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Gloves off as Paris pollution dirties city’s mayoral debate

Photo: AFP

With one week to go before local elections that will decide who takes Paris’s top job, the main candidates have seized on the issue of high pollution to score political points off each other.


There’s something nasty in the air in Paris, and it isn’t just the high pollution levels that have seen the city offer free public transport and impose a partial driving ban in a bid to reduce the number of cars.

Pollution has become the hot potato in an increasingly bitter debate ahead of this weekend’s local elections, a vote that will decide the outcome (indirectly) of the race to become the city’s new mayor.

Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo (pictured), protégé and deputy to incumbent Mayor Bertrand Delanöe and favourite to win the mayoral race, fired the opening shots of an environment-themed mud-slinging match Saturday, accusing France’s Greens (EELV) of failing Paris by supporting the introduction of a new generation of diesel buses.

It was a clumsy and “undignified” accusation, French Housing Minister Cécile Duflot, a member of parliament for the EELV – in happy coalition with Hidalgo’s Socialists – said on Monday morning.

“I’m baffled,” she told RMC radio, explaining that the decision to invest in the buses, which are designed to be much less polluting than the existing fleet, had been made much earlier and that the Greens “really didn’t have any other choice, there was nothing else on the table”.

The Greens’ mayoral candidate Christophe Najdovski was also nonplussed with Hidalgo, “who doesn’t have anything to say about the pollution issue”.

He insisted Monday that the latest anti-pollution measures put in place by the city were “too little too late”.

“The state has been in total paralysis on the environment for the last 30 years,” he told BFMTV.

The Greens, he added, were the only realistic choice for voters wanting to see a real dent in pollution. What Paris needed, he said, was a definitive plan to get rid of diesel cars, a new mega-tramway to get Parisians out of their cars and the creation of a five-hectare “central park” in the middle of Paris.

The usual ‘hot air’

But with just 7 percent support among Parisians, the EELV has some way to go to convince the capital’s voters ahead of this weekend’s ballot.

Hidalgo’s main rival, centre-right candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (known universally as NKM), who was environment minister in former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and just two points behind her Socialist rival (on 38 percent) in the polls, was quick to put the boot in.

Monday’s partial ban on cars in Paris was “window dressing” by a government “totally unprepared” for the latest pollution crisis, she said.

“The government finally woke up to the fact that the pollution had become an electoral issue,” she said on Sunday. “Their lack of timely action risks polluting their campaign.”

She also took a jab at measures to extend the free period for using the city’s “Vélib” bike share scheme.

“Parisians can now get on their bikes to breathe in diesel fumes from buses, signed off by Hidalgo, which will be running on the city’s streets until 2027.”

NKM’s touted solution to Paris’s bad air is “ZAPA” (Priority Air Quality Action Zones) which would ban the most polluting vehicles from designated areas of the city.

“Zap ZAPA,” Hidalgo said dismissively at a press conference on Sunday, calling NKM’s environmental ambitions “so much technocratic hot air”.

France’s ‘Diesel Minister’

NKM, Hidalgo said, was France’s “Diesel Minister” during her two-year term in office, insisting that every move Paris’s Socialist authorities to reduce the number of cars on the capital’s streets – including the Vélib bike share and Autolib car share schemes, and the closing of some busy roads to traffic – had met with “nothing but virulent opposition from the right”.

“For the last 13 years we have been pushing an anti-pollution policy that France’s right wing had attempted to stymie at every move,” she said on Monday on France Inter radio.

Hidalgo, also tried to dampen down the rift she had opened with the Greens, allies of her own Socialist party in government.

“The Socialists and the Greens have been working together in the fight against pollution since 2001,” she said. “Even if we have our differences, we all have the same objectives.”

The candidates for Paris’s top job will continue their fight this week. But the common objective for frontrunners Hidalgo and NKM are the keys to the French capital’s city hall.

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