There is nothing chic about pollution.
The French know this. How else to explain the apologetic tone we heard from just about everyone we encountered last week in Paris, from the taxi driver to the hotel clerk to the waiter at the corner cafe. The cause of their chagrin? A bout of bad air so severe that it temporarily managed to dim the storied glow of the city of lights.
Fortunately for us, the measures put in place to counter the polluted air had been going on for several days by the time we arrived for a long-awaited family vacation, so all we experienced was gorgeous weather. Apparently we were lucky, though, because locals we came across had plenty of complaints to share with us about the toxicity of the air earlier in the week -- difficulty breathing, irritated eyes and diminished visibility.
Diminished visibility? La Tour Eiffel shrouded in smog? Quelle horreur!
So how did the powers that be tackle the problem? First, they enacted alternate driving bans and lowered the speed limit in the city for several days, resulting in hundreds of fines. Electric car and bike rentals were free for the weekend, along with - to our delight - the metro, allowing locals and tourists alike to zip around town without the expense and hassle of buying carnets of tickets from the glitchy automated ticket machines. The idea was, of course, to encourage Parisians to swap out their cars for public transportation. The measures worked, at least visually, and by the time the bans were lifted a few days later, the sky was blue and clear.
That said, reducing emissions for a few days is a Band-Aid solution to a problem that obviously requires stronger, more sustained measures. The silver lining to this crisis may be that it spurs the French government to get on board with anti-pollution regulations that have real teeth.
It goes without saying that smog is dangerous for one’s health, especially to children, the elderly and people with asthma and other lung diseases.
But there’s another reason caring for this city is so important. Paris is a work of art, and it doesn’t just belong to the French. It belongs to the world. And I have always kind of felt -- it belongs to me.