Paris's legendary label as the "City of Light" may soon lose some of its luster.
The French minister for energy and environment unveiled last week a proposal for lights in and outside shops, offices, and public buildings — including the flagship Louis Vuitton store and the Lido cabaret house on Paris' Avenue des Champs Elysees — to be turned off between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. starting in July. The plan, to be applied across French cities, towns and villages, is aimed at saving energy and money and showing "sobriety," Minister Delphine Batho said.
The move has provoked an outcry from merchants, who say the government is being insensitive to France's image as the world's No. 1 tourist destination. They say the rule, on top of existing bans on Sunday store openings and night shopping, will hurt business at a time when the French economy has barely grown for a year and unemployment is at a 14-year high.
"Great! Another positive message sent to citizens and to tourists: the city will go dark!" said Sofy Mulle, vice-president of the France's Commerce Council, which represents all of the country's 650,000 merchants employing about 3.5 million people. "We are ready to make efforts, but the government is cutting a fine line between sobriety and austerity. Surely, we can work out environmentally friendly solutions that have less impact on our society and our economy."
For Paris, the government's plan — final details of which are still being worked out — is likely to fray its historical banner of "La Ville Lumiere," earned both because of its fame as a center of ideas and learning in the Age of Enlightenment and later by its early adoption of street lighting.
The lights-out idea, mooted under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is being pushed through by the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande, who was elected in May.
Sarkozy's effort was part of a broader European plan to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020. In January, his government passed a measure that took effect in July, forcing stores and businesses to turn off neon lights highlighting their names — of which there are 3.5 million in France, according to the energy ministry — between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.
"The original plan was crazy: they wanted to have all lights turned off one hour after store closures," Claude Boulle, head of the City Centre Merchants association said.
Merchants, including Boulle and Mulle, said part of their image is to have nonstop lighting because it conveys the idea of a place that's always warmly welcoming for shoppers.
"Also, lights from buildings and shops are part of public lighting and it brings security," Boulle said. "Even if there aren't millions of people taking a stroll in the middle of the night, light still means security for those who are."
Beyond security, Boulle said the plan would further diminish Paris's allure as a shopping destination when stacked up against London, Madrid or Berlin.
"We're becoming a museum, falling asleep after sunset," he said.
Paris's large department stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps in the center of the French capital are famous for their elaborately designed window displays — especially during Christmas — that stay on all night, making them tourist attractions all on their own. Officials at the two stores declined to comment on the new rule.
Shop windows on the Avenue des Champs Elysees and on Avenue Montaigne, Paris's Rodeo Drive, will also go dark.
The city's tourism board recommends "Parisian Urban Pleasures," including night strolls through the capital's winding streets and along the Seine river and morning espressos in famous cafes.
The "petit bonheurs," or small pleasures, include a night promenade on the Pont de Arts and waiting for sunrise on the steps of Sacre Coeur basilica, on the hillock behind the Pigalle area. All of these pleasures may be dimmed by the new rule.
The tourism industry accounts for 6.5 percent of French gross domestic product and directly employs 900,000 people, according to government figures.
According to the tourism board's data for 2011, Paris drew 8.5 million foreign visitors who stayed for at least one night in a hotel and spent an average of 146 euros ($191) a day. London got 15.2 million visitors spending 102 pounds ($164) a day. New York City got 10.6 million visitors, Shanghai about 8 million.
France remained the world's most-visited country with 81.4 million foreign tourists last year, a rebound after three consecutive years of decreases.
The Energy Ministry says the rule won't mark a big change from the current situation, pointing out that lights at Paris' 304 monuments, churches, statues, fountains and bridges, are already being turned off at night.
The Eiffel Tower's lights are turned off at 1 a.m. after a last glittery splash. Over the last decade, the illumination of the Notre Dame cathedral has been brought down to 9,000 watts from 54,000 watts.
Denis Baupin, a former Greens aide to Paris Mayor Betrand Delanoe, had pledged to cut the city's public lighting consumption by 30 percent by 2020 from its 2004 levels.
"One of our main objectives is to change the culture," Energy Minister Batho said on Nov. 29 on BFM Television and RMC Radio. "We need to end the cycle of producing more because we are consuming more. There should be sobriety in energy use."
The measure has its supporters. Beyond the Green party, activist groups including the Neon Clan, Energy Fishermen or Zero Watt have led actions to unplug illuminated shop signs and advertisement boards, including those of BNP Paribas SA bank, SFR mobile phone shops and a Club Med store in the town of Grenoble in the French Alps last July.
France's Association to Protect the Sky and the Night Environment, which participated in government talks to write the rule, says the law will help France be more energy efficient.
Night lighting uses the energy produced by one nuclear plant of 1,300 megawatts in one night, the association says.
"There is no intention to put us all into darkness or frighten Japanese tourists," said Alain Fleury, an ANPCEN representative. "We can find a balanced way to consume and not always push for more, brighter or stronger. We are wasting too much." Fleury looks after the Paris suburban area, which is home to Disneyland Paris.
He said French towns and villages waste the most energy, while Paris is heading on the right path.
"I hear those who say it shouldn't become a sleepy museum," he said. "Surely, there is a middle way."
For light-bulb and lighting-systems makers, the government's project is misplaced.
Only 10 percent of France's total lighting consumption is made at night, the industry says, calling on other, more efficient energy savings.
"Lighting has a social role, it serves as a reference point," said Elise Bourmeau, vice-president of the Lighting Union. "We will adapt. But truly, there are solutions that would allow us to keep them on in an energy-efficient way."