I’m sure you’ve heard about the tremendous flooding going on in France. Many towns are half-submerged under muddy water and tearful families are taking stock of sodden treasures. In Paris, the Louvre and musée d’Orsay had to close, along with some of the subway lines. As the flood waters rose, Parisians measured the level of the Seine against a statue on the Pont de l’Alma known as le Zouave (luh zoo-av) But who is he?
Inaugurated in 1856 by Napoleon III, this stone soldier was sculpted by Georges Diebolt. He represents a member of one of the French regiments, nicknamed zouaves, from North Africa who fought during the Crimean war of 1853 to 1856. Napoleon III commissioned four statues to represent the victory of the battle of Alma where the French and their allies had their first victory against the Russian forces in 1854. During this battle, the zouave forces played a crucial role. When the pont de l’Alma was rebuilt in steel in the 1970s, three of the original soldiers were removed, leaving a sole zouave to watch over the Seine.
Over time, the zouave’s principal function has become a yardstick against which to measure the height of the Seine during floods. According to tradition, when the zouave’s feet are in the water, the Seine is officially at flood level, but it is not yet dangerous. Each part of his body is a marker to establish the significance of a flood. When water reaches his knees, the quais of the Seine are closed and boats are prohibited from navigating the rising river, including the bateax mouches full of tourists. During the most recent flooding, the water rose to his hips, one of the highest levels since the great flood of 1910. This is one retired soldier who has evolved with the times; he even has his own Twitter account full of humor as well as official reports (@zouavealma).