Paris Stories

John Lichfield on an encounter with the mayor on his 'beach', watched by disbelieving Parisians; and how Jane Birkin has scored a hit with the critics

Tuesday 31 December 2013 04:47
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I was strolling down the beach in Paris the other evening when I bumped into the mayor.

Bertrand Delanoe, 52, who is now the only left-wing politician in France with any significant power, was wandering along the lower Seine quays, which are usually occupied by snarling or grid-locked traffic. This summer, at Mr Delanoe's instigation, the two-lane urban motorway beside the river has been given over to pedestrians, cyclists, roller-skaters, sandpits, palm trees, small bars, pétanque competitions and rock and jazz bands.

The whole operation has been called "Paris-Plage", or Paris beach, which is a little misleading. There are a few large sandpits and a scattering of palm trees and deckchairs but it is more of a seaside promenade than a beach. But it's still good fun for all that.

I introduced myself to Mr Delanoe, whom I had met once before. His only companion was the recently deposed agriculture minister, Jean Glavany, the man who had managed (or mis-managed) Lionel Jospin's disastrous campaign for the presidency. The two men were debating the bleak future for Socialist politics in France.

Not wanting to intrude on this private grief, I congratulated Mr Delanoe on his "beach", which has been a great success, attracting 500,000 people on its first day.

"Enjoy it while you can. It won't be here long. The cars will be back soon," he said.

The cars will, in fact, be back briefly today, while the closing stage of the Tour de France occupies the rest of the capital's streets.

Otherwise Paris-Plage – which is especially lively in the evenings – takes over the Voie Georges Pompidou on the right bank of the river opposite the Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis until 18 August.

Mr Delanoe went unrecognised by the foreign tourists on the beach. The Parisians stared at him in disbelief. It is unheard of in France to meet a politician without a retinue of acolytes, flunkies, officials, bodyguards and motorcycle outriders. "It's not possible. Is it really him? Why is he here, all on his own? It is bizarre, that," said one young woman.

Mr Delanoe, who sometimes travels to work by Metro, has brought a new informality to the mayorship, which he captured last year. Jacques Chirac's spell in the Paris town hall, from 1977 to 1995, was a period of regal pretentiousness and, as we now know, the systematic embezzlement of tens of millions of pounds of city taxpayers' money to fund Mr Chirac's wider political ambitions.

Odd, then, that President Chirac's supporters on the Paris town council should have complained about Mr Delanoe spending a modest £1m on the Paris-Plage.

What chance of Mr Delanoe following Mr Chirac and using the Paris mayorship as a springboard to national power? Not much. First, he has made it clear that he wishes to remain a local politician. Second, his overt homosexuality, though creditably ignored by most Parisians, would be a handicap in La France Profonde, which is profoundly prejudiced.

All the same, Mr Delanoe's approach and style – tough, informal, non-ideological, imaginative, engaged – offers a good model for the rebuilding of the French left.

Further evidence of the indestructibility of the 1960s and 1970s generation of pop musicians (will they still be rocking in their wheelchairs?) is provided by rave reviews in France for Jane Birkin's summer tour. Ms Birkin, 55, is best known in Britain for her heavy-breathing duet with her second husband, Serge Gainsbourg, on "Je t'aime, Moi non plus" in 1976.

In France, where she has lived for most of her life, she belongs to a small club of Britons more cherished and appreciated by the French than the British.

Her singing tour – described as "superb" and "astonishing" in Le Parisien – is called "Arabesque". It involves a kind of Arab-jazz re-working of some of Gainsbourg's best known hits (but not "Je t'aime").

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