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Liberte versus fraternite: a dispatch from the French dog-poo wars

John Lichfield the streets of paris
Jean Tiberi, successor to Jacques Chirac as Mayor of Paris, is generally held, by friends and foes, to have been a failure. He has, however, won my sympathy and potential affection. He has promised, not before time, to address one of the greatest social scourges of the world's most beautiful city: dog-poo.

I have written about this before and make no apology for doing so again. Paris has a serious dog problem. It has, proportionally, more dogs - 300,000, or one for every seven humans - than any other city. Other places take aggressive steps to curb dogs. Paris has long adopted a policy of, so- to-speak, laissez-faire.

On one occasion I counted 18 dog deposits - the French phrase is "crottes de chien" - in the first 30 yards of my walk to work. This may be merely anecdotal (the canine population of our street seems particularly high), but the official statistics are equally damning. Dogs leave 20 tons of mess on the streets of Paris daily (who has weighed it, you ask?). An average of 650 people a year are hurt so badly after slipping on dog-poo in Paris that they have to be taken to hospital. This works out at nearly two victims each day; broken collar bones are the most frequent injury. Complaints about dog-dirt are the third most frequent reason for letter- writing to the Paris town hall (ahead of fear of crime). And yet convictions of dog owners for "uncivic behaviour" (fine pounds 100) are running at less than two a week.

Over the years, committees have been formed by the town hall to examine the problem, scientific studies have been ordered, and information campaigns have been aimed at dog-owners, urging them at least to make their dogs defecate in the gutter. Any suggestion that the law should be rigorously applied was blocked by the former mayor, who said such "repression" would not work and would penalise the old and the poor.

The old mayor, now of course the President of the Republic, used to lecture pet-food manufacturers on the need to invent products that would lead to drier and less offensive dog-poo. In other words, he did everything but address the real cause of the problem: the callous indiscipline of dog-owners. "As far as the politicians who run this city is concerned, there is a potential voter behind each pile of dog-shit," says Andre Midol, one of the most tireless Parisian campaigners for clean pavements.

Until now, under Chirac's influence, the City of Paris has developed the most elaborate and costly systems of cure rather than prevention. The city pays pounds 6m a year to a private company, Trottoirs Nets, to cleanse the streets of dog-poo (it is this company which has estimated the daily harvest from Parisian dogs). The company operates a fleet of more than 100 bright-green machines, like motor-cycles with carpet-cleaners bolted to the back, called "caninettes" or "motocrottes". The last time I wrote on this subject, a reader wrote in to point out that they also had another nickname, an inspired triple pun on the name of the former mayor and the words chier (to shit) and raclette (scraper). Thus the machines are referred to by some Parisians as "Chieraclettes".

Operated by young people with unconvincingly impassive expressions, their task is to scour the most commonly afflicted pavements once or twice a day. They make their rounds just after the morning rush-hour and just after the late film on the television. Experience has shown that this is when owners and dogs most frequently resort to the streets.

The new mayor, Mr Tiberi, has finally promised to (so to speak) step in. He has appointed 15 "canine counsellors" to educate dog-owners. But he also says it is time for "extreme measures". In other words, he has asked the Paris police chief to enforce the law against fouling the pavements. More summonses will be issued to dog-owners but they will have the option, on a first offence, to attend cleanliness training classes organised by the Town Hall.

Mr Midol, the foremost Parisian anti dog-dirt campaigner, is also a sociological expert who advises companies and local authorities on group behaviour. He says Tiberi's initiative may be fine, if he means it. But the real problem is that the city "legitimises" the offenders by spending so much money on cleaning up. "I've even heard passers-by congratulating dog-owners, while their dog was in the act, saying `at least it gives work to young people'."

Mr Midol says that he is pre-occupied with the issue, partly as a concerned citizen, but partly because he sees it as a paradigm for the ills of France: an unresolved battle between two sides of the great triangle of French values, a struggle between liberte and fraternite.

Outsiders tend to think of the French as an over-governed people who often place the rights of the state - of the collectivity - above those of the individual. The truth is more muddled, says Mr Midol. The French tend to have a teenaged view of the state: they strenuously assert a right to personal freedom, but believe that it is someone else's duty to clean up after them.

"In terms of anti-social behaviour, of recognising that certain kinds of individual freedom amount to irresponsibility - whether it's going through red traffic lights or striking for the least reason - we have a serious problem in France. There is not the sense that you find in some other countries that individuals owe some kind of duty to society to make daily life tolerable. There is a sense, instead, that it's up to the state to look after these things ..."

Mr Midol has two small children. He says he that, like all Parisian parents, has taught them to walk like Parisians, not like tourists. "When we go into town, I don't say to them, `look how beautiful the streets are', or `look at the wonderful shop window'. I say, `look down and look ahead or you will stand in the crottes de chien.'"