Paris has a watery dream of swimming in the Seine – but can the planners take the plunge?

Could the home of croissants and infamously rude locals become the land of outdoor swimming? Image: Wikimedia Commons

It all started on a hot summer’s day in August 2015, when hordes of people defied a 1923 law and plunged into a canal in the northeast of Paris. It was such a welcomed event that, in November, the City Hall officially proposed a plan for three swimming pools to be built along the south side of the Quai de la Loire canal basin, ready for this summer.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo celebrated the plan on Twitter, writing: “City swimming: promise kept! Three pools on the Bassin de la Villette starting next July 15.” It is a bold plan that, ahem, hopefully will swim and not sink.


The Bassin de la Villette is located in the north east of Paris and is the widest part of the long and fascinating canal system that flows down into the Seine. It was inaugurated in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte to supply water to Parisians – they can't just drink wine you know – and was a former port area during the industrialisation of rivers. Now, it's a central cultural and recreational spot, boasting a theatre barge, boat rental, breweries and cinemas, and is a prime spot for summer wine drinking.

The temporary structures will be built into the actual Bassin, which connects the Canal de l'Ourcq with the Canal Saint-Martin. The smallest, a children's pool, will be just 40cm deep, a second will be up to 120cm deep and a third will be reserved for serious swimmers at 2m deep. The pools in total would stretch 90m end to end, and would take up 16m in width.

Liberté, Egalité, Water Qualité

Naturally, the water itself is a worry. The canal has fallen pray to a few rat infestations and, on occasion, you can watch giant rats being dredged up as you sip a fresh rosé on a canalside terrasse – but don't be put off just yet. Jean-Francois Martins, tasked with sports at the City Hall, offered reassurance to prospective Parisian bathers in Le Figaro newspaper, saying: "We've been monitoring the quality of the water in the Bassin de la Villette since 2009."

 

Would you jump in? Image: Pixabay

The canals were emptied and dredged under a year ago, uncovering bizarre objects hidden in their depths - from bottles to scooters to a stray toilet. Despite the occasional cupboard or vermin spotting, the canal is actually relatively clean and a calm hub in the bustling city, where people picnic, fish and commandeer model boats during the summer months. It is not uncommon to see overly zealous Erasmus parties dive into the canal on hot weekend evenings and there have been no reports of swimmers haemorrhaging from the mouth, eyes and internal organs after contracting Weil's disease (Google if you dare) just yet. So that’s something.

Managing the water for swimming will require stemming sewer overflow during heavy storms, illegal discharge into the water from quayside boats and barges, and agricultural run-off from farms upstream. It is doable but still a massive undertaking by the city and region of Île-de-France.

Will Paris ne regrette rien?

Is it all worth it? Perhaps. Many Parisians seem to have a thirst for outdoor swimming and will seek a cooling spot to escape the city heat again this summer – the City Hall estimates that around 1,000 people would show up to the pools on any given summer day next year. As a local and keen outdoor swimmer, a guarantee of good water quality would certainly draw me for a daily swim.

The pools will be a kind of summer pop-up, along with the annual Paris Plage which transforms the banks of the basin and Seine quayside into an urban beach every summer. This means that they will be taken down for the winter season as it is pretty unlikely that many people will want to float down a freezing canal.

Paris Plage is already a thrilling reality. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fanatics keen for a outdoor swim in the chillier months can head to the outdoor pool at Butte aux Caille in the 13th arrondissement, which is open year-round and now heated from the warmth given off by a data centre installed in the same building.

As part of Paris' Olympic bid for 2024, the city has also been overhauling the 38 existing swimming facilities; building innovative heating systems as part of a plan to make all the pools eco-responsible by 2024.

Another new, unusual, environmentally friendly pool-heating system can be found at the Aspirant-Dunand pool in the 14th arrondissement. Water from the Paris sewers is being used to warm this pool – which has cut its electricity bill by 50 per cent. A new heat pump system was installed at the pool following tests of similar systems at the pool and several others in the Paris region. The city has 2,400km of sewers under its streets and assistant mayor Célia Blauel said that the water they contained was between 13 and 20C all year round. This heat was taken from the water and used to heat the pool and showers.

In-seine urban planning

Not willing to stop at just a canal, the ambitious City Hall has also announced that they aim to make the river Seine clean enough to swim in by 2024. The city has even suggested staging Olympic events such as the swimming triathlon in the river.

Zurich already has a perfectly good outdoor swimming spot. Image: Zurich Film Office 

So, will it work? Proposals to clean up waterways are a regular occurrence in many major European cities. Berlin’s 2014 scheme included a plan to swim in a part of the river Spree, but pollution from storm water run-off and coal mining put that one on the back burners. Over in London, there is the more viable Thamesbath project. It is a partially heated twin pool rather than an open swimming area but would use river water, filtered and cleaned through tanks and aquatic plant beds. It’s reached almost £150,000 on Kickstarter but is likely to cost a fortune, so don’t hold your breath. (Sorry).

Copenhagen's harbour is now swim-friendly. Image: Thomas Rousing / Flickr

But the idea of safe and clean urban swimming for the masses does float, as there are success stories already. Both Copenhagen and Zürich have cleaned up their open waters – a harbour and a lake – making it perfectly safe to jump right in.

Paris doesn’t have many ecological factors in its favour but the city of light has a big watery dream. In spite of the odds, this project may be just about achievable, and we could one day see tourists slip in for a dip in the Seine after a visit to the Eiffel tower.

Don’t forget your swimsuit. 

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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