Paris, France – The City of Light’s shine has dimmed as an early spring has caused an unprecedented hazy cloud of pollution to descend on the hapless Parisians. On Friday, pollution levels hit 180 micrograms of PM10 particulates per cubic metre, more than double the safe limit of 80, making the capital’s air quality, according French environmental agencies, one of the worst on record. Paris now rivals the Chinese capital, Beijing as one of the world’s most polluted cities.
The smog is caused by a combination of cold nights and warm days, which have prevented pollution from dispersing into the atmosphere. Paris also has a more relaxed regulation on diesel emissions, which it subsidizes to companies and families, as well as a higher number of vehicles than most other European capitals.
As a result, the city was forced to deploy hundreds of police on Monday to enforce the most drastic curbs on car use in 20 years as authorities sought to reduce health-endangering pollution just days before the town hall elections.
Public transport has been offered free of charge to all commuters, and all drivers owning even-numbered license plates have today been instructed to leave their cars at home or face fines of around 22 Euros. Tomorrow will be the turn of odd numbered license plates and so it will continue until authorities deem the pollution has abated enough to revert back to normal. The last restricted driving scheme was introduced in 1997 to combat pollution from heavy diesel fumes. It lasted one day.
Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said a decision would be taken later on Monday on whether to extend the driver curbs for a second day.
“This is a public health problem and we thank everyone who has fallen into line”, Cuvillier said, adding that early results showed traffic tailbacks had been shrunk by 60% in the Monday morning rush hours.
“It’s not our goal to jam up economic activity”, Thierry Pujol, a police officer stationed at a checkpoint in southern Paris, told BFM TV. He said his team had stopped about 150 vehicles early in the day, waving many delivery vans through and fining about 30 of the drivers stopped.
However with elections for the Paris mayoral position just a week away, some have questioned the validity of the vehicle ban, which is said to be hampering delivery companies. Opposition leader Jean-Francois Cope complained that the ban “lacks coherence, explanation and on the ground it’s really panic”.
The Automobile Club Association warned in a statement that the restrictions would cause chaos and added it would “penalize low-income households and suburban families who need a car, and cause additional economic costs.” This forced the government to issue a list of exceptions, which include electric and hybrid cars, taxis, and cars with at least three people on board to encourage car-sharing. But all trucks will be banned, which may be a huge blow to the local economy.
The ruling Socialist Party is currently in coalition with the Green Party and, as one pundit has reported, the ban is set to become a political football field with opposition tapping into the characteristic rebellious habits of the Parisians who have already been loudly voicing their displeasure throughout the city over the weekend.
Interestingly, the two leading mayoral contestants are women. The socialist, Anne Hidalgo, runs up against Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the ex-Environment Minister in former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party and known by her initials NKM. This will be the first time in its long history that Paris will get a madam for Le Maire and top of her list, whoever wins, will be Paris’ Pollution Problem.