Pavement artists have the drop on the City of Light

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The Independent Online
Our friend Sandra, an Irish woman married to a Frenchman, says that the vrai parisien pedestrian can always be distinguished from the visitor or newcomer. The unwary outsider stares up at the startlingly elegant buildings on every side. The Parisian always looks down. He or she is, from bitter experience, scanning the pavement ahead for dog poo.

Paris has a serious dog problem, more serious, it is said, than any other city in the world. Partly this is because it has more dogs - 300,000 - than any other city. But that is not all. Other cities, including other French cities, have taken aggressive steps to curb this urban scourge. Paris has adopted a policy of, as it were, laissez-faire. It is not illegal for dogs to foul the otherwise impeccable pavements of one of the most beautiful cities known to man.

On my walk to work the other day I decided, in the name of investigative journalism, to measure the extent of the affliction. I counted 18 deposits in the first 30 yards. Walking to school with the children is a one- mile slalom course to avoid what Charlie calls, from grisly memory, the "squelchy ones".

Continuing my fearless inquiries, I uncovered several disturbing facts. Dogs leave 20 tons of faeces on the streets of Paris daily (who has weighed them, you ask. We will come to that later). An average of 650 people a year are hurt so badly after slipping on dog shit in Paris that they have to be taken to hospital. This works out at nearly two victims a day; broken collar bones are the most frequent injury.

The City of Paris pays pounds 5m a year to a company, Delcaux, which operates more than 100 machines, resembling golf carts, called caninettes. Their job is to scour dog poo from the most affected pavements once or twice a day. (The normal street cleaning is supposed to take care of the gutters.) The caninettes make their most intensive rounds just after the morning rush-hour and just after the late film on television. Experience has shown that this is when owners and dogs most frequently resort to the public canine toilets, known to everyone else as the streets.

I contacted the technical director of the operation, Dominique Bellanger, who admitted it was not feasible to get around all the 1,500 miles of Parisian streets daily. His team, he said, concentrates on the "most polluted areas". (It is the Delcaux company which has measured the harvest from Parisian dogs). The caninettes do a good job but, as Mr Bellanger concedes, the expectation that they will pass by encourages lazy dog-owners to use the pavements, not the gutters.

We are used to thinking of Britain as a nation of doting dog-owners, but we have nothing on the French. In the Bois de Boulogne on a fine Sunday, Parisians parade in their hundreds around the ornamental lakes, with every conceivable species of mutt, turning the Bois into some vast, open-air Crufts. The sentimentality which the French rarely bestow on one another is available sometimes for children and always for dogs. Paris, like California, has dog psychiatrists; even dog and cat astrologers. There are 80,000 dogs with private-health insurance in France.

Close to my office is a dog shop. In the window are dog mittens, fashionable dog coats, haute-cuisine dog biscuits, dog toys - including stuffed animals (pets for dogs?) - and packets of the "finest-quality straw from the Pays d'Auge" (appellation controlee produce for pets?).

There is not a pooper-scooper in sight. I inquired within. The shop did not sell them: no demand apparently, despite the 300,000 dogs living in Paris.

Over the years, committees have been formed by the town hall to study the issue, scientific studies have been commissioned, and information campaigns have been aimed at dog-owners (encouraging more fraternite and less liberte.)

Other French cities have, so to speak, stamped on the problem. Grenoble led the way in the 1980s with instant fines, prosecutions for persistent offenders, even the seizure of pets. At the same time, the city built 120 "sanitary dog spaces" and conducted a permanent civic- awareness campaign.

Similar policies, as well as a tax on dog-owners, were proposed to the city of Paris as long as eight years ago. They were rejected by the then mayor, who said such "repression" would not work and would penalise the old and the poor.

The mayor was, of course, Jacques Chirac, who is notoriously soft-hearted about animals. At one point the future president lectured dog-food manufacturers on the need to make their offerings conducive to drier and more compact dog poo. He was, it is said, reluctant to do anything which might offend so many thousands of dog-owning voters.

Nothing much is likely to change soon. Complaints about dog dirt are the third most frequent reason for letter-writing to the Paris town hall (ahead of fear of crime). But this has been true for many years now. The Agriculture Minister, Philippe Vasseur, will shortly present a law to parliament on the control of pets. It is aimed mostly at controlling savage dogs such as pit bulls and at the better regulation of cat and dog sales. It also proposes a free, if limited, veterinary service for poorer pet owners. There is no suggestion of a licence or tax to control dog numbers, as some had urged.

Non-dog-owning Parisians should console themselves with the wisdom of the 19th-century poet Gerard de Nerval, who provoked the dog lovers of his day by promenading with a lobster at the end of a pink ribbon. When questioned on his motives, he replied that lobsters "Know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark ..."

He might have mentioned at least one other reason, in a crowded city, to prefer a crustacean to a dog.

John Lichfield