Paris Divided Over <i> Liberte </i> to Walk on Grass


April in Paris: the delightful time that song lyrics are made of. Like “chestnuts in blossom.” And “holiday tables under the trees.”

Starting this spring, Parisians have a few more things to sing about. Like lovers lolling on the grass in many of the city’s parks, feeling the warming sun on their faces.

In one of those little revolutions that tell a lot about contemporary changes in French lifestyles, Paris authorities have been compelled to revoke long-standing, draconian regulations that made it illegal to walk on the grass in most of the city’s 413 public gardens, parks and promenades.


Officialdom has capitulated in the face of lounging office workers, Frisbee-tossing tourists and urbanites who simply want to feel the freshness of the grass between their toes.

“We had ended up by being overwhelmed,” Tristan Pauly, a former forester who is the city’s chief gardener, acknowledged in an interview. “The lawns were being invaded.”

As a result, those nasty signs familiar to even beginning students of French warning that it is defendu and interdit to set foot on the manicured turf are being replaced with smiley faces informing passersby which lawns can be walked upon and which others are “resting.”

One hundred and seventy-eight acres of grassy space, half of the total, will now be open to the public in rotation. It is a “breeze of liberty” in the capital’s parks, the Figaro newspaper headlined approvingly.

So are the French happy? Some are--but far from all.

“We can relax on the grass, eat a bite, rest a little bit,” said Alimatou Toure, 20, a student who came into the city from the suburb of Coulommiers during Easter vacation to lounge on the ground at the Jardin du Trocadero, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

The site by the river is especially popular with young Parisians and visitors and is the place to go in the French capital for in-line skating or swaying to the beat of African tom-tom players.


Not far away, Vanessa Juchors, 22, another student feeding fruit compote to her 8-month-old baby, Edouard, had a more jaundiced viewpoint.

“Parisians don’t have a lot of respect for nature,” she said. “There is trash and dog waste everywhere. Before, it was well protected, with guards all over. They’ve disappeared. That’s the only real difference.”

Because of the please-walk-on-the-grass policy announced last month by Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi, Juchors predicted, “the parks are soon going to be wrecked and will quickly turn into garbage cans.”

Rabidly conservative when it comes to defending what they have, many Parisians have been sending hate mail on the parks issue to Tiberi that ultimately winds up on Pauly’s desk.

Like a lot of things, walking on the grass has squarely divided the French into opposing camps.

“People are half in favor, half opposed,” Pauly said. Proponents denounce “elitists” who would allegedly deprive the poor and working class of their closest contact with nature.


As for opponents, they accuse the scandal-plagued Tiberi, a member of President Jacques Chirac’s conservative Rally for the Republic party, of demagoguery, or they protest that the city’s dogs, if allowed free rein by their notoriously uncivil owners, will turn the parks into the same malodorous obstacle courses that many Paris streets have become.

For the time being, only three Paris parks are open to dogs, in addition to the two vast “woods” that lie on the city’s eastern and western edges, the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne, where pedestrians were already welcome on most of the grounds.

Paris park officials say they are trying to bring the city’s green spaces more into line with modern needs but that a large part of the populace won’t let them.

The city’s parks sprang up in the 17th and 18th centuries as orderly, tranquil havens designed to please the eye and offer Parisians a place to stroll and display their fashionable attire.

During the Industrial Revolution, health zealots considered parks first and foremost as places for city dwellers to come for a breath of pure air uncontaminated by factory smoke. Running, which kicked up dust, and treading on the grass, which supposedly might reduce oxygen production, were greatly frowned upon.

The formal French garden of the Bourbon kings, a carefully tended treat for the blue-blooded eye, begat the sports-unfriendly parks of the Fifth French Republic.


In 1968, when a revolt swept Paris universities under the slogan “It is forbidden to forbid,” rebellious students still stayed off the grass at public parks, officials remember with pride.

Even with this spring’s changes in regulations, “destructive” activities--soccer, other team sports and mountain biking, for instance--will still not be allowed in the vast majority of Paris parks.

Picnicking on the grass, that bourgeois pleasure painted by Impressionists like Edouard Manet, will be permitted, but not “German-style” barbecues with mobile cookout gear.

This year, Paris plans to spend $197 million, or roughly $100 per inhabitant, to tend its parks, woods, 20 cemeteries, 486,000 trees, the 1 million flower bulbs planted at Bagatelle garden and the rest of its greenery. But what it sorely needs, park officials say, is more space for sports and other pastimes popular with the 20th century French, such as skateboarding, roller hockey and rock climbing.

“The drama of Paris is that we don’t have places for all sorts of activities,” Pauly said. “Paris hasn’t been able to give itself enough fields for multiple use.”

Such enduring conservatism runs deep: This year, the Champ de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is to be restored, but Pauly’s crews will be simply recreating the garden and fountains laid out there for the 1889 Universal Exposition.


Meanwhile, city dwellers use the Paris parks as they see fit and sometimes against regulations. Although gates are supposed to shut at 10 p.m., some gardens are hangouts for drug addicts and youth gangs.

In the Bois de Boulogne, transvestite prostitutes from Brazil ply their trade. In northeastern Paris, at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, pit-bull owners congregate and hang their animals by the jaws from tree branches, hoping to give their pets an even more powerful bite.