The Observer

Safe to Go Back in the Water? Reconnecting Paris with the Seine

Illegal for more than a century, taking a dip in the Seine River has long been a pipe dream for Parisians. Now, it seems as if that dream might finally come true as a result of a massive cleanup to prepare for the 2024 Olympic Games. But the river is much more than a simple waterway.
Children dive into the Seine near the Pont du Carrousel, Paris, 1949. © AFP/Getty Images

The Seine has a treasured place in French history and popular memory. Named for the goddess Sequana, the daughter of Bacchus, it starts as a streamlet in the aptly named commune of Source-Seine in Burgundy. Widening and deepening over a roughly 480 mile-course, it flows through Paris, then onward to the Norman city of Rouen before emptying into the English Channel at the port of Le Havre. (Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared that Paris, Rouen, and Le Havre were one and the same city, with the river as its Main Street.) While the Seine may lack the might of the Mississippi or the majesty of the Mekong, it is arguably the world’s most enchanting river. The eight-mile stretch through central Paris, halfway between the source and its mouth, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses architectural gems such as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre Museum, and the Eiffel Tower (not to mention a replica of the Statue of Liberty). By night, the water sparkles with lights reflected from the riverbanks, buildings, cruise boats, and a million flashing cameras, and phones.

According to the American journalist and long-time Paris resident Elaine Sciolino, who has written evocatively about the river, the Seine’s romantic power is rooted in her human scale and accessibility, but also her architectural splendor, which projects power beyond her physical dimensions. (Ms. Sciolino uses the pronoun “her” because, she says, the proper noun la Seine is feminine and the river is, “of course, a woman.”) That romantic aura has been heightened, embellished, and immortalized in countless artworks, poems, and songs, many of the latter playing on the Seine’s seductiveness (because she “is a lover, and Paris sleeps in her bed”). And, of course, there are the movies. The picture-perfect river has been the backdrop, centerpiece, or star in a host of films by directors from Jean Renoir and Stanley Donen to Julie Delpy and Woody Allen. “The Seine allows Paris to present itself as a stage set,” says Elaine Sciolino, “with the river cast as the pièce de résistance.”

Enchanting though it may be, the Seine has been on life support for years. Once a complex ecosystem, it was pronounced biologically dead sixty-odd years ago. And of course, no one dared dip a toe in its waters. Until the early 1900s the river had been a favored bathing spot for residents of Paris and its suburbs, despite the ever-growing health threat from pollution caused by sewage, industrial effluent, and – in the words of one contemporary observer – “a maceration of dead animals.” Finally, on April 17, 1923, the authorities imposed an outright ban on swimming to protect public hygiene. More honored in the breach than the observance, the injunction was fully enforced 40 years later. Sporadic remediation efforts were made over a 70-year period but the sheer volume of sewage pumped into the river, much of it untreated, created a citywide drain.

Back in 1990, Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris and later president of France, pledged to clean up the Seine and dive in for a swim three years later. Typically, Chirac never did fulfill his pledge (one of his favorite sayings is that promises are binding only on those who listen to them) but at least he made the idea seem feasible. Subsequent infrastructure and engineering works went ahead, drastically reducing the volume of effluent runoff – the main source of pollution in the past decades – but the water remained stubbornly murky and uninviting.

The catalyst for an accelerated cleanup campaign came in 2016 when Paris was chosen ahead of Los Angeles to host the 2024 Olympics. The Seine played a starring role in the city’s bid. It was presented not only as the venue for a spectacular opening ceremony – usually held in a gigantic stadium – but also as the site for several outdoor swimming events, including the 10-kilometer marathon, the triathlon, and the paratriathlon. In addition, according to the Organizing Committee, the Seine would be a focal point for festivities, with shows, concerts, and entertainment organized at different points along the riverbanks throughout the three-week Olympic period.

The start of the Traversée de Paris race at the Pont National, 1934. This popular swimming event along the Seine ended in 1945. © Keystone/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Des enfants se baignent dans la Seine non loin de Notre-Dame pendant qu’un homme lave ses vêtements, en 1937. © Keystone/Gamma-Rapho
Children bathe in the Seine near Notre Dame while a man washes his clothes, 1937. © Keystone/Gamma-Rapho

To ensure that everything will be ready on time for July 2024, a massive engineering and public works project is underway. Teams are working round the clock to construct wastewater storage basins – one of them near the city center – and upgrade sewage treatment plants along the Seine. Meaningful results have already been achieved. According to officials at Paris City Hall, over 90% of the daily measurements taken last summer showed that water quality was “good.” If all goes according to plan, they say, Olympic athletes will be able to swim in the Seine River, just as they did 123 years ago when Paris hosted the Games for the first time.

Equally important – or more so for those who are not big fans of the quadrennial athletics extravaganza – is the so-called Olympic legacy, the long-term benefits that the Games bring to the host city and its people. In the case of Paris 2024, the most immediate benefit will be a clean, swimmable river that benefits everyone. From 2025, at least five bathing spots along the Seine will open to the public, in addition to three floating pools that opened in 2017 at the Bassin de la Villette, an artificial lake between two canals in the north of the city. Even reluctant swimmers, like your correspondent, are likely to welcome these new facilities amid the increasingly hot summers that now seem to be the norm (the maximum temperature in Paris last year topped 104°F, enough to make even a hardened aquaphobe think about taking to the water).

All of this activity is being watched closely by riverine cities in other countries. Although smaller European municipalities such as Munich and Copenhagen have already opened riverside swimming baths, the French capital’s plans are on a much larger scale. Its efforts to facilitate and promote inner city swimming could be a game changer, creating a model for other major metropolises worldwide. New York City, among others, seems to be paying attention to Paris’s progress. It has fewer public swimming pools per head than any other major American city. And despite vast improvements in sanitation, its three rivers are still unswimmable because of restrictions imposed by the public health code. Organizations such as Plus Pool have been trying to change the way that residents relate to their river by giving them a chance to swim in it. Meanwhile, cities like Boston (whose Charles River was famously immortalized in the Standells song “Dirty Water”) and Portland are reclaiming their once-polluted waterways, taking incremental steps that culminate in major improvements, and riverfronts that encourage urban swimming.

In Paris, the pre-Olympic cleanup is just the latest, though most significant, part of a much broader program to reclaim the Seine for citizens. The riverside expressways that once carried thousands of cars daily were closed to vehicle traffic in 2016 and turned into pedestrian areas and bike paths. Now, with the possibility of swimming once again in a clean river, the deep historical connection between Paris and the Seine is being restored, even though some dubious citizens might not brave the waters immediately. The last word should go to Elaine Sciolino, who observes that although the river owes the city its romantic aura, the city owes the river its birth, its life, and its identity. The love affair of Paris and the Seine defines them both. Anyone for a dip?

Article published in the June 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.