By: Elizabeth Brunazzi

Imagine yourself at Paris Beach. It’s not a lap of a theme park or a hotel strip in Las Vegas. And it’s not a website. It’s a temporary, artificial beach in central Paris stretching about two miles along the Right Bank of the Seine River from the Quai du Louvre to the Quai Henri 1V, aka “Georges Pompidou Way.” An annual event since 2002, the beach lasts a month, July-August, when millions of Parisians clog the roads and head out of the city for non-artificial beaches on the Mediterranean or Atlantic coasts.

To create the gigantic stage set that is “Paris Plages,” 2,000 tons of sand are loaded on a convoy of barges and pushed along the Seine to the beach site, hundreds of snappy, Deauville style blue and white striped beach chairs, umbrellas and matching cabanas are offloaded, and thirty?foot potted palms are placed along the promenade.

You can take a stroll on the boardwalk (the plage de bois or “wooden beach”), or loll on your beach towel on either sand or grass, courtesy of the city of Paris, but most sunbathers pay a small fee for chairs and umbrellas. You can change into your suit in a cabana just like on a real beach somewhere in France, Saint Malo, Biarritz or Saint-Tropez, and go swimming in the pool especially installed for the occasion.

This year you can enjoy a fencing studio or a fitness center, play tabletop soccer (“baby-foot” in French), ping pong, or minigolf on a course laid out in an artificial marsh and forest in front of the Town Hall, hang out at the dance hall cafe with its blue canopy and strings of lanterns, check out the offerings at two ice cream parlors, or sample freshly made crepes. No hot dogs on this boardwalk.

Many would call this an entertainment, a divertissement as the French would put it. But recreation at Paris Plage doesn’t exclude serious, humanitarian business. The 2007 edition of Paris Plages was dedicated to Franco-Colombian presidential candidate and political prisoner in Colombia Ingrid Betancourt. Posters of her face were placed all along the beach front. In the summer of 2008 Ingrid Betancourt is now free, to the joy of France and the international community.

The theme of this year’s installation is France’s 2008 tenure as president of the European Union, celebrated at the opening of Paris Plages this year with a Gargantuan picnic, gigantic paper tablecloths and picnicking kits furnished free to the public by the department store chain Monoprix, and a concert featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The “Ode to Joy” is the official hymn of the European Union.

Who uses this beach? Tourists, grumble Parisians. Seven years ago they were saying it would be a short?lived, colossally expensive affair. But this dandy beat?the?heat strategy by Paris’s army of planners and urban landscape designers during the lucrative summer months in mostly unairconditioned Paris continues to attract three million visitors per year and has now been imitated in Brussels, Berlin, Budapest, Amsterdam, Munich and Rome. Another version is in the planning stages in Madrid.

Youngsters run gleefully beneath towering “sea mist” machines like children enjoying a romp through lawn sprinklers. It’s a cloudy, blustery day, and the potted palms on the boardwalk wave back and forth, and the sand beach is somewhat deserted but there are plenty of strollers and runners on the promenade. The staff is in place. The changing cabanas are ready with fresh towels at the pool. To the French this temporary, artificial beach is, well, French. You go to the beach on cloudy days, too. Some people prefer the beach on a misty day.

So Paris Beach is weathering climatic and political change in France very well. For the summer of ’07 another site opened on the northeastern frontier of Paris at la Villette. The specialties there are kayaking, sailboating, rowing and paddle boats. Especially popular, the Villette site and offerings there continue to expand, and “Paris Plage” continues to grow way past the historic center of the city and tourist territory. It’s going to the people’s neighborhoods.

Marie-Antoinette may have said, “Let them eat cake,” and headed for her make-believe farm dressed as a shepherdess to tend her real sheep. When heat waves loom, the city of Paris says, let ’em have an artificial beach. But, hey, they like it. It’s so French. I think I’ll head over and play some Baby-Foot.