|The zouave as he looks in January 2013|
(photo file from an earlier year)
Paris is built on a river. But most of you know that. Maybe you've even taken a bâteau-mouche cruise along the banks of Seine.
If you have, you will have seen this statue. It’s a survivor from a previous bridge, one which proved too narrow for modern traffic and also was starting to sink a bit, which can’t be good if you’re a bridge. (The French use the word “tassement”, which is what people do when they grow older... and subsequently shorter.) So from 1970 to 1974 the old bridge was taken down and a new one put up.
There’s one major difference between the two bridges though. The old classic one had two piers, and there was a statue on both sides of both piers, for a total of four. The new resolutely modern bridge has only one pier (on the Right Bank) and so it was decided not to put the statues back up.
Except for the zouave. Because the people of Paris, and the Port Authorities as well, use him to measure the height of the Seine. When the zouave soaks his weary feet in the water, the Seine is officially in flood status and the expressways along the river are closed to traffic*. That happens several times a year, especially in the spring when April showers bring May flowers and snow in the mountains far upstream melts. When the water gets up to the zouave’s thighs, the river is no longer navigable because boats can’t pass under the bridges of Paris.
|Flood mark near Orsay Museum|
Add to this the fact that when the new Alma bridge was built and the statue put back in place in 1974, the zouave was mounted higher up than before, so even more attention is now paid when parts of him disappear underwater.
But what is a zouave? It’s the term for a French soldier from the North African infantry, one of France’s most decorated regiments. These troops fought especially valiantly in the Crimean War, and specifically at the Battle of the Alma River near Sebastopol in 1854, which is the year this bridge was built. The zouave depicted on the bridge in Paris is wearing the traditional uniform: a fez, a wide sash, waistcoat and jacket, and the especially distinctive “puffy pants”. He stands with left hand sassily on hip and the other holding his rifle at the ready. A tall man of 5.2 m (17 ft), he’s a bit hefty, weighing in at 8 tonnes (17,637 lbs).
Meanwhile, the zouave with the wet feet just stares off into the distance, listening for cannon fire.
For a video of the 1910 Paris floods, click on: