A heatwave in Paris puts a different perspective on climate change for our sweaty continent.
It was the hottest day in the history of Paris, and I wasn’t bothered and nor was anyone around me. Paris is a terrible place to be in a heatwave. The French have a weird attitude about everything, and especially climate control. They don’t like it. They fear it. They would rather give directions in English to a tourist than turn on an air conditioner or an electric fan. It’s not the energy consumption or the environmental impact that bothers them – it’s the draught.
The French are convinced they can survive anything – Nazi occupations, garlic shortages, the price of a beer in a cafe in the Place des Vosges (Є11) – except the sensation of moving air on their skin. Those chic Parisians in Hermès scarves and cravats? They aren’t being elegant, they’re running scared from a chill.
On the day the thermometer hit 42.6˚C, in July this year, the city went on an emergency footing. There aren’t many green spaces in Paris and it becomes one big urban heat island. The stone buildings gather up all the heat and hold it and layer it upon itself. When you walk down Boulevard Saint-Michel with the intention of throwing yourself into the boiling Seine, you’re breathing the evaporated sweat of at least 17 other people.
The city set up sprinkler systems in public places, but to use them you had to get to them, and that meant either walking or catching public transport, and a bus or the metro on a hot day in Paris is like climbing inside a wetsuit along with a hundred other people.
In a normal city populated by normal people, you could go to the movies. Paris has more cinemas than any other city in the world – over 350 – but about 349 of those don’t have air conditioning. I found one that did on
Rue Champollion, paid my sticky euros and staggered in to an old Jean-Luc Godard movie. The only thing that approaches a heatwave for discomfort is a Godard movie, but at least it would be … wait a minute, why isn’t it cool? Why’m I still sweating? Why can’t I breathe!
I found the manager and demanded to know why it said ‘Salle Climatisée’ outside. ‘We have air conditioning, m’sieur,’ he said, as smooth as a Frenchman chatting to your girlfriend while you’re in the bathroom. ‘But it hasn’t worked since 2003.’
In the end I did what I should have done in the first place: I made my way to the nearest five-star hotel. Americans stay in five-star hotels, so five-star hotels have air conditioning, even in Paris.
Walking in was like being reborn. In the cool, dark hotel bar I joined the wealthy in their suits and power dresses. Outside, people were dying like dogs caught in a napalm storm but inside it was all smiles and Champagne and crisp white cuffs. Outside you couldn’t help thinking about climate change and the apocalypse looming like a fiery comet, but inside it all faded away to a rumour, or someone else’s problem.
This is nice, I thought. I want to be here, not out there. I want to be insulated from heat and sad thoughts. Then someone asked for more ice in his gin, and the barman said, ‘We don’t have any more.’
A rumble of shock ran through the place. The refrigeration unit, the barman explained, had overworked and burnt out. There was no more ice.
The mood changed. Brows furrowed, fists clenched. This was a crisis. The climate had reached through the insulation of money, and we didn’t like being touched.
It’s all very well having marches and protests and climate strikes, but if we really want the rich and powerful to do something about the climate, maybe we should just unplug all the fridges in hotel bars.
Also read: Thin green line