As the Olympics approach, Parisians ask: Should we skip town?  Game organizers work to win their hearts

As the Olympics approach, Parisians ask: Should we skip town? Game organizers work to win their hearts

PARIS (AP) – Before Paris Olympics opening up and subverting the usual rhythms of the French capital, pensioner Pierre Schapira plans to rent a car and leave the city.

But with Intensive Olympic security measures and the traffic disruptions it will cause, will this be possible? For his answer, Schapira went straight to the top — putting the question this week to Police Chief Laurent Nunez himself.

As he has already done at other town hall meetings, he did again at this meeting and will do more in the future, Nunez explained ever so patiently that Parisians will have to adapt to July 26-Aug. 11 extravaganzas but that he will not put his life and livelihood on hold.

“It will not stop you from entering or leaving Paris,” Nunez told an audience of about 200 people Thursday, including some watching via video link in an overflow room next door.

Holding the Games in the vibrant heart of such a compact city, rather than a purpose-built Olympic park on the outskirts like Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and other former hosts, would always trouble and disturb some Parisians, who can be hardy at the best of times. Nunez, Games organizers and City Hall officials are finding that out for themselves as they launch a concerted campaign to win Parisian hearts and minds and get people in the Olympic mood or, at the very least, prepared.

“We laugh about it … because we are spending almost all the evenings together,” Paris deputy mayor Pierre Rabadan said after he, Nunez and other organizers spent more than two hours in the meeting detailing preparations for the Games and answering the questions.

“This is quite a long time, but necessary,” Rabadan said. One of their aims, he added, is “to counter the words at this moment that it is better to leave, that being in Paris will be a disaster and what not. You get that at every Game and obviously we knew that because of our concept, we were going to hear it as well.”

Using mostly existing sports facilities as well as temporary ones that will be erected in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and at other iconic locations before being dismantled again, Paris aims to avoid legacy of waste AND great cost created by other Games and reduce the environmental impact of the mega-event. Organizers and the government hope the images of Olympians competing amid the architectural beauty of central Paris should make France shine.

But for the 2.1 million people who live within the city limits and the hundreds of thousands more who commute from the suburbs, the ramifications of the 10,500 athletes competing in their midst will be significant. Traffic restrictions, special permits for this and that, police checkpoints, road and metro station closures, millions of visitors from other countries in France and around the world. The list goes on.

“It’s a fantastic gamble, but it’s going to be pretty devastating for residents,” Schapira, 79, said after listening to Nunez and other speakers.

Jean-Pierre Rollin, who owns two souvenir shops nearby Notre Dame Cathedral on her island in river seine, wanted to know if tourists would be able to pass police checkpoints before and during the July 26 opening ceremony. He is being held in the river and a security cordon will be placed along both banks.

“If we don’t have customers, there’s no point in staying open,” Rollin told Nunez. The police chief admitted that the security of that day will make the movement more complicated.

Other questions also focused on the impacts of security measures. A man asked if there would still be fireworks for France’s national holiday on July 14 and was told there would be.

Only once, when a retailer said he had heard that daytime deliveries would be banned, did the police chief lose his temper, puffing out his cheeks.

It’s not true, he insisted.

“I can’t repeat things 50,000 times,” he said. “I don’t want to hear things like that.”

The work of preparing people clearly has a way to go. A government website, “Game Plan” offers advice. Among them: avoid Olympic crowds on public transport by cycling or walking.

Schapira, the retired dentist and former politician, came away from the meeting thinking “it’s really extraordinary to have the Games inside Paris”.

But he was nevertheless grateful to be in the Alps by then, on holiday.

“I’d rather watch them on TV,” he said. “I’m not enough of a sports fan to stay. I’m glad to be leaving.”


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