France moves to new level in battle against pollution from private cars


France officially adopted the pastille verte, a green windshield sticker, to combat air pollution yesterday. Henceforward, 7.7 million French car owners with ecology-friendly vehicles will be exempted from traffic restrictions when ozone and nitrogen dioxide reach dangerous levels over French cities.

The sticker was one of several measures advocated a year ago by the French Environment Minister, Ms Dominique Voynet, after a severe pollution crisis. But Ms Voynet, a former spokeswoman for the Green Party, harbours no illusions about the sticker's powers.

"We won't re-establish air quality without changing our behaviour, without redefining the role of the car," she told Le Monde. "Homo automobilis must yield to Homo sapiens."

As part of her attempt to reeducate the French public, the minister will sponsor a "car-less cities" day on September 22nd to emphasise that public transport is the only long-term solution to chronic air pollution.

When level 3 pollution is reached, French traffic is restricted by licence plate numbers to odd or even calendar days, speed limits are reduced and public transport is free, as occurred on October 1st, 1997.

Green sticker-holders, who represent a third of French drivers, will be now be allowed to use their cars regardless of their plate numbers. They include "clean" cars powered by electricity and vehicles equipped with catalytic converters. Within a decade, all French cars should qualify and the measure will become meaningless.

When pollution alerts reach level 2, a frequent occurrence in France during hot weather, children and old people are warned to stay indoors. Over the past 10 days, the Bouches-du-Rhone and Lyon regions, Toulouse and Bordeaux have all suffered level 2 alerts.

Ms Voynet said the French have a civic duty to cut back on driving when the air is polluted. If they don't, she threatened stiffer measures. "If people are not responsible enough to give up using their cars on their own, we will probably have to be more authoritarian and limit traffic from level 2," she said.

Ms Voynet wants to give priority to pedestrians, bicycles and public transport over private cars and pushed for a recent EU directive that could reduce pollution per vehicle by two-thirds over the next seven years.