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November 2000 - Bonne Anniversaire, le Metro!

The Paris Métropolitain (metro) celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Initially overshadowed by millenium celebrations, events inspired by its creation are now coming into their own. The metro is a source of great pride for the French capital, and is without a doubt the most reliable means of transport in the city.

The metro was developed by Fulgence Bienvenüe, a Breton engineer who oversaw the construction of the first 91 km (56 miles) over a period of 15 years. In July 1900, the first metro line (Line 1 today) was opened for public use. Today, there are 14 interlacing lines that connect the most remote areas of the city and nearby suburbs with each other and with the city center.

Each metro line functions as a separate entity and retains its own identity. The director of each line has her/his picture on a poster in the stations, with information about how to contact management to express opinions, ask questions and report problems specific to the line. Individual lines can go on strike, and personnel tell passengers via the public address system how many trains can be expected to pass, how much of a delay can be expected, and to choose connecting lines or other means of transport due to serious reductions or complete halts in service. During the holidays, one can expect to encounter greetings such as "Line 2 extends to you its best wishes for a happy holiday season" (in French of course) posted at the turnstiles.

Paris is celebrating the centennial of the Métropolitain with a year-long series of activities and remodeling projects. Nine stations have been or are being remodeled to highlight different themes relevant to Paris public transportation, the city of Paris and the world. The Tuileries station (located on line 1) has huge collages of black and white and color photographs depicting events from each decade since 1900. There are also billboards demonstrating different types of tiles used to cover station walls and the wide variety of signs used throughout the years.

The other eight stations have also been assigned specific themes. At the Saint-Germain-des-Près station, all forms of creativity are represented as a tribute to the activities that abound in the quarter above ground. St. Germain has been a literary center for centuries, a center for music (particularly jazz) since the World War II era, and is now also home to many fashion boutiques. Other remodeled stations include Bonne Nouvelle (cinema), Carrefour Pleyel (music) and Montparnasse-Bienvenüe (creation of the metro). At the Bercy station, a short silent film recounts the history of the metro from the groundbreaking for line 1 to the futuristic stations conceived for line 14.

On July 19, the RATP (la Régie Autonome du Transport Parisien), the organization responsible for the operation of the metro system, held a party celebrating the theme "Le métro est né un 19 vous?" (The metro was born on July 19...and you?"). Everyone born on July 19th of any year was invited. One simply needed to contact the RATP specifying name, address and supplying proof of date of birth. In return, the participant received the details of the location of the party. Approximately 2000 people attended, participating in disco dancing, painting an enormous fresco, and contributing to the assembly of a "time tree" by donating objects representative of the 20th century. At around 10 PM, radio personality Karen Cheryl of Europe 1, also born on July 19, made an appearance and cut a huge birthday cake. The festivities began at 8 P.M. and continued until 1 A.M.

An exhibition called "Le Siecle Métro" also opened on July 19 at the Maison de la RATP. It depicts the transformation of the metro, Paris and Parisians over the last century. It will be open through January 1, 2001.

Technical and esthetic improvements are constantly being made to the system. Line 14 boasts the most modern technology of metro systems around the world, with the trains completely enclosed so that there is no danger of passengers falling or jumping onto the tracks. The trains of Lines 1 and 14 are sleek and modern. The decor of several stations are tributes to art and interior design. Some of the most interesting are Arts and Métiers (line 11), Concorde (line 12), Bastille (line 1) and Liège (line 13). Musicians audition for the RATP to obtain permission to perform at entrances to the quays or in connecting tunnels. Poetry graces the walls of stations and train cars, and a contest for new poems written by the public was conducted in October.

The metro even has its own newspaper. Called "A Nous Paris", it is a trendy, urban weekly that covers the latest in film, music, restaurants and bars. Features include "Un Village/Un Quartier", focusing on a specific neighborhood in Paris each week, and a full page dedicated to the metro.

Vestiges of history are always being uncovered as the metro is expanded. Remains of the original Bastille fortress can be seen on line 5. A part of the 17th century arches near the Pont au Change, a bridge crossing the Seine, form the ceiling of the tunnel just beyond one end of the quay at Châtelet (line 1). And the depths (literally) to which the RATP tunneled to enlarge the system are evident at the stations Cité (line 4) and Abbesses (line 12).

A hundred years after its founding, the metro is an inextricable part of the history and culture of the city of Paris, as well as a practical means of getting people from one point to another. For visitors, at least one metro ride to experience the system is a "must". And for the truly inspired, a tour of selected stations will be very rewarding.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2000