Huddled on one of the Seine’s quaysides, Paris’ famed open air booksellers were in a mutinous mood.
Nearby, four of their rickety green book stalls were being dismantled on Friday night. It was a dry run for a much larger operation next summer, when hundreds more will have to be temporarily vacated to ensure the security of the Olympic Games opening ceremony which will take place on the river.
“Don’t give them the keys! Let them figure it out,” shouted Francis Robert, a 69-year-old bouquiniste with wiry grey hair. He was one of several booksellers who had gathered to watch workmen box up engravings and books in a floodlit parade of bubble wrap, cranes and removal trucks.
One bookseller had agreed to have his stand dismantled and then put back up for the test, but he was making life too easy by helping the removal squad open it up, the other bouquinistes complained.
Nearly four months after police warned of the evictions, the backlash has cast a shadow on preparations for the event, the first summer games Paris will host in 100 years.
Bouquinistes’ resistance has struck a chord with admirers of picture-postcard Paris.
“I was thinking I need to take my daughter here before they disappear next summer,” said Nadège, a resident of Bordeaux who was browsing for second-hand paperbacks by Notre-Dame cathedral earlier in the week, shaking her head in sympathy at the “madness” of the Olympics order.
“I love books. And this is Paris for me,” she said.
As next July’s games draw closer it is not clear how organisers will resolve the issue — the police have ordered the removal but city hall has been tasked with carrying it out.
The Paris mayor’s office on Saturday said the tests successfully showed that the boxes could be dismantled quickly and safely, while “respecting their historical value and their content”. City officials will meet the booksellers again in the coming weeks.
Pierre Rabadan, the deputy mayor of Paris in charge of sports, said some of the blowback had gone too far, given the removal is only meant to last two weeks.
“At one point, some people even said the city wanted to eliminate the bouquinistes. That has never been the case. They are among the crown jewels of Paris,” Rabadan said.
The mayor’s office and security officials aim to ensure the opening ceremony parade of 150 boats on the Seine carrying 10,000 athletes goes off without a glitch.
Some 450,000 people are expected to crowd out various enclosures by the quays. The police argue that the bouquinistes’ boxes would block the view and could cause people to jostle dangerously around them.
The boxes would also have to be checked by bomb squads, a vast and complex operation that would suck up extra resources, police say.
“It’s never been done before,” Rabadan said of the riverside Olympics show. “That’s the first goal here and if for security reasons we can’t then use the upper quayside, it makes no sense.”
City officials want to assess how many of the roughly 600 boxes targeted by the eviction notice — out of a total of 900 — truly need to go, in order to minimise disruptions as much as possible, Rabadan added.
To sweeten the offer the city has pledged that damaged boxes would be repaired or replaced for free. Booksellers would also get a temporary spot elsewhere in downtown Paris, and they would have a starring role in the opening ceremony.
But the entreaties have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Many booksellers argue their presence has never been a problem before, including when crowds assemble for the Tour de France cycling race.
“I’ll chain myself to my boxes,” said Alain Huchet, who’s been selling cookery books and wine guides for 23 years on a stretch of the Seine opposite the Louvre. “They’re going to mess them up . . . all this for four hours when all these fools are going to watch the Olympics show.”
Patrick Clastres, a sports historian at the university of Lausanne, said that politicians needed to present a convincing narrative about the benefits of the games for residents and tradespeople, given that Paris is already the most visited city in the world.
Popular support for the games the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris has dwindled to 56 per cent, an Odoxa poll in November showed.
“The booksellers issue is a bit revealing of a meta-organisation not really orchestrated from the ground up with the public and those who make up the city’s daily life,” Clastres said.
Some of the bouquinistes said they would miss out on the profitmaking opportunity of the games, contrasting it with the recent Rugby World Cup that had boosted visitors.
There is a deeper fear of what the upheaval might bring — including a lack of enthusiasm for the new boxes promised by city hall.
The spots are usually provided for free by city hall, while the stalls belong to the booksellers themselves. While the stands have been updated since the deep green look was standardised in 1891, many are decades old.
“Tourists would be pretty disappointed if all the stalls were uniform,” said Jérôme Callais, the head of a bouquinistes association, adding the stands were part of the “poetry” of Paris that attracted painters and filmmakers.
Over the years, some booksellers have resorted to selling Eiffel Tower magnets and tote bags to supplement their incomes. But many still have a following among clients searching for rare books in a trade under threat as many small time bookstores struggle, Callais added. His speciality includes speleology tomes.
Like most of his fellow bouquinistes, Callais was not sure what kind of compromise would be feasible. Instead, “we really hope we’ll win”, he said.
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