With the skies over the City of Light blurred by an eye-smarting pall of “Le Smog,” French authorities for the first time ordered half of Parisian motorists to leave their cars home Wednesday and get to work and back some other way.
And to the surprise of many, the people of Paris - ferociously individualistic and devoted to their automobiles - mostly complied.
Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin drove to the weekly meeting of the Cabinet in a two-door, electric-powered Peugeot. Many other habitual car commuters took the Paris subway, the regional rapid-rail service and buses, which were free for the day.
“What’s certain is that people are playing the game, that they are courteous, patient,” Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, who imposed the restrictions, said happily.
On Tuesday, as the Eiffel Tower became shrouded in a light-brown noxious haze, a “Level 3” air pollution alert was declared in France’s capital. Trapped under a dome of warm air, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide, a gas largely the product of motor vehicle exhaust, reached 442 micrograms per cubic meter of air, a level not seen since Nov. 8, 1995.
Outdoor physical education classes were suspended for children in the city’s 800 public schools, and a fossil fuel-fired power plant in Vitry near Paris shut down.
Voynet, who was roundly criticized for reacting slowly to air pollution problems in several French cities last summer, ordered the first use of a 1996 law authorizing an alternate driving plan if pollution levels become too high.
On Wednesday, the minister announced, only cars with an odd registration number on the license plate could take to the streets of Paris and 22 surrounding suburbs. If the alert continued through today, it would be the turn of even-numbered cars, and so on.
It was uncertain how motorists would react. Every day, 3 million cars, trucks and buses enter or leave Paris, and at any given time, 120,000 vehicles are engaged on its 930-mile labyrinth of streets and boulevards.