[PARIS] Paris' world-famous Louvre and Orsay museums shut on Friday to retrieve priceless artworks from their basements, as the swollen River Seine neared its highest level in three decades.
At least 14 people have been killed in floods that have wrought havoc in Europe after days of torrential rain, trapping people in their homes and forcing rescuers to row lifeboats down streets turned into rivers.
Parisians were urged to stay away from the Seine, which has burst its banks in places and rose more than six metres (19ft 8ins) above its normal level on Friday.
Authorities said the river could swell to "perhaps 6.5 metres (21 feet) in a worst-case scenario", comfortably beating the level reached during floods in 1982.
The record remains the 8.68 metres reached during devastating floods in 1910.
A small number of basement flats in the capital began to flood on Friday and the environment ministry warned it was possible some residents in areas near the Seine in western Paris might have to be evacuated.
Persistently heavy rainfall across western and central Europe has swollen rivers and claimed victims from at least four countries.
Ten people have been killed in Germany and two in Romania, while a beekeeper died in Belgium while trying to protect his hives.
In France, a man on horseback drowned on Thursday after being swept away by a swollen river in Evry-Gregy-sur-Yerre, south-east of Paris.
French Environment Minister Segolene Royal said she feared more bodies would be found as waters recede in villages in central France, some of which have suffered their worst floods in a century.
Meanwhile the environment ministry said a "plateau" had probably been reached.
"This high level should likely remain relatively stable throughout the weekend before (the flooding) begins to recede," it said.
In Paris, officials have erected emergency flood barriers along the Seine, whose banks are home to both the Louvre - the world's most visited museum, with attractions including the Mona Lisa - and the Musee d'Orsay.
The riverbanks are normally thronged with tourists in what is supposed to be the start of summer. Instead visitors in raincoats gathered to take pictures of the muddy floodwaters.
"We were going to go the Louvre today, and we were going to go on the boat cruise for dinner tonight - and they were both cancelled," said American tourist Elle Yarborough, an English teacher from Boston.
"It's too bad, but we're still happy to be in Paris." The downpours add to a gloomy atmosphere in France a week before the country hosts the Euro 2016 football championships, with workers facing more train strikes Friday after months of protests and political turmoil.
Both the Louvre and Orsay Museum, which see a combined 12.5 million visitors a year, closed their doors Friday so that artworks could be moved out of basement archives to higher floors.
The Orsay Museum, which houses a world-renowned collection of 19th and early 20th century art, said it would remain closed until Tuesday.
The Grand Palais museum also shut Friday, as did two of the National Library's sites.
Boat traffic has been banned in the capital, and a regional train line that runs along the Seine has been suspended.
More than 20,000 people have been evacuated in France since the weekend and around 19,000 homes are without power.
Rescuers in the Parisian suburb of Longjumeau paddled up streets in lifeboats Thursday, while in the town of Montargis, only the tops of cars could be seen peeking above the surface.
French President Francois Hollande said a state of "natural catastrophe" would be declared when the cabinet meets next Wednesday, a necessary step to trigger compensation payments.
Losses across France could reach more than 600 million euros (S$925.5 million), said Bernard Spitz of France's association of insurers.
Several towns in southern Germany have been devastated by flooding, and seven people have died since Wednesday.
In Simbach am Inn, the force of the water swept away the entire stock of a sawmill, leaving huge stacks of splintered wood blocking roads.
On one street, a car could be seen parked vertically against the wall of a house, pushed there by the floodwaters. Many other vehicles lay flipped over on roads blanketed by mud.
Six people have been killed in the Simbach area, including three women from the same family - a mother, grandmother and daughter - who had been trapped in their house.
"The (rise in) water was so quick that practically no residents had the time to run away," police spokesman Armin Angloher said.
A 72-year-old man in Triftern nearby died in hospital Friday after he was rescued from the floods.
Four people were killed earlier this week in the southern German region of Baden-Wuerttemberg, with four others still missing, police in Bavaria said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her thoughts were with the families "who have been plunged into this devastation".