France wakes up to scourge of the car

`Clean-air' bill: Battle lines drawn as government reacts to health fears and unveils proposals that include traffic restrictions
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The Independent Online


The French government yesterday presented a bill to combat pollution in cities and enshrining the right of every citizen "to breathe air that does not damage their health".

Car use in urban areas is starting to arouse as much passion as in Britain; shops and other businesses are emerging among the chief defenders of the car, fearing loss of custom if use is restricted.

The measures are a response to public worries about air quality after a summer and autumn in which France was shocked to learn the air in Paris was periodically more polluted than that in London or Rome and that diesel fumes from cars made some suburbs dangerous to live in. Among proposed measures are an obligation on all councils to monitor quality of air and publish the information; drafting regional plans and targets for clean air; a provision allowing local traffic restrictions when pollution is forecast to reach an unacceptable level, and studies to re-examine "the role of the car" in conurbations of more than 250,000 people. Most of the measures will not come into force until 1998.

The bill was presented with huge fanfare. The Environment Minister, Corinne Lepage, gave an 8am press conference and collected the first credit. The Prime Minster, Alain Juppe, was driven to the weekly cabinet meeting in a special"clean-fuel" car, then went to one of the air-quality monitoring points in Paris to underline Ms Lepage's measures and announce a few more. In between, President Jacques Chirac had described the bill as "balanced and innovative".

Many people, however, not just environmental campaigners, expressed disappointment and voiced suspicion that the statutory controls and traffic restrictions broached in discussion of the bill had fallen victim to more powerful lobbies, notably the car and fuel producers.

One specific proposal, for an extra 0.4 centime of tax on every litre of fuel to help pay for the measures, was reportedly rejected at the last minute and so other ways of meeting the estimated 350m-franc (pounds 46m) cost will have to be found.

While the bill falls far short of what many expected, it is still something of a departure for France, which has been years behind most north European countries in its embrace of "green" issues. Recycling is relatively undeveloped and until very recently air quality was not an issue.

Explanations given include a Mediterranean lack of concern about public spaces, the low population density of much of France and the climatic peculiarities of Paris, where the air is regularly "cleaned" by strong winds. Static air, rather than the volume of traffic, took much of the blame for this summer's problems in Paris.

The prevalence of diesel cars in France and a controversy about diesel pollution are complicating factors. Almost half France's private cars are diesel, because tax is lower than on petrol, lead-free petrol included. A suggestion (denied) that the government wanted to raise the tax on diesel caused an outcry just before last year's presidential election and may have contributed to Edouard Balladur's fall in opinion polls.

A recent report said diesel was as polluting as petrol and perhaps more dangerous. Since then, the government has hinted at reducing diesel's tax advantage. Yesterday, without mentioning diesel, Mr Juppe said tax and price incentives could be introduced for "cleaner" cars. At present, the only incentive is free city parking for France's few electric cars.