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Taking the Beach to the People

 IPS 04 June 2019

It could almost be the French Riviera: women basking in the sun on wooden deckchairs; toddlers rolling in the sand or building castles; young people in colourful kayaks and sailboats on the water; elderly men playing a game of pétanque on the beach. But all this is taking place in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in northern Paris, around the city's largest artificial lake - the Bassin de la Villette - and far from France's famed southern coastline. (799 words) - By Alecia D. McKenzie

IPS English 2

PARIS, France - It could almost be the French Riviera: women basking in the sun on wooden deckchairs; toddlers rolling in the sand or building castles; young people in colourful kayaks and sailboats on the water; elderly men playing a game of pétanque on the beach.

But all this is taking place in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in northern Paris, around the city's largest artificial lake - the Bassin de la Villette - and far from France's famed southern coastline.

Paris Plages (Paris Beaches), as the project is called, brings the beach to people who may find it difficult to go on vacation, especially in the current global economic crisis.

Launched in 2002 by the city's popular Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, the venture began in the historic heart of Paris, running along the river Seine from the Louvre museum to the area near Notre Dame cathedral.

Two years ago it was expanded to the 19th arrondissement, which is known for its diverse population of Africans, Arabs, Asians and working class French people. This summer it has attracted an increased number of visitors, with more than four million people expected to participate in the various activities.

"I haven't been on vacation this year, and I'm happy to say that Paris Plages has been great for me," says Yolande, a 54-year-old Parisian, standing in the sun with a rolled-up beach mat under one arm. "It's just a pity that it doesn't go on longer, but when I go back to work, I'll definitely feel as if I've been on a nice holiday."

The beach is on for a month each year, spanning July and August. Admission is free to the public and goes from 8 am to midnight each day.

Yolande and her 60-year-old friend Dany told IPS that about the nicest aspect of Paris Plages is the way it has brought people together.

"Everybody has been enjoying the beach with incredible respect for one another's culture and religion," Yolande said. "Last Saturday there was a grand ball, and you could see mothers dancing with their children, and even strangers dancing together. It was wonderful."

Police on duty at La Villette said they too have been impressed by the "friendly ambience" at the beach. The area is close to the so-called banlieues (suburbs) of Paris where riots took place in 2005 and 2007, and where tensions have continued between some residents and the authorities.

Unrest flared up again this week in another suburb after a young motorcyclist died while fleeing the police. His death sparked fiery confrontations between youths and police officers Monday and Tuesday, with rioters torching cars and setting street fires.

In contrast to these events, "the atmosphere at the beach has been very calm," a policeman told IPS.

Along with the hammocks, deckchairs, parasols, boats and imported sand, the city has invited non-governmental organisations as well as corporate sponsors to supply additional attractions. Greenpeace, for instance, offers educational games to young people, and one spa company has made massages available to the urban beach-goers.

The city's budget for the whole enterprise is 2.5 million euros, with one million euros coming from private funding, says Krystel Lessard, spokesperson for city hall. She says the project will continue in 2010, but that it is too early to say whether it would expand to include other areas, particularly those with poorer populations.

Gilles Warin, manager of youth hostel St Christopher's Inn located along the Bassin de la Villette, says Paris Plages has given the area increased vibrancy, especially for young people. But, he added, the oldest client at the hostel is 91 years old and also enjoying the "beach fun".

Warin said a bar at the hostel provides entertainment in the form of quiz nights, and karaoke and live music.

A 26-year-old man strolling in shorts along the lake said the promenade is too narrow at La Villette, unlike the broad spaces along the Seine, which also had more attractions.

"We could do with a few more things here," he said. "Still, it's a really good idea for the people who can't go on vacation."

For "beach-goers" with intellectual interests, the city has made available books that can be borrowed free of charge. Then there is Marie-Caroline Develey, a young woman wearing huge dark glasses and selling a wide range of magazines from her three-wheel bike.

"It's going very well," Develey said, "except when it rains."

She considers La Villette the best of the venues for Paris Plages because of the absence of tourists. At the other beaches, near the city's well-known landmarks, tourists mix with locals to soak up the sun, participate in art classes or swim in a floating pool.

"The people at La Villette are people from the neighbourhood," Develey said. "They're good, hard-working people, and they really appreciate something like this."

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