In France, "You Don't Own Me" is a love song

When I (Em) was in Paris a few months ago, I couldn’t figure out why the bridge behind Notre Dame was covered in thousands of tiny padlocks (plus a few bike locks). They weren’t there when Lo and I visited back in 2004. A quick bit of Googling (thanks to “wee-fee,” as the French call wifi) and I learned that they were “love locks” — a fairly recent tradition wherein couples celebrate their love (and, perhaps, hope to ensure its survival) by affixing a padlock to a romantic bridge and tossing the key into the river below. They might also attach a ribbon to the padlock, or simply adorn it with their initials. When I was there, enterprising young salespeople were selling new padlocks at each end of the bridge in case you were moved to do the same.

If it all sounds a bit romcom to you, a bit not-exactly-Parisian, then you’d be right. Padlocks have started appearing on bridges across the world, from Florence to Toronto to Utah to the Brooklyn Bridge — and many cities have been removing them as fast as they can (though not nearly as fast as cheesy tourists replace them, it should be noted). City officials claim that the locks raise problems of architectural integrity. A.k.a. We don’t really like foreigners attaching themselves to our landmarks. (Which is perhaps understandable when you learn that tourists who don’t have a padlock handy will often resort to attaching those souvenir plastic bag tags instead — you’re supposed to take that plastic crap home with you, duh, and just leave your dollars behind.)

But my favorite argument for why tourists shouldn’t attach padlocks to Parisian bridges was made recently in The New York Times. The Paris-based writer says:

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… 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.

In other words, the idea that everlasting love that can be guaranteed by tossing away a key in the city of love is a Disney fantasy. For the record, the writer is not talking about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. No, she means the kind of relationship that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir shared — they never married, they had copious, sanctioned affairs, and they considered jealousy “bourgeois and banal.” If they were alive today, we have a feeling they’d say the same thing about love padlocks.


Photo credit: Travels with Two