By JOHN MARTIN
PARIS – If you thought the tennis was fierce last year at the French Open, you should have read the war of words waged on the fences surrounding the grounds.
It wasn’t hand-scrawled graffiti, but lavishly illustrated banners using exclamation points to accuse opponents of lying about the tournament’s planned expansion into an adjacent public garden.
“FAUX” (FALSE) and “VRAI” (TRUE) read the signs.
Measuring nearly 6 feet high and 70 feet long, six canvas banners appeared along two avenues that pass the Jardin des Serres, a space filled with cultivated plants and historic greenhouses.
“We are not barbarians,” said Alain Riou, the French Tennis Federation’s deputy general manager. The banners, he said, were aimed at changing public attitudes created by opponents.
The signs accused opponents of lying about the federation’s plans plan to install a 5,000-seat stadium inside the garden.
“FAUX!” reads one text in French, “The FFT project will destroy the historic greenhouses.”
“VRAI!” exclaims the federation, “The historic greenhouses will remain intact.”
Delivered in an emphatic style familiar to readers of Batman comics (“POW!” and “BAM!”), the quotations drove home the message to thousands of drivers and pedestrians who passed by each day.
“FALSE! Construction of the new Roland Garros stadium will be to the detriment of the historic vegetation,” exclaimed a banner.
“TRUE!” shouted an adjacent text. ”The new Roland Garros stadium will actually add 100 trees.”
Alexander Gady, the elected president of the 3,000-member Society for the Protection of French Landscape and Heritage, called the displays a “media war” aimed at his organization’s effort block the expansion.
“I’m sorry about Roland Garros; it’s too small today,” he said, but added. “There are rules and laws in this country and the garden is protected landscape with a heritage. And FFT, which is a private organization, must respect this type of area.”
Gady, a Sorbonne University professor who teaches architectural history, said the tennis federation was trying to sway public opinion to affect the pending judicial decision.
“They are very powerful because they are rich,” he said. “So it’s like David against Goliath.”
“We are not barbarians,” said Alain Riou, the federation’s deputy general manager. The banners were aimed, he said, at changing public attitudes created by opponents.
“The associations insinuated a lot of bad things about our project, the whole world is thinking these bad things are true, and they are not,” said Riou, a veteran FFT administrator who has helped lead efforts to find a solution to the lack of needed space.
Riou acknowledged the garden’s protected status but said the need to retain the French Open’s contribution to the city and country was vital. By some estimates, the championship contributes about 300 million Euros yearly to the economy of Paris.
As for rules and protections, the controversial 1989 installation of a glass pyramid at the Louvre, Riou suggested, showed that a matter of public interest could be accommodated within a venerable French institution.
“There is no higher protected area than the Louvre,” he said, but because President Francois Mitterand deemed it in the national and Paris civic interest, it was allowed.
The dilemma posed by too little space has plagued Roland Garros for at least 15 years, Riou said. To install a retractable roof above Philippe Chatrier Stadium requires enlarging its size or footprint, which means tearing down the adjacent Court 1 and building a replacement stadium somewhere nearby.
The FFT solution is to build a narrow concourse into the garden, where it can literally plant a court seating nearly 5,000 spectators partly below ground. It insists this would not disturb vegetation or historic structures.
“It’s not possible to cut out a small part of the garden and say that a stadium of 5,000 will fit in the middle,” said Professor Gady. “The garden will not come out unscathed and intact with 5,000 persons crossing.”
“There are two parts of the garden,” Riou said. “The part that is marvelous with historical greenhouses and there is another part which is for production of flowers” and contains what he said were dilapidated greenhouses that could be replaced without damage.
In February, the tribunal ruled in favor of the expansion. Riou had said the project could be completed in as little as two years. A more likely conclusion is 2020. The controversy stretches back to 2010.
Meanwhile, memories of the sidewalk battle continue. Each day, as thousands of ticket holders passed within inches of the signs, the words silently accused opponents of lying. In one case, the banner alleged that opponents falsely claimed the FFT refused to speak to an association with an alternate plan.
“Several times we try to have contact and discuss with the FFT about their famous project,” said Professor Gady last spring, “but they refused absolutely to speak with us. For speaking, there must be two. Four years ago, we proposed a new project. As a last resort, we go to court.”
This was not necessary, a federation banner insisted: “TRUE! The FFT was able to develop the project further through discussions with all of the stakeholders.”
This spring, construction has begun. Cranes and concrete appear in the garden. The epic battle appears over.But who knows? Stay tuned. The Batmobile could be recalled to duty.