July 14, 2024

Gold-leafed books with engravings, 200-year-old leather-bound books, books so rare and precious they are wrapped carefully in cellophane before being nestled into place inside an antique wooden box set on the Seine’s stony shoulder for students, intellectuals, power brokers and tourists to browse.

For centuries, the wooden bookstalls have been a fixture in the heart of Paris, and so when the city’s police, citing security concerns, ordered them closed during this summer’s Olympic Games, an uproar ensued. Now President Emmanuel Macron has stepped in.

In a decision that resounded across the city this week, Mr. Maron deemed the booksellers “a living heritage of the capital” and said they could stay.

The relief was obvious, and not only among the bouquinistes, who had threatened legal action and barricades before their stalls, but also among cultured, romantic and intellectual Parisians, some of whom signed an opinion column defending the booksellers in Le Monde last August. It began with a citation from Albert Camus: “Everything that degrades culture shortens the paths that lead to servitude.”

“The Seine, our main river, flows in between rows of books,” said Alexandre Jardin, a French writer who was among those who signed the column. “To think the bouquinistes are just booksellers is to understand nothing. They speak to the very identity of Paris and its profound ties to literature. Paris is a city born from the dreams of writers.”

The decision to remove a living symbol of Paris from the country’s geographic heart and soul just as France was welcoming the entire world for the Olympic Games was so absurd that it clearly stemmed from bureaucrats — “the enemies of poetry,” Mr. Jardin said. It was only natural, he said, that Mr. Macron had set things right, he said.

Peddlers have been selling secondhand books from wooden carts and tables along the river since at least the 17th century. In 1859, Napoleon III authorized the bookstalls, which were in peril of being removed despite their popularity with the city’s writers and intellectuals, making them permanent.

Since then, the roughly 230 open-air booksellers have created what is considered to be the largest open-air book market in Europe, stuffing their finds into more than 930 boxes along some two miles of the Seine.

The dark green stalls, packed with literary treasures often centuries old themselves, have become a symbol of two favorite Parisian pastimes: “flâner,” or strolling with no particular objective, and reading. They are run by money-indifferent philosophers, treasure hunters and purveyors of literary taste, a great power in a country where many politicians strive not only to reach office, but also to publish a book as a mark of their intellectual mettle.

“The bouquinistes have existed only in Paris — outdoors, open every day of the week, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 — for 450 years. There’s no other city that could pretend to have this,” said Jérôme Callais, the president of the Cultural Association of Bouquinistes and himself a bookseller who counts among his past customers Steven Spielberg; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former Brazilian president; and a handful of French presidents, including Jacques Chirac and, if you must know, François Hollande. (Mr. Callais was not a fan.)

The Paris police notified the bouquinistes last summer that about 570 of their boxes would have to be moved because of the Games and, more specifically, its opening ceremony, which is set to unfurl along the Seine in a flotilla of boats. The boxes were deemed a security risk.

Petitions were swiftly launched and cluttered with names. The bouquinistes rallied their troops and their lawyers, vowing to fight in the courts and on the streets. Over months, they met with representatives of the police and City Hall, but no concession was acceptable to them: Moving the centuries-old boxes would spell their very destruction, they said.

Last October, Sylvie Mathias was by the stall she had tended to for more than 20 years along the Quai des Grands-Augustins when she saw Mr. Macron pass by on foot, a cellphone pressed to his ear, security agents trailing behind. He had just returned from the funeral for a teacher who had been stabbed to death by a radicalized former student in the northern city of Arras.

Ms. Mathias caught up to the president and asked him directly: Would he remove their boxes?

“No. We won’t take away your boxes,” he responded with a smile. “And you will participate in the ceremony in one manner or another.”

Four months later, the bouquinistes have called off their lawyers and are planning a victory celebration — but not until the fall, after the Olympic Games are over, Mr. Callais said.

Since the idea for the opening ceremony was announced, the number of ticketed spectators that will be allowed to attend has been repeatedly reduced because of security concerns.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, pegged it at around 300,000 people last month, with 100,000 spectators seated on a lower level bank, close to the water, and an additional 200,000 seated on a higher bank, near where the bouquiniste boxes are. The president’s announcement is likely to affect that number.

Even with their win, many bouquinistes remained deeply ambivalent about whether they would run their stalls during the Games. Visions of overcrowded subway cars and jammed restaurants have many Parisians declaring their intentions to flee the city.

“I’m not sure yet. It’s a beautiful idea on paper, but I’m not sure how it will all work,” said Ms. Mathias, 61, standing up from a folding wooden chair set between her row of boxes and the next, so she had a clear view of the Seine’s rushing waters. “If there are too many people, it won’t be possible to stay open.”

Mr. Callais said the whole fight had left a bad taste in his mouth, but the president’s announcement had lightened his mood.

“I might be there,” he said. “We will see.”