The narrow streets of the Montmartre district of the imposing majesty of the Arc de Triomphe and the art on display in the Louvre museum, Paris has a reputation for beauty and culture.
It is just a shame about the diesel, often so thick you can taste them.
The city is crowded, its boulevards are too often choked with traffic, and its air is heavily polluted. There are times where its monuments are difficult to see through the mist.
The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has made the fight against pollution a centerpiece of his socialist administration. Its strategy consists in the progressive elimination of old vehicles and get rid of diesels, while offering generous subsidies for other forms of transportation.
The policy is not universally popular. It faces the opposition of motorists, groups and even politicians of the region. But as cities across Europe struggle with the same problems of pollution, it could still provide a model for others to follow.
According to a study carried out in 2016 by France’s national health agency, air pollution is responsible for 48,000 deaths per year across France.
Paris itself has suffered a series of damaging smogs in recent years, especially in the winter. While vehicles are not entirely responsible for the dirty air, they play a very important role.
During the worst periods, the authorities have experimented with emergency measures – the prohibition of one in every two cars from the entrance of the city and the lowering of speed limits, for example. Recently, a more refined plan, known as ” Criteria Air has been introduced.
Cars are now classified in function of their emissions, and forced display of color stickers. This allows the authorities to take prohibitions targeted against the most polluting vehicles. Other French cities, including Grenoble, Lyon, Strasbourg and Toulouse, have also joined.
But it is the long-term strategy that is probably more important. Step-by-step, the city is trying to rid itself of petrol and diesel cars, and to persuade people to use other types of transportation.The prohibitions and fines
Until now, it has banned all cars built before 1997 from entering the city centre, the days of the week between 8 am and 8 pm. Diesels registered before 2001 are also prohibited. The drivers of the violation of the ban are subject to heavy fines.
The next year, the restrictions will be expanded to include the pre-2005 diesel. The punishment will then continue in stages. The Diesels are due to be taken out of the statute as a whole in 2024, and gasoline cars in 2030.
It is a more aggressive strategy than the one pursued by London, which has stopped short of actually banning more and more dirty cars, in favor of additional charge to enter the city centre.
Paris is also regularly squeezing the amount of space available for cars by the construction of extensive bus lanes and bicycle paths. A radius of two miles (3 km) stretch of what was once an important artery of transportation along the Seine was closed to traffic in 2016, on a test basis, and remains off-limits.Big encouragement
But with the big stick has come to be a significant carrot. Earlier this year, the city council extended an already generous programme of subsidies aimed to encourage people to choose other forms of transportation.
Individuals can now apply for the benefits of a value of up to € 600 (£522), to help them to buy a bike, get a transport, or joining a car-sharing scheme – but only if they agree to give up their cars or motorbikes. Small businesses can claim up to €9,000 for the cost of an electric truck or bus.
There are also significant subsidies to help taxi drivers buy environmentally-friendly vehicles, and to subsidize the installation of electric charging points.
The man overseeing all of this, it is the city’s deputy mayor Jean-Louis Missika.
Sitting in his opulent, wood-panelled office at the Town hall, he explains why he is happy to take drastic measures.
“We are in an emergency situation, the transition to clean mobility and the decrease in the number of cars is very urgent. We need to do something – it is a public health issue.”
Mr. Missika believes its strategy will also benefit the Parisian economy, because it is believed that the reduction of traffic and pollution make the city more attractive to businesses who might otherwise go elsewhere.
The city has, however, suffered a major setback. Its centerpiece bicycle rental Vélib system – which has been copied by cities around the world since its launch in 2007 – is being eroded.
Last year, a new operator, Smovengo, has won the contract to provide the service for the next 15 years. But its attempts to introduce new, high-tech, electric bikes have so far been plagued with problems, the creation of a scandal dubbed “Vélibgate” by the French press.Motorists resist
But not everyone agrees with the crackdown on cars. Julien Constanti is a lawyer acting on behalf of a motorists ‘ group, the French Federation of Motorists Citizens.
Driving around the crowded streets in his own car, a colossal 1979 Chevrolet of the kind once favoured by the american police, he told me that the policy is discriminatory against people who can’t afford to replace their old cars.
I ask him if he thinks that Paris has declared war on the motorist.
“Yes, and this is not only the city of Paris,” he replied.
“It is also at the state level, and eventually at a European level. It’s like, you have to buy economy cars – but don’t use them!”
It is true that in some other European cities have shown a marked enthusiasm for getting rid of cars.
Oslo and Madrid, for example, are both planning to make the central areas off-limits to motor vehicles in the coming years. Hamburg is also to take steps to get rid of old vehicles.
As cities across the continent struggling to meet EU air quality standards, the likelihood is many more will introduce similar restrictions.
So residents, users and businesses in urban areas across Europe may soon have to learn new ways to move.