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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 19:41 GMT 20:41 UK
Paris stifled by smog shroud
Air pollution blurs the Paris skyline
Free parking and low speed limits fail to clear the air
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

Stingy eyes? A constant tickle in the throat? Noise like a rusty accordion when you try to take a deep breath? Sounds like you're suffering from the Parisian summer.

Children play in a Paris fountain
La canicule: Children head for Paris fountains
After some of the most godforsaken weather in recent years, and a Bastille Day parade in which the planes couldn't fly because of driving rain, France is suddenly in the grip of la canicule - a heatwave.

All very welcome, but the problem is that along with the rising temperature comes an unpleasant rise in atmospheric pollution.

Ozone is to blame, apparently. It's as if all the stuff that's gone missing from the hole over the Antarctic has been gathering in our urban conglomerations.

Free parking

In Paris - as well as more than 20 other French towns - we've reached level one.

That means 180 milligrams per cubic metre, and it's already pretty nasty.

Fortunately, France is better geared for these eventualities than many other countries.


Often the pollution around urban areas is even worse than it is in the centre

Lionel Rosset, Auvergne pollution expert
Urban pollution is monitored by law in every town with more than 100,000 inhabitants and when certain stages are reached, counter-measures kick in.

Thus, the Mayor of Paris has decreed free parking in residential areas. That may sound like an encouragement for out-of-towners to drive in, but in fact it's a way of persuading in-towners to leave their cars at home.

Normally, many Parisians leave their cars on the street overnight, then drive to work in order not to pay parking-fees.

This way - in theory - they take public transport instead.

Nitrates

There is also a speed restriction: 20km/h off the standard 80km/h on the Paris ring-road. Police say that on Monday they issued more than 1,000 spot-fines.

Man rests on bench in Avenue Foch
There is no sign of relief from heat and pollution
And if the pollution increases further, to hit 360 milligrams per cubic metre, then more drastic action is mandated: alternated driving. Odd-numbered vehicles on one day, even-numbered on the next. It's only happened once before - in October 1997 - and pollution dropped 20%.

But why do today's measures appear to be making absolutely no difference?

One reason is that summer pollution is different from winter pollution. In winter it's nitrates that build up as a result of exhaust emissions, and a cut in car use means a quick cut in contaminants.

Tinkering

Ozone pollution is different. It travels.

"Part of the Paris pollution could be from Germany or England," said Lionel Rosset, a pollution expert in the southern Auvergne department. "And often the pollution around urban areas is even worse than it is in the centre."

But the other reason is surely that whatever measures are put in place are only tinkering with the problem.

Cycling across Paris (as I do), I discerned no obvious drop in the number of cars - and worse, tourist buses - cramming the roads.

Lip-service to the cause of the environment is - as ever - rather easier than personal sacrifice.

See also:

22 Sep 98 | Europe
Off the roads
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