Notebook

March 19, 2014 1:35 pm

A dirty pretty city takes on Beijing

Paris can ill-afford a further pollution stain on its image, writes Hugh Carnegy
A picture shows the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on November 22, 2013, on the first day that the Christmas lights are lit. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR©AFP

Paris in the spring was not meant to be like this.

For several days last week a nasty brownish haze hung over the city as the worst bout of air pollution to hit the French capital forced the authorities to clamp down on traffic and run public transport for free (no need for surly Parisian youths to perform their habitual jump over the Metro barriers, at least for a spell).

Certainly, tourists jetting in from pollution-plagued China must have got a shock when they saw the Eiffel Tower wreathed in a grimy veil. According to Bloomberg, pollution readings last Friday in Paris exceeded those for the same day in Beijing.

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Nor is it very good for the romantic aura of the place when a stroll up through Montmartre to Sacré Coeur reveals not a City of Light, but a city of smog.

The pollution alert followed an earlier bout of bad publicity over rising rates of theft by gangs of pickpockets and con artists that at one point forced staff at the Louvre museum to go on strike in protest. Squads of plain-clothes police have now been deployed to combat the miscreants and there are multilingual warnings broadcast in the Metro, including in Chinese.

Paris residents have long been aware of the relatively high level of air pollution afflicting the city, apparently a result in large part of France’s favourable tax treatment of particulate-spewing, diesel-fuelled cars. On the Périphérique, the capital’s notorious inner ring road, reduced speed limits are often enforced to try to lower emissions.

The city still attracts huge numbers of visitors but it can ill-afford a dent in its image. It has been grappling with competition from London, which had the effrontery recently to suggest that the capital of Cool Britannia had overtaken its more elegant rival as the world’s biggest tourist attraction.

Comparative data are hard to nail down but Paris issued figures this month showing it had a total of 32.3m visitors last year, including a record 15.5m foreigners (the number of Chinese was up 50 per cent at 880,000). London estimates it had 16m foreign visitors last year.

Aside from the anomaly on Friday, even the worst days of pollution last week were well below the levels frequently reached in Beijing and other Chinese cities. But the episode has reinvigorated the debate over how to wean the French off diesel cars and restore the city’s ambience before any more damage is done.

Hollande’s hug

Part of the government’s anxiety over the pollution alert was concern over the effect it might have on the imminent election for Paris mayor.

Despite President François Hollande’s dismal approval ratings, candidate Anne Hidalgo is forecast to retain his Socialist party’s 13-year hold over the city in votes this Sunday and next. But left-inclined bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) Parisian voters cannot protect him from what is otherwise likely to be a drubbing for the Socialists in nationwide municipal polls.

A cabinet reshuffle is widely anticipated to follow as Mr Hollande seeks to refocus the government on his newly proclaimed pro-business policy stance, putting his tax-raising days behind him. A big question is what he will do with Arnaud Montebourg, the voluble leftwing industry minister with a talent for insulting business leaders – and European commissioners.

Mr Montebourg has been at full throttle lately, unsuccessfully trying to force Vivendi, the media group, to sell telecoms operator SFR to his favoured contender Bouygues (the state has no stake in any of them). He then turned on Patrick Drahi, billionaire owner of successful bidder Altice, virtually accusing the Swiss resident of tax dodging – accusations Mr Drahi dismissed.

The president might be tempted to drop Mr Montebourg, but he could prove a rallying figure for a disquieted left wing once unfettered by cabinet responsibility. Some reports suggest Mr Hollande will instead hug him close, possibly giving him enhanced responsibilities.

Cops on wheels

Pollution or no pollution, a fixture of Sunday afternoons in Paris is the weekly mass roller skate through the city streets. Sadly, this is no longer escorted by ultracool, pistol-packing police officers on skates, as it always used to be. The rollercop squad has become a victim of spending cuts. In their place, a couple of flics on whiny scooters. Tant pis.

hugh.carnegy@ft.com

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