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Every year, thousands of couples make the pilgrimage to Paris’ Pont des Arts footbridge, where they attach to its railings padlocks inscribed with their names and then throw the key into the River Seine below as a symbol of their enduring love. This “love locks” tradition, however, may be as damaging as it is optimistic – at least when it comes to the bridge itself.

Built in 1804 under Napoleon to connect the Louvre in the 1st arrondissement to the Collège des Quatre-Nations in the 6th arrondissement, the Pont des Arts was originally covered with plants and flowers to create a suspended garden over the Seine. The bridge was rebuilt in 1985 along the same lines, but made of steel rather than cast iron.

Started by tourists in Paris in 2008, the “love locks” ritual, which also spread in the early 2000s to cities including New York, Seoul and London, has resulted in the transformation of the Pont des Arts: every inch of its railings is now covered with clunky brass padlocks. These appendages may be well intentioned, but their sheer weight is effectively killing the bridge with love, weakening its structure to such an extent that Paris City Hall is urging tourists to stop the practice. City Hall suggests they send an "e-lock" – a virtual padlock – via a specially dedicated website to declare their love instead

No fines currently exist for those attaching padlocks to the bridge, but City Hall is considering further action if the custom endures. "If the tradition continues to grow in popularity and causes too much damage to the city's monuments, solutions will be considered in a bid to address the problem," the City Hall website warns. For now, damaged railings that begin to buckle under the weight of the locks are simply replaced as needed. 

The public also has shown the desire for the tradition to cease, both because of the physical harm to the bridge and because many view the locks as an eyesore. In March, two Americans living in Paris launched a "No Love Locks" petition, which has already garnered more than 5,000 signatures urging the mayor of Paris to ban the practice outright.

In the meantime, tourists are being asked to consider Paris' aesthetic and historical heritage – as well as its safety – and to think twice before affixing their lock and throwing away the key. 

Kim Laidlaw is the Paris Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes www.unlockparis.com.

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