PARIS -- It is spring, and this is Paris, City of Light. Almost every week brings another major strike -- air controllers, train engineers, medical interns. Unemployment holds steady at over 12 percent. Rain has fallen four of the past five days. Is any relief in sight?
Beginning next week, in half of the city's 413 public parks and gardens, you can for the first time legally sit on the grass. This is not a small change. For the past several centuries, grass in most Parisian parks has been forbidden to dogs, forbidden to people, forbidden for almost anything other than being looked at.
The new policy is due to Francoise de Panafieu, the assistant mayor in charge of parks and gardens, and to her having taken a trip to London.
"The English were on the grass, living in their park, and the lawns weren't destroyed," she says, reporting a discovery seemingly as wondrous as the sighting of a new continent. "The people respected the park and took care of it." She wondered if the French could be as sensitive.
As an experiment, she instructed guards in three parks -- the Square Saint Lambert, Parc de Belleville and Parc Andre Citroen to allow anyone wandering onto the grass to stay.
After a year of observations, de Panafieu and her colleagues concluded that the grass could survive. Thus, the liberation of the lawns.
So signs warning of "Forbidden Grass" will be replaced by two friendlier-looking markers, one with a smiley face that authorizes walking on the lawn, and the other -- with a sleepy face sprinkled by a watering can -- announcing that the grass is in repose.
The policy does not apply to city's three best-known parks: the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Palais-Royal, overseen by the Ministry of Culture, and the Jardin du Luxembourg, which belongs to the French Senate.
Grass in the Tuileries and the Palais-Royal, the Culture Ministry says, will remain off-limits; the Luxembourg garden's year-old policy of tolerance for those on the grass will probably continue.
A French garden is always a highly organized affair, a world of topiary boxwoods, fountains, trees in precisely aligned rows, flower beds in which each blossom has a considered place, and manicured lawns bisected by symmetrical paths. It is a style in which nothing is left to chance.
Andre Le Notre, landscaper to kings, perfected it in the 17th century, when aristocrats strolled the walkways of private gardens to admire the beauty of nature and eye the other fashions on parade.
By the 18th century, a few parks were opened to the public. The Tuileries became a popular place for concerts, carnivals and fireworks -- but with a strict code of conduct.
You did not run, because it would kick up dust. You most certainly did not venture on to the verdure, because grass was part of the designed decor, just like flower beds and fountains.
Lawns were edged with 6-inch-high wrought iron railings, a symbolic high fence. Signs were erected that bluntly decreed, "Grass Forbidden." Guardians insured that no one stepped onto the grass.
If you dared place a foot on the turf -- literally, even one foot -- a guard would appear and madly blow a whistle and wave his fingers "no, no, no" like a metronome. You protested only at the risk of being fined.
For more than a century, those have been the rules.
"The French look to their gardens as window displays," de Pan- afieu says. "Something to admire, not to use."
A few exceptions
A very few exceptions have been allowed. When tenor Luciano (( Pavarotti performed a few years ago at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, people could sit on the grass of the Champ de Mars.
People could also wander onto a few public lawns for the annual fireworks display on Bastille Day, every July 14. Otherwise, the regulations have been strictly enforced.
In the Bois de Boulogne, the vast forest on the western edge of the city, a foot-high wire fence cordons off patches of grass as if they were priceless tapestries.
Adding to reputation
The "Keep Off the Grass" approach to nature helps support Parisians' reputation for crankiness.
"He shouted, 'Get off! Fast! Fast!' " reported Janine McCormick, a teacher from Adelaide, Australia, a moment after being chased off the grass in the park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. "You know, in Australia, we teach class sometimes out on the lawn. The kids love to go out and sit on the grass."
It's not only foreigners who find the rules trying. During the riots of May 1968, students chanted, "It is forbidden to forbid," as they trampled the lawns.
"I remember when I was little boy, if we put our feet on the edge, the guardian would yell at us," says Michel Baudon, a retired television repairman, sitting on a bench in the Champ de Mars. "We were all in the same boat. What was forbidden was forbidden, and we didn't go farther."
"But now you see extremes in the other direction -- young men with naked torsos playing soccer, young women barely clothed sunning themselves. It's important to respect the beauty of a garden, not just make it your own."
'Breeze of liberty'
De Panafieu's "open grass" policy has so far been welcomed by nearly everyone. Le Figaro declared it a "breeze of liberty." But de Panafieu cautions that dogs, ball games and other such destructive activities will still be forbidden. At least until the guardians go home for dinner.
After centuries of being told "Keep Off!" Parisians may need some time to adjust. The press has launched a campaign called "Learning to Live With Your Gardens," explaining the new rules and encouraging people to give grass a try.
"Life in the city is becoming more and more stressful," de Panafieu says. "Parks should be a convivial place where one can relax and escape from the pressures of everyday life."
Pub Date: 5/01/97