While the 2024 Olympics will host competitions on the Seine from the ornate Pont Alexandre III, a proud statement to the waterway’s environmental renewal, many swimmers in the capital have already tried diving in defiance of a decades-long ban.
The Seine and Paris canals were banned from swimming in 1923 due to pollution and safety concerns, though enforcement of the rules has been relaxed in recent years.
A group of pioneers called themselves “Les Ourcq Polaires” – a pun that conjures images of polar bears and the name of a canal, a popular swimming spot that runs northeast from the capital.
One member, Laurent Sitbon, said none of their swimmers had been fined in five years and they had only been dragged out of the water by police once.
Thirty years ago, Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris at the time, boasted that the Seine was becoming a “clean river” and that he would soon go swimming – even though he never did.
But in 2024 Olympic organizers plan to host triathlons and open water swimming competitions on the Seine, with French authorities investing 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) to clean up the river.
In recent years, the swimming pool in Canal d’Oulque has been fenced off to host the annual Parisian Riviera summer event, with plans to open a permanent venue to the public in the area in 2025.
On the first Sunday in July, Polaires organizes a cruise on the Seine. Swimmers stand on the railing of a barge moored on the Ile Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where a village for Paralympic athletes is being built.
“I can’t wait to swim in the Seine! It’s not just a swimming pool,” said swimmer Celine Debunne.
“We have paved the way”
At 8 o’clock in the evening, there was little traffic on the river, and about 20 people had an outing in warm water for about 1 hour, with a journey of about 2 kilometers.
Swimmer Josue Remoue said the 25C (77F) temperature was “too hot” for a club with “polar” in its name.
They are located just downstream from French artist Georges Seurat’s 1884 painting Bathers at Asniere, a time when frolics on the Seine were common.
“People say, ‘You’re crazy, you’re going to get a place,'” said Tanguy Lhomme, who recently welcomed swimmers to his barge on Sunday.
“As a result, they used the Seine as a sewer.”
Lhomme admits that when he started living by the river in 2017, “it was impossible for me to be in it”.
Members of the club went out in groups with inflatable buoys, which, along with their assigned lifeguards, explained why they were “tolerated,” Sitbon said.
“Like all dark rivers, the Seine has gotten a lot of bad press. The color will never make you dream,” said another swimmer, Louis Pelerin.
Paris police did not respond to a request for comment on their stance on swimming in the river.
“The root of the problem is not pollution, but the control of morality,” said Benoit Hachet, a professor of sociology in Paris who was also involved.
Authorities in Paris put up signs banning swimming on the banks of the canal after summer rains washed mud from paths and roads into the water.
“Pollution is always a good excuse and often a big lie,” said Sibylle van der Walt, a German sociologist living in Metz, eastern France, where she campaigned for wild swimming activities by opportunity.
“In the Nordic countries, people swim at their own risk, whereas in France the mayor is in charge,” van der Walt said.
During the recent summer heatwave, more and more Parisians have taken to the canals to escape the heat.
“It’s not just the Olympics, it’s global warming,” Hatchett said. “Ten years from now, it will be 40 degrees. Banned or not, people will be in the water!”
Sitbon also said attitudes were changing.
“We were just a few guys in 2017. We feel like we’ve paved some paths.”