Parisians can’t remember when it all began. At first, the appearance of the locks was nearly imperceptible. Soon, though, they felt like a statement. On some of the city’s most iconic bridges, thousands of visitors left small padlocks, neatly attached to the metal railings.
Once discreet, doing their deed at night, visitors soon acted in broad daylight, in pairs, photographing each other in front of their locks, and videotaping the throwing of the keys into the Seine. The Paris town hall expressed concern: what about the architectural integrity of the Parisian landscape? One night about two years ago, someone cut through the wires and removed all the locks on one of the bridges. But in just a few months, locks of all sizes and colors reappeared, more conspicuous than ever.
For couples visiting from all over the world, these locks were symbols of their everlasting love. Indeed, in other cities the locks have also caught on as an expression of passion — in Seoul, Budapest, Rome and Tokyo.
Living in one of the world’s most visited cities, with 27 million visitors a year, and supposedly the world’s capital of romance, Parisians should have guessed from the beginning that this strange ritual had to do with the fantasy of everlasting love. Yet, instead of sharing the naïve joy of the world’s Romeos and Juliets, some Parisians have felt increasingly irritated. Walking on those bridges has become almost insufferable for them. The pain doesn’t come only from the fact that some bridges, like Pont de l’Archevêché and Pont des Arts, now feel as if they could collapse under the weight of tourists’ undying love but also from the idea that a lock could represent love. Such an idea is abhorrent to many French people.
“The fools! They haven’t understood a thing about love, have they?” was the conclusion recently of a 23-year-old waiter at Panis, a cafe on the Left Bank with a view over Notre-Dame. At the heart of love à la française lies the idea of freedom. To love truly is to want the other free, and this includes the freedom to walk away. Love is not about possession or property. Love is no prison where two people are each other’s slaves. Love is not a commodity, either. Love is not capitalist, it is revolutionary. If anything, true love shows you the way to selflessness.
To understand love in the French style, you need to go back to the 16th century and the emergence of the libertines. If today the word means “dissolute person,” in France it has also retained its 16th-century flavor, carrying with it an air of much-envied audacity and liberty. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir famously never married and never lived together and, although a couple in the absolute sense of the term, they had lasting and meaningful relationships with strings of brilliant minds and pretty faces. They deemed jealousy bourgeois and banal.
You’re reading this and you’re thinking: “You mean, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn?!” The man we call D.S.K. has certainly tarnished the French concept of love. His lifestyle belongs to the sordid rather than the realm of love as liberty. I suggest we all forget about D.S.K.
In his recent book, “In Praise of Love,” the French philosopher Alain Badiou reminds us that love implies constant risk. There is no safe, everlasting love. The idea that you can lock two people’s love once and for all, and toss the key, is a puerile fantasy. For Mr. Badiou, love is inherently hazardous, always on the brink of failure and above all vulnerable. Embrace its fragility, wish your beloved to be free and you might just, only just, have a chance to retain his or her undying gratitude, and love. But don’t ever dream of locks and throwing keys overboard, especially not in Paris.
Agnès C. Poirier is a writer and political analyst based in Paris and London.