In legal first, court faults France over air pollution

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Paris sought to restrict cars on the road after the 2016 pollution crisis

Paris sought to restrict cars on the road after the 2016 pollution crisis (AFP Photo/GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT)

Montreuil (France) (AFP) - A court on Tuesday found the French state had failed to take sufficient steps to limit air pollution around Paris, a legal first in the country hailed by environmental campaigners as a victory for victims of dirty air.

The case at the administrative court in Montreuil outside Paris was brought by a mother and daughter who argued their health had been harmed by the air in a notoriously congested area of the city.

But the court also said it did not find any direct link between the pair's health problems and failures of the state, throwing out their demand for damages.

Backed by NGOs, the complaint was the first brought by individuals against the French state over health problems caused by air pollution.

"The state committed a fault by taking insufficient measures concerning the quality of air," the court said in a statement.

It said that between 2012 and 2016, the state had failed to take sufficient measures to bring concentrations of certain polluting gases below allowed limits.

"For victims of pollution, this is a first," the plaintiffs' lawyer Francois Lafforgue told AFP. "From now, the state will have to take effective measures in the fight against pollution and the victims can hope to have what they suffered recognised."

Nadir Saifi, of Ecologie sans Frontiere, a French NGO which backed the case, said the decision was "historic".

"I am very moved. We have been waiting for this for 20 years," said the activist.

- More cases to come -

However the court rejected the pair's demand for 160,000 euros ($182,000) in damages, saying it could not find a direct link between their health problems and the state's failings.

The mother Farida, 52, and daughter said the authorities did not take effective steps against atmospheric pollution, in particular during a pollution high in December 2016.

They argued that this affected their health, especially as they were living at the time in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen, just outside the clogged peripherique ring road. They have now moved to the Loire city of Orleans.

The peripherique -- opened in 1973 -- takes 1.1 million drivers a day but is also a nightmare for the 100,000 people living around it.

The ruling said, however, that the Paris authorities had not been at fault during the 2016 pollution crisis and had introduced measures such as restricting the number of cars on the road.

Some 50 people across France are taking similar actions against the French state, according to activists.

The court's ruling comes as concerns grow over pollution in Paris as the capital and other parts of France swelter in a heatwave.

Paris authorities have banned older models of diesel and petrol cars from Paris on Wednesday because of a build up of pollution.

In France, air pollution is responsible for 48,000 premature deaths every year, according to the Public Health France agency.

As pollution climbs up the political agenda ahead of 2020 municipal elections, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is looking at proposals to limit pollution on the peripherique, including cutting the speed limit to 50 kilometres per hour (30 mph).

In May 2018, the European Commission took France and five other countries to the European Court of Justice for failing to apply long-sought steps to improve air quality.

In France's case the move came after 12 years of warnings over fine particles as well as nitrogen dioxide levels, which in some cities were more than double EU limits.