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Paris helps unlock true love

Like other cities, Paris tries to end a craze by devoted couples to put 'love locks' on bridges and other structures. But the city also suggests other public, collective – even nonmaterial – ways to express the eternal bonds of affection.

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    People cross the mostly lock-free famed Pont des Arts bridge in Paris June . Lovers in Paris, beware: City authorities are taking down thousands of padlocks affixed to the famed Pont des Arts bridge. The city council says the locks, usually hung by couples to express eternal love, cause long-term damage to Paris heritage and sometimes pose a security risk. Last summer a chunk of fencing fell off under their weight.
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Thank you, Paris. This week, the “City of Love” did a big favor for many other cities – and perhaps for love itself. It closed off the famous Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge over the Seine, and removed almost a million locks put on the grillwork by couples as a symbol of their devotion to each other. The 45 tons of metal were damaging the celebrated landmark. Last June, it partially collapsed.

Over the past decade, Paris has become the main attraction in a worldwide craze to place “love locks” in public spaces – even on the Eiffel Tower. Couples inscribe their names, initials, or a date on a lock, often brass, place it on a prominent fence or other structure, and then throw away the key, usually in a river below. (Why some couples use a combination lock remains a mystery known only to them.) 

The practice may go back to China but was made popular in a 2006 Italian novel by Federico Moccia called “I Need You.” History is loaded with the human desire for a representation of eternal love – vows and couplets, carvings in trees, wedding rings, or perhaps a new car in the driveway. Critics of the love locks find the craze to be on par with graffiti, a form of vandalism, and, on some weaker bridges, even dangerous. Paris, like many cities, would like couples to do less physical damage and perhaps express their devotion in more enduring ways. 

To help retain the reputation of the French capital as the City of Love, officials have asked couples to take selfies on the bridge or to use a new website to express their affection. It is installing plastic panels on the bridge to deter love locks.

Like a bridge, the Internet can still serve as a collective and public space to symbolize the links of affection. And cyberspace could at least suggest that love should be less earthbound, more cloud based – and even eternal. It may demand more of a union of hearts, even qualities of character, than a physical object might.

Other cities have taken bolt cutters to the clutter of love locks. Some have designated fences for the practice, for sake of safety and avoiding blight. Love springs eternal and must find its expression, but when it spills into public spaces, cities must help nudge lovers to higher orders of affection. 

“We still hope that Paris will remain the capital of love and romance,” says the city’s culture secretary, Bruno Julliard. Not to worry. That reputation is sealed in heaven, as true love is.

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