Polluted Paris Forces Half Cars off the Road

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Paris on Monday resorted to drastic measures to curb sky-high pollution by banning all cars with even number plates for the first time in nearly two decades.

In a move that infuriated motorist organizations, around 700 police officers were deployed to man 60 checkpoints around the French capital to ensure only cars with plates ending in odd numbers were out on the streets.

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Public transport has been free since Friday to persuade Parisians to leave their cars at home, and at rush hour Monday morning, authorities noted there were half the usual number of traffic jams as drivers grudgingly conformed to the ruling.

Some, though, appeared unaware of the restrictions that came into force across Paris and 22 surrounding areas from 5:30 am (0430 GMT) -- or chose to ignore them.

"You don't have the right to drive with your number plate," a man on a scooter remarked to another while stopped at a red light.

"Oh really? I didn't know," the second driver replied before speeding off.

The restrictions will be reviewed on a daily basis, with odd numbers potentially banned on Tuesday if deemed necessary -- a decision due to be made late morning Monday.

The government decided to implement the ban on Saturday after pollution particulates in the air exceeded safe levels for five straight days in Paris and neighboring areas, enveloping the Eiffel Tower in a murky haze.

And while these fell to safer levels on Sunday, they inched up again on Monday, though the pollution was not perceptible to the naked eye.

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Parking in the capital was free for vehicles with even number plates Monday, the Paris city hall said, calling on residents to consult carpooling or car-sharing sites to work out their travel plans.

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Those who choose to defy the ban risk a fine of 22 euros ($30) if paid immediately, or 35 euros if paid within three days. Electric and hybrid cars, as well as any vehicle carrying three people or more, are exempted from the ban -- the first since 1997.

The issue has become something of a political football, with less than a week to go before key municipal elections.

The opposition UMP candidate for Paris mayor, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, called the measure a "fig leaf." Ecology Minister Philippe Martin said he understood the "difficulties, the irritation and even anger" over the move, adding: "But we just had to take this decision."

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