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Agnès Poirier's diary: Parisians flee the Olympics

For months we had been complaining about the damage the Games would inevitably bring to our city
July 10, 2024

There is no escaping Paris, no matter how hard I try. I was in Venice, trying to avoid the daily grind of both British and French politics, and concentrate on the Belle Époque, the subject of my next book, when Macron decided to dissolve parliament. Adieu Degas, adieu Captain Dreyfus, adieu Colette, see you all soon, I hope. I rushed back into the fray, trying to make sense of and explain a rather senseless political gamble to an international audience. Had Emmanuel Macron recently reread Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”, I wondered. Or perhaps, he came across philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s work, which tried to decipher this seminal text of 20th century poetry. What is the poem about? A sea master, whose ship is about to sink forever, throws the dice one last time, in one last act of defiance. Mallarmé gives us a meditation on the idea of uncertainty in a godless world. The similarities with France today are uncanny. 

And to think that we had been busy until then with simple pleasures, such as following the Olympic torch from Athens to Marseille where it arrived aboard the Belem, a 130-year-old three-masted barque, in a sea of grandiose fireworks. And from there, the torch had gone on its way, throughout France, visiting the most scenic villages and landscapes. I was in -Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a small village in Provence, when the torch jogged past me to reach the splendid Notre-Dame de Beauvoir chapel perched high on a rocky hillside. A chance encounter, and a lovely one for this cynical Parisian. The crowds, gathered at the foot of the hill, cheered, happy and moved, waving at the torch and its bearer like you wave at old friends. We all captured the moment on our phones.

In Paris, moods had been of a different nature. Less fraternal, more restless. We had been complaining for months about the Olympic logistical inconveniences in our daily lives, the damage to our city those Games would inevitably bring, and the permanent congestion in our streets, with numerous metro stations closed. In recent weeks, I don’t think I have heard one Parisian enthuse about the Games. Everyone I know, apart from two sport fanatic friends who have managed to get affordable tickets, is planning to be away for the Games, hiding in their Brittany second homes or even further away. It is not that they hate the Games, more that they worry about potential incidents and can’t stand the idea of their city’s reputation being damaged. They’d rather hold their breath and look away, at least until after the opening ceremony. This extraordinarily ambitious ceremony, the first one not to be staged within a stadium, will instead sail over a 6km stretch of the Seine, in the heart of Paris, with some 300,000 guests present along the route and as many on their balconies. “Will balconies not collapse?” asked Le Parisien. Good question.

 “As long as it looks good on television, that is all that counts,” sighed my neighbour. Indeed. I sympathise with the thought. As long as the world doesn’t see the scullery: whole areas cordoned off behind fences, the riverbanks inaccessible to flâneurs and fenced off too, bridges cut off and transformed into rows of tiered seats presumably for the opening ceremony, whole gardens and parks transformed into closed sport arenas with ugly 5G poles at each corner scarring the sky of Paris. As long as a ballet of camera-drones show the right angles, the happy faces in the public and the great athletes triumphant onto a beautiful Parisian backdrop, that is all that matters. 

There have already been a few hiccups though. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and the French president had promised to swim in the Seine just before the opening of the Games. Pollution experts have recently kept saying that this will not happen. Despite the billion euros, more exactly €1.4bn, spent on colossal water filtering stations, treatment plants and storm basins, the quality of the water is still deemed too variable to make swimming feasible. As a teenager, I remember Jacques Chirac, president at the time, declaring in 1990 that he would swim in the Seine! Another lost illusion.

Now all we can wish for, in these uncertain and troubled times in France, is for the Games to provide us with a gentle interlude, a quiet bower full of dreams and laughter before a harsher reality strikes us back at the end of the summer. As they say, one lives in hope.