PARIS -- In 1967, Georges Pompidou transformed the Right Bank quais of Paris into a "voie rapide": a high-speed expressway. "The French love their cars," the prime minister declared, cutting Parisians off from their tranquil Seine.
But the election in 2001 of Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delano has reconnected citizens to their beloved river, if for only a few fleeting weeks each year. Delano's pet project is Paris-Plage, a riverside festival and "Paris-Beach" party occupying a 2-mile stretch between the Pont des Arts, by the Louvre, to the Pont de Sully, at the eastern tip of Ile Saint-Louis.
Paris is not alone among European cities in bringing the seascape to town. In Berlin, sandy beaches have been created along the Spree River, and in London, a new beach has been established on the South Bank of the Thames.
In Paris, Delano has turned the 45-foot-wide highway, which hugs the northern riverbank, into a staging ground for a variety of events and activities, "numro un" being simple strolling and sunbathing. More than 2.5 million visitors on bicycles, roller blades, and flip-flops are expected to throng the quais to drink beer at makeshift cafes, take in open-air concerts, and snooze in beach chairs after Paris-Plage launched its third edition Wednesday.
Paris-Plage is a temporary utopia, and last year, wandering the carless quais was my salvation. Unlike many Parisians, I was unable to escape the city during last August's devastating "canicule" (heat wave). Instead I cooled off under the ingenious sprinklers that, like giant perfume atomizers, spritzed water at passersby.
Later that month, with a troupe of dear friends leaving to find their futures in other cities, we celebrated at Paris-Plage. The dangling strings of lights and amber-lighted views of Ile Saint-Louis's 16th-century buildings provided a memorable backdrop for our goodbyes.
This summer, I'll be happy to again delude myself for a month and pretend that city life can be like this -- slowed down, almost stopped, shockingly quiet.
"It's a place on the banks of the Seine to come together," said Delano at a press conference this month. "A way to live together."
Delano's dreams are backed by a $4.2 million budget, and the statistics for his party are staggering. Covering the acres of tarmac will be 20,000 square feet of beach, grass, and wooden decking (including 2,000 tons of sand), 200 deck chairs, 40 palm trees, 40 hammocks, seven drinking fountains, five cafes, four sprinkler-misters, and two picnic areas.
There will be a climbing wall, lending library, and art classes, and space for gymnastics, sand castles, and volleyball (the latter in front of City Hall). Children can try the four trampolines, the plant labyrinth, or the wading pool. Seniors can try morning sessions of tai chi and "ptanque," the French version of boccie. To keep it all under control are 40 beach attendants, 20 EMTs, three first-aid centers, two information booths, and one police station.
This year's beach fte promises to improve upon last year's success. New elements include a 2,150-square-foot pool on the Quai des Clestins to hold 200 people, with a nearby solarium. Plus, unlike last year, the action won't stop when the Paris stage of the Tour de France rolls into town today. (It barely closes at all until Aug. 20; until then it is open from 7 a.m. until midnight, with activities from 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Visit www.paris.fr/en.)
The half-million-dollar pool is considered a big investment, and some taxpayers are grumbling about whether the money ought to be spent differently. Perhaps to silence some critics, this year Delano's team attracted $1.7 million in private financing. Naturally, these businesses will be selling their products, from Paris-Plage-brand T-shirts, beach bags, and flying disks (designed by Paris-Muses) to healthy beach eats from the grocery chain Monoprix.
The site will be closed each night for reasons of security and hygiene. "Paris-Plage must always be impeccable,"Delano says. Crews will be unleashed after hours to sweep it all clean for the next day's wave of visitors.
Naturally, many Paris-Plagers will be out-of-towners. But the huge street party was never intended only to attract tourists. "Paris-Plage was conceived for the hundreds of thousands of Franciliens," Delano says, referring to residents of Paris and its environs.
It's also part of Delano's ambitious designs to make the city's streets more pedestrian friendly. Since his election, Delano's transit department has pledged to add about 25 miles of bus-bike-taxi lanes a year, build a city-circling subway, and discourage cars from entering the most congested neighborhoods (already implemented on Ile de la Cit and Ile Saint-Louis). The mayor's road crew has been widening sidewalks everywhere, installing traffic-calming pedestrian crosswalks, planting trees, and converting abandoned lots into playgrounds and prim French parks. He wants to create a regular commuter boat system, as well as a river freight network to diminish truck traffic. Also on the drawing board are two permanent swimming pools to float like boats in the Seine.
When you factor in October's Nuit Blanche (an all-night party), Journe Sans Voitures (day without cars), the gay pride march, Fte de la Musique, and other street festivals, Paris seems more alive, and more communal, than ever before.
A Seine-side spin-off is "Paris Danses en Seine," a federation of 20 groups that sponsor free al fresco dancing along the Left Bank's Quai Saint-Bernard, not far from the Paris-Plage site. Dancers flock to the mini-amphitheaters built into the riverbank each night and gravitate toward their preferred tempo: salsa, swing, tango, capoeira, Breton, or folk. Until the end of September, the scene also attracts its share of jugglers, fire-twirlers, drummers, and general onlookers and picnickers.
Before Paris-Plage, Delano's "Paris Respire" (Paris breathes) program had already closed some quais to cars in the dead of summer. But the mayor's stated long-term goal is to permanently return the Right Bank quais to foot and nonmotorized traffic.
For now, I'll walk the riverbank, and this temporary pedestrian invasion will have to suffice. I know all too well that on Aug. 20, Paris-Plage will vanish like a summer fling. The beach chairs will be folded up and the palm trees will be carted away.
And in their place -- Honk! Honk! Vroom, vroom.
Ethan Gilsdorf (www.ethangilsdorf.com) is a Paris-based writer and frequent Globe contributor.