Paris falls quiet as smog alert forces citizens to get out and walk

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The Independent Online
A strange quiet fell on the streets of Paris yesterday. All private cars with even-numbered registration numbers were ordered off the roads after nitrogen dioxide pollution reached danger levels. John Lichfield reports.

Paris may be a conservative city but yesterday it helped to be odd. For the first time, the government enforced a new law against air pollution which bans, on alternate days, half of the private cars in the city and suburbs. Yesterday, only those cars with odd registration numbers were allowed to drive.

An estimated one million cars were ordered off the roads. Taxis, delivery vehicles, doctors, journalists and cars carrying more than three people were exempted. All public transport was free (the government footing the bill, estimated at pounds 150,000). First indications were that the restrictions were broadly respected, despite some confusion and a decision by the authorities to warn, rather than fine, offenders. Police said that traffic in Paris was 15 per cent down on normal (it seemed even quieter). The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and environment minister, Dominique Voynet, ostentatiously drove up to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in an electric car (also exempted).

Atmospheric pollution fell dramatically. On Tuesday it exceeded 400 microgrammes of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air, breaching for the first time the third level - "severe danger to public health" - laid down by a new law on air pollution introduced in January. Nitrogen dioxide is produced almost entirely by vehicle exhausts; it is produced in the greatest quantity by diesels, which represent one in four vehicles in the Paris area. France now recognises that it is paying heavily for a policy of encouraging diesel cars, and subsidising diesel fuel: a policy introduced in the 1980s in the mistaken belief that diesel engines were less dirty.

Ms Voynet said the regulations had worked well but a longer-term strategy was needed. She called for tighter EU standards on car exhausts and the development of electric cars. The health minister, Bernard Kouchner, said there should be permanent traffic restrictions in Paris, including a ban on tourist coaches.

Neither mentioned the one possible measure which might have a sharp effect: increasing the low level of tax on diesel fuel. Such a move was considered by the government this summer but shelved for fear of upsetting drivers and damaging French car-makers, still heavily committed to diesel engines.

A thousand police officers were deployed at checkpoints around and within the city. Offending motorists were warned that, next time, they faced a pounds 100 fine. Favourite excuses included the claim that the car had an "odd" number because it started with one, or because it carried the number 75, the number which ends all Parisian car registrations.

The Metro was crowded but a Dunkirk spirit reigned. On personal observation, passengers were unusually polite to one another and almost chatty.

The Communist trade union federation, the CGT, refused to abandon a one- day, partial strike, called to demand more investment in public transport. The CGT decided, for strategic reasons, that it should apply to ticket sellers and checkers. Over half of them stayed at home. But since travel was free anyway ...

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