Comment: A surprising French lesson for the world



Posted on 08 October 1998  | 
Gland, Switzerland: It is not unusual for me to be asked how I cope with the frustrations of life as a professional environmentalist. After all, people say, it is not simply the constant and sometimes unavailing battle to persuade people to change their careless and harmful ways but also the fact that barely a year passes without the emergence of some new threat to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.

In response, I and others like me usually mutter something about the necessity of having a thick skin in this business  and then point out that we have seen at least some positive results from our efforts.

Yet when, as a consequence of such questions, I think about why we continue to bang our heads against the brick walls of thoughtless behaviour, vested interests and ingrained prejudice, I generally come to the conclusion that perhaps it is sheer curiosity that keeps me and my colleagues going. By curiosity I mean an unquenchable desire to see what will happen next.

In many cases, what happens next is barely different from what happened before. But sometimes our curiosity is rewarded with a pleasant surprise  a selfless act of faith or a sudden and extraordinary leap in understanding that helps to make all our campaigning worthwhile.

Just a week or two ago, for instance, I was startled to hear on the morning news broadcast that 35 French cities, including Paris, were taking part in a day without cars. For a moment I thought there was some confusion about the date: it was not September 22 but April 1 and this was an April Fool's prank.

This was France they were talking about, the country where the car occupies a position somewhere between the sacred cow and a proud symbol of national identity. France, where people routinely use les environs to mean simply surroundings and the word environnement hardly figures at all except for the government department in whose title it occurs.

I well remember the time 12 years ago when the compulsory fitting of catalytic converters on all new cars had already been adopted in Sweden and Switzerland as an anti-pollution measure. Renault cars fitted with converters began to arrive in those countries from France, while back home the French car-makers were still telling their customers that the technology had not been perfected and, in any case, it was not economically feasible to insist on the inclusion of catalytic converters in all new models.

That was the line followed to the bitter end, and with barely a protest from the French public. Most people seemed content to believe the lies and settle for the status quo. So the idea of France falling for the concept of a car-free day in cities seemed to me like something from Alice in Wonderland.

But it was true, and confirmation of its success came the next day with four pages of special reports in the august Le Monde, one of Europe's greatest and most thoughtful newspapers. Will there be life in cities after the car? an editorialist asked, pointing out that in Paris 60 per cent of public space is now reserved for motorists and that France as a whole will soon reach the American level of one car for every two inhabitants (including babies).

He went on to answer his question positively, drawing attention to a new phrase used by growing numbers of people to describe the stranglehold of the automobile  la mobiliti paralysante. There was, he said, a feeling that the time had come to take back the city and restore to people the space that had been stolen from them by the motor car. A way to help achieve that was featured on another page, in an article describing ambitious plans to revive tram travel in the Paris region. It recalled that in 1921 the area had boasted nearly 1,000 kilometres of tramways, but they had gradually been ripped up until the last tram was taken out of service in 1956. Two lines did reappear in the early 1990s, but now the local authorities are cooperating on a project to reinstate 200 kilometres of tram tracks, which will revolutionize transport in the suburbs.

The country's biggest-selling daily, Le Figaro, was characteristically churlish about poor organization and information in relation to the car-free day, but it reported that in Paris there had been a 20 per cent fall in motor traffic and that, according to a survey carried out for the mayor's office, 87 per cent of Parisians thought the initiative was a good idea.

On its front page, the paper printed a remarkable photograph of the famous thoroughfare Boulevard Saint-Michel empty as far as the eye can see apart from a couple of cyclists.

If the idea of tackling the increasingly urgent problems caused by unlimited car travel can capture the imagination of the car-mad French, then there is hope for us all. The gesture was largely symbolic and it has come rather late in the day, but a precedent has been set and an example given that can be built on.

That is often how good things happen in society. It is also what sustains us in our environmental crusade, continuing to press for change in the face of constant charges of alarmism. Every flash of enlightenment renews our energy to continue preparing the way to that great day when complacency finally submits to reason.

(908 words)

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