Paris Stories

The cobbles famously ripped up by rioting students in 1968 are quietly being returned to the French capital, reports John Lichfield, while the fashion for commemorative plaques on buildings has been given a satirical twist
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The Independent Online

Close to my children's school in the western part of Paris, they are remodelling the street to allow wheelchairs to use pedestrian crossings more easily. For a few yards on either side of the new, raised crossing, the street is being cobbled.

Close to my children's school in the western part of Paris, they are remodelling the street to allow wheelchairs to use pedestrian crossings more easily. For a few yards on either side of the new, raised crossing, the street is being cobbled.

The new crossings are springing up all over the French capital. They are one of the more obvious signs of a gradual (and undeclared) urban counter-revolution: the reconquest of Parisian streets by the pavé, or cobblestone.

According to received wisdom, it was the student revolution in 1968 which signed the death warrant of the traditional Parisian cobbled street. The students pulled up whole boulevards of cobbles in the Latin Quarter and piled them into barricades or lobbed them at the riot police. Sand was exposed for dozens of yards on the Boulevard Saint Michel and other thoroughfares, generating one of the most famous of 1968 libertarian slogans: "Sous les pavés, la plage" (Under the cobbles, the beach).

During the 1970s, almost all the streets in the Latin Quarter, and 80 per cent of all the 10,000 miles of streets in Paris, were tarred over. In truth, this policy was partly anti-riot and partly pro-car. Cobbles are picturesque and hard-wearing but, as the 1968 students discovered, a single loose stone rapidly subverts all its neighbours.

There was much discontent at the loss of a Parisian tradition, even though the tradition was only 50 years old. The square, granite 2kg pavé first came to Paris in 1920. Before that, the streets were paved with flagstones and wooden cobbles (the last of which were ripped up for firewood during the 1939-45 war).

During the 1990s the granite cobbles began to creep back. The Champs Elysées and many other large avenues were re-cobbled, using bitumen to stick the stones together. After a few months, the bitumen spread out over the stones, giving the most famous street in the world the rather mottled and unsatisfactory appearance that it has today. In recent years, cobbles have also returned to the upper quays of the Seine and to many smaller streets in the dinkier or more historic districts (but not the Latin Quarter, even though it is now home to film stars and TV intellectuals).

The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë (pictured below) – who returned to work last week after his stabbing five weeks ago – has directed that street works, such as the new crossings, should include cobbles where appropriate. The town hall says that there is no official re-cobbling policy. However, it is estimated that cobbles cover more than 30 per cent of Parisian streets once again.

So many, in fact, that motorcyclists protested recently that the innocent-seeming cobble was one of the principal causes of a sharp increase in fatal motorbike accidents in Paris. Cobbles, two-wheel vehicles and wet weather are a deadly combination, they claim.

Maybe, but it is difficult to have much sympathy for Parisian motorbike riders. They ride the wrong way down one-way streets and ignore red lights, pedestrian crossings and the priority from the right. Worse, they ride on the pavements, aggressively ordering pedestrians and prams out of the way.

Maybe the town hall should cobble the pavements to keep the motorbikes on the roads.

Commemorative plaques, to celebrate ex-residents or heroes of the resistance are a common sight in Paris. They have been joined recently by a rash of elaborate stone plaques which say things like: "Here, on 17 April 1967, nothing happened" or "Karima Bentiffa, civil servant, lived in this building from 1984 to 1989" or "This plaque was put up on 19 December 1953".

Some residents fail to see the joke. They have asked the town hall to remove the signs. The town hall says the owners of the buildings must pay the bill. The signs will probably remain.

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