Vive la roller blade!

Susan Hack reports on Paris' new Friday night rite: roller blading.


Susan Hack
January 6, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

It's Friday night in Paris, and the cold drizzle has become a driving winter rain, but that hasn't dampened the spirits of the skaters clumping up the Metro stairs or gliding along the boulevards converging in the Place d'Italie. The Etoile Charles de Gaulle with the Arc de Triomphe may be a tourist icon, but it's this cobbled traffic circle, in the 13th Arrondisement, that has become a Friday night beacon for thousands of roller-blading Parisians. Under the glare of street lamps and the eyes of a motorcycle-mounted police escort, the group soon evolves into a crowd, a mob, a wobbling horde. Just after 10 o'clock, three sharp whistles signal our departure, and we're off on a three-hour roller tour of the French capital, tentatively negotiating rough paving stones before whizzing down the rain-slicked asphalt of the Avenue des Gobelins. I notice with some alarm that hardly anyone is wearing a helmet. An ambulance brings up the rear.

The high-spirited pack comprises all the Parisien tribes: teenagers from the banlieues sporting baggy jeans and sweat shirts, middle-aged yuppies kitted out in whole catalogs of expensive sports gear (including sophisticated portable drinking systems, but few helmets) and muscled guys from the Marais wearing earrings, tight shorts and not much else at all. There are families from nearby Chinatown, cigarette-smoking philosophy students and a whole cast of costumed characters who seem to have escaped from some alternative Disney parade: the guy with the Batman cape and mask, the guy with the kilt and bagpipes, the girl with the illuminated cross and skull headband and the guy with the Goofy ears and the portable fanny stereo belting out "I Will Survive."

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I haven't noticed it before tonight, but the Avenue des Gobelins runs downhill, and as we gain momentum I begin to wonder whether I will survive "Le Friday Night Fever," as these weekly three-hour roller marathons are known. A flier distributed by yellow-shirted guides advises novices like me not to participate unless braking skills are up to par. A childhood ice skater, I've been leisurely blading up and down the quays along the Seine in daylight, practicing my stops by grabbing onto 19th century wrought-iron lamp posts. Now at 20 miles per hour I'm frantically trying not to clip anyone with my wheels. Keeping my eyes down, looking out for warped pavement and broken glass, I narrowly avoid slamming into a parked car.

A blue-uniformed roller cop packing a pistol, handcuffs and a bottle of Evian water on his belt appears at my elbow, telling me to lean forward more and bend my knees. I feel an immediate bond, since, like me, he's wearing knee pads, elbow pads and a helmet; patiently, he demonstrates the most efficient technique for "le stop," dragging one skate perpendicular behind the other. I want to thank him for the tip, but my roller savior sprints off to tell some skaters ahead of us to get off the sidewalk, "S'il vous plait!" My mouth falls open, not because I'm panting with effort, but at the irony of a French cop politely ordering citizens to take to the streets and block traffic.

While the government has pledged to create 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) of Paris bike paths by 2001, roller blades have taken the city by storm at the cusp of the millennium. The size of the Friday rallies has grown from 500 to 5,000 in the last 18 months, and the numbers keep getting bigger, even with the onset of winter. The Prefecture de Police, as well as the officials of the 13th Arrondisement, have enthusiastically supported the rallies despite complaints from taxi drivers who say the resulting traffic hampers business.

The roller blade may be an '80s American invention (the first roller
skate was invented in the 17th century by an eccentric Belgian, Joseph
Merlin), but in Paris the sport has evolved into an amalgam of recreation and public demonstration, all subject to much philosophical analysis. As the roller crowds grow larger,
legislators have been debating whether "les rollers" should be officially
defined as a pedestrian means of locomotion (under article 217 of the Code
Civil), as a means of transport (article 1384) or as something
entirely new. Editorialists, meanwhile, have been discussing the pros and
cons of in-line transportation. "It's fast, silent and non-polluting!"
endorsed the pro-environment Le Figaro.

"Le roller is not only the pleasure of skating together, but a
philosophy and a social phenomenon," sums up Boris Belohlavek, a 27-year-old
computer engineer and the president of Pari-Roller, the group that
runs the Friday rallies and maintains a Web site devoted to roller blade
events. "In Paris more than other places, people
feel a need to take to the streets as an expression of freedom," he tells
me. "They also want to relax after a hard week of work and commuting, to
get out of their offices and especially out of their cars. People from
many walks of life can find themselves together in an atmosphere of
conviviality. That's the ambience we're trying to preserve." Not content
to let all this feel-good energy go to waste, Belohlavek and his associates
recently organized a roller telethon for muscular dystrophy and an AIDS
awareness night, in which hundreds of skater-activists distributed condoms.

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"French society has become fragmented, with a certain feeling of
crisis and malaise, and people feel a need to find their way out of their
sense of dissatisfaction and isolation," suggests sociologist Gerard Mermet
when I ask him to explain the roller mob mentality. Mermet links the
continuing popularity of the roller rallies to France's World Cup victory
last June, when more than a million people turned out on the Champs Élysées to
joyfully celebrate a French triumph rather than the usual protest sob story
of job cuts, union strikes and other economic woes. "French people are
longing to reunite, to exist as a single group," Mermet continues. "Yet
roller blading also enables people from different backgrounds to break free
from the dominant social mold. Young people want to be modern and break
with tradition, executives want to feel more dynamic than their colleagues,
parents want to show their children they can adapt with age and the police
want to lessen their image of repression."

Just a few years ago, roller blades were a rare sight in Paris; skaters,
mainly youngsters, preferred the traditional, less expensive four-wheel
"quad" variety. It took the month-long transportation strike in December
1995 to crack the market, as hundreds of thousands of grown-up commuters
were forced to explore alternative ways of getting to work. In 1997, 1.5
million pairs of roller blades flew off the shelves at Paris stores. The
Friday night rallies, started by a small group of friends, grew from a few
dozen participants in 1994 to more than 5,000 last June. The numbers
inspired the prefecture to create the world's first roller blade national
police unit.

"It's the French mentality to control things rather than forbid them,"
says Gerard Chauvet, the cheerful commandant in charge of the eight-man
roller brigade. Chauvet recruited a French
Olympic speed-skating champion to coach the roller cops, whose skills
include blading up and down flights of Metro stairs and making arrests on
wheels. On Friday night the unit divides into two-man teams to
escort the in-line masses, interacting with skaters, irritated
automobilistes and the occasional skateboard anarchist while trying to
prevent accidents. The officers spend the rest of the week patrolling the
capital, dispensing skating tips and catching pickpockets and other
roller delinquents.

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"I can really say I'm at harmony in my work," smiles 36-year-old
Brigadier Pascal Fubini, a former beat cop who now spends eight hours a day
on his Rossignol skates, the nifty sneaker kind with detachable in-line
wheels, which enables him to also pursue people on foot. "I'd like to do
this until I'm 60, if my knees don't give out," he laughs. Listening to
him talk about roller blading with his 8- and 14-year-old sons on the
weekend, I reflect that I've rarely met a cop who seems to be having so much fun
combining work and pleasure.

Whether you're chasing criminals, preventing accidents or taking in
the sights, the Friday night skates are a sublime way of getting around
the world's most beautiful city. After the first 15 minutes of terror,
I'm gliding and slaloming with the pack, the wind in my face, the rush
strangely akin to that of skiing. The route changes weekly, but tonight
we'll do a 15-mile loop past Notre Dame, Montmartre, Pigalle and the
Place Bastille, winding up back at the Place d'Italie shortly before 1 a.m.,
in the nick of time to catch the last Metro. Hearing that the organizers
get monthly permission from the police to swoosh down the (cobbled)
Champs Élysées, I vow to make Friday night a regular roller date.

We stop for 10 minutes at the foot of the Montparnasse tower to allow
the mile-long crowd to bunch up again, making it easier for the
walkie-talkie linked police and yellow-T-shirted Pari-Roller volunteers to
block intersections and clear away vehicular traffic. While many skaters
take the opportunity to sip mineral water from plastic bottles, even more
are lighting up cigarettes. No head protection, smoke-clogged lungs: It's
the Gallic concept of health and fitness.

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We're off again into the euphoric night, speeding down the Boulevard
St. Germain, taking a hard left onto the Boulevard St. Michel. Crossing
cobbled bridges to the Right Bank of the Seine, our Tour de France-style
turn onto the Rue de Rivoli inspires cheers and whoops from the roller
crowd. With Christmas lights sparkling in store windows and the rain
glittering off the pavement like an impressionist painting, a spontaneous
shout -- "On n'est pas fatigue!" (We are not tired!) -- rises into the damp air.
Stunned tourists emerging from late-night brasseries snap our picture,
while on the upper floors of Haussmann-era buildings, bemused weekend
party-goers wander out of lighted rooms onto rain-soaked balconies to wave
and chant with us. It occurs to me that, coming from so many parts of
Paris and so many different walks of life, we could just as well be waving
the tricolor and shouting, "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!" The French
spirit thrives on these in-line wheels, on the biggest moving block party
in town.


Susan Hack

Susan Hack is a writer who lives in Paris.

MORE FROM Susan Hack

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