On Wednesday, June 21st, residents of the 5th arrondissement of Paris heard an unusually powerful explosion: a building near the former Val-de-Grâce military hospital collapsed, probably due to a gas leak. Six people were seriously injured, and a seventh is still missing. The accident highlights the fragility of the gas network in the French capital.
The explosion occurred in the late afternoon of Wednesday, June 21st, at 277 rue Saint-Jacques, one of the oldest streets in Paris, and resulted in the collapse of a 17th-century building adjoining the Val-de-Grâce church. It housed the Paris American Academy, a private American fashion and design school. Four or five neighbouring buildings were also shaken by the force of the explosion. Although local residents initially thought it was a terrorist attack, the explosion was reportedly caused by a gas leak.
A large number of firefighters rushed to the area to extricate residents from the rubble. One person is still missing, but the search had to be suspended on Friday for security reasons.
The accident is reminiscent of another tragedy familiar to Parisians: the explosion of a building on rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement in 2019, although caution regarding comparisons remains the order of the day. The minister for housing, when questioned by the press, refused to draw a parallel between the two stories. The explosion on rue de Trévise caused the death of four people and injured around 60, some of whom suffered severe after-effects for life.
In September 2020, following the discovery of numerous shortcomings in maintenance, the Paris City Council, whose responsibility was clearly established, was indicted for “homicide and involuntary injury.” A scandal was added to the initial tragedy when the Paris City Council refused to contribute to a compensation fund, which prevented the victims from obtaining immediate reparations and the means to rebuild their lives. Today, despite the signing of an agreement, the victims are still fighting to obtain the compensation to which they are entitled.
While the exact cause of the explosion in rue Saint-Jacques is still uncertain, there are strong suspicions that the state of disrepair of the Paris gas network is behind it. Le Figaro points out that the entire Parisian subsoil conceals almost 2,000 kilometres of gas pipes that supply the heating installations of more than 40,000 buildings in the capital (2019 figures). Today, 500,000 homes in Paris are heated by gas.
The city of Paris’ distribution network is owned by the local authority, which subcontracts its operation and maintenance to the national company GRDF (Gaz Réseau Distribution France). According to the city’s local councillors, some of the installations are almost 100 years old. Vincent Baladi, an elected representative in the 8th arrondissement and member of the Paris City Council’s high commission for gas control, is sounding the alarm in the wake of this latest tragedy: “This is an issue we’ve been warning about for years,” he says.
Half the network is in need of renovation, but the parties responsible—the City of Paris, GRDF, and also the private co-ownership associations that are supposed to manage the gas supply to the buildings—keep passing the buck. In the case of the rue de Trévise accident, it is precisely the shared responsibilities that are difficult to determine, so the investigation is still not complete.
Despite these explosions resulting in human casualties and major risks to Parisian housing—in the case of the explosion in rue Saint-Jacques, it was the Val-de-Grâce heritage complex that was damaged—the renovation of the gas network does not appear to be a priority for the Paris City Council. In a letter sent a year ago, the mayor of the 7th arrondissement of Paris and political opponent of Anne Hidalgo asked the mayor of Paris to carry out a “general audit of the Paris gas network,” as well as an “information campaign encouraging condominiums to carry out the necessary checks.” The request has so far gone unanswered.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).