Belleville.

On a hill in the 20th arrondissement, this is as working-class as Paris gets. France's favourite Little Sparrow, left, real name Giovanna Gassion, was born into complete poverty on the steps of 72, rue de Belleville on 19 December 1915. She died on 11 October 1963, and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

But her life story was so sad – love, bereavement and that voice – that there isn't a Parisian without an opinion on how her death should be commemorated. The latest controversy has sprung up between the town hall – which has offered to pay for a statue for the already-named Place Edith Piaf – and the Friends of Edith Piaf, an association created to preserve her memory. Disagreements over the choice of style and sculptor have meant the piece has not yet been commissioned.

The next challenge to these keepers of the flame comes from faraway Quebec, where Claudette Dion – sister of Celine – is reported to have recorded a tribute album.

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