The Age of "Sobriety" Begins
It is incredible how a bearish social mood often leads to actions that will only tend to make it even worse and are likely to result in a plethora of usually very costly unintended consequences.
The French government has now decided that it is time to begin with what one might refer to as the "age of sobriety". It is going to be celebrated by simply switching off the lights - almost all of them. Parisian merchants are not surprisingly rather distressed over this latest nanny state edict, which is coming on top of a series of other bans that have severely hampered the shopping experience in Paris for a long time.
Paris's legendary label as the "City of Light" may soon lose some of its luster.
The French minister for energy and environment unveiled last week a proposal for lights in and outside shops, offices, and public buildings - including the flagship Louis Vuitton store and the Lido cabaret house on Paris's Avenue des Champs Elysees - to be turned off between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. starting in July. The plan, to be applied across French cities, towns and villages, is aimed at saving energy and money and showing "sobriety," Minister Delphine Batho said.
The move has provoked an outcry from merchants, who say the government is being insensitive to France's image as the world's No. 1 tourist destination. They say the rule, on top of existing bans on Sunday store openings and night shopping, will hurt business at a time when the French economy has barely grown for a year and unemployment is at a 14-year high.
"Great! Another positive message sent to citizens and to tourists: the city will go dark!" said Sofy Mulle, vice- president of the France 's Commerce Council, which represents all of the country's 650,000 merchants employing about 3.5 million people. "We are ready to make efforts, but the government is cutting a fine line between sobriety and austerity. Surely, we can work out environmentally friendly solutions that have less impact on our society and our economy."
For Paris, the government's plan - final details of which are still being worked out - is likely to fray its historical banner of "La Ville Lumiere," earned both because of its fame as a center of ideas and learning in the Age of Enlightenment and later by its early adoption of street lighting.
It is probably not too big a surprise that this happens in France, as the socialist government has been quite merciless in its fight against anything that looks like it could be economically beneficial. Private enterprise has been buried in an avalanche of taxes and regulations, with the government not even shying away from issuing orders as to what can be produced, how and where in several instances, such as in the cases of Peugeot and Arcelor-Mittal which we have previously discussed (see: 'Moving France Toward a Command Economy' and 'Mountebank contra Mittal'). These are not even orders that are within its legal remit; it does not need to be legally entitled to impose such coercion: it simply backs it up with blackmail. The 'lights out' doctrine will of course be promulgated through the normal regulatory administrative law channels - it will be perfectly above board, but just as incredibly stupid.
Paris the Museum
However, the 'lights out' idea is not new, and it isn't even a brainchild of the socialists. The idea to this latest caper was originally mooted by the Sarkozy government. To this readers must keep in mind that just because a government can occasionally be 'conservative' in France, this is not necessarily equivalent to 'pro free market'. Sarkozy's economic ignorance was legendary as it were.
It is still significant that the socialists are pushing it through - after all it is ostensibly aimed at a group that is not their constituency (although with everything they do, they do ultimately harm their own constituency as well). They're basically busy adopting some of Sarkozy's most market-unfriendly, nanny-statist ideas, from the financial transactions tax to this 'lights out' calamity (among the predicted unintended consequences: a sharp rise in criminal activity in the ensuing darkness and immense damage to the tourism industry).
Sarkozy's effort was part of a broader European plan to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020. In January, his government passed a measure that took effect in July, forcing stores and businesses to turn off neon lights highlighting their names - of which there are 3.5 million in France, according to the energy ministry - between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.
"The original plan was crazy: they wanted to have all lights turned off one hour after store closures," Claude Boulle, head of the City Centre Merchants association said.
Merchants, including Boulle and Mulle, said part of their image is to have non-stop lighting because it conveys the idea of a place that's always warmly welcoming for shoppers.
"Also, lights from buildings and shops are part of public lighting and it brings security," Boulle said. "Even if there aren't millions of people taking a stroll in the middle of the night, light still means security for those who are."
Beyond security, Boulle said the plan would further diminish Paris's allure as a shopping destination when stacked up against London, Madrid or Berlin.
"We're becoming a museum, falling asleep after sunset," he said.
The city's tourism board recommends "Parisian Urban Pleasures," including night strolls through the capital's winding streets and along the Seine river and morning espressos in famous cafes.
The "petit bonheurs," or small pleasures, include a night promenade on the Pont de Arts and waiting for sunrise on the steps of Sacre Coeur basilica, on the hillock behind the Pigalle area. All of these pleasures may be dimmed by the new rule.
The tourism industry accounts for 6.5 percent of French gross domestic product and directly employs 900,000 people, according to government figures.
According to the tourism board's data for 2011, Paris drew 8.5 million foreign visitors who stayed for at least one night in a hotel and spent an average of 146 euros ($191) a day. London got 15.2 million visitors spending 102 pounds ($164) a day. New York City got 10.6 million visitors, Shanghai about 8 million.
You couldn't make this up. It's almost as if they had a brainstorming session the topic of which was "which industry can we ruin next?" and tourism drew the short straw this time. So in future, when you take a look at the famous 'earth lights' picture, it won't just be North Korea, the Sahara, Central Africa and the Gobi desert that will be dark as a medieval dungeon. There will be a new dark patch in the middle of Europe. Sign of the times.
The CAC 40 Index in Paris. No wonder they are pining for 'sobriety'.
French minister of energy and the environment, Delphine Batho, peering out from the dark that will soon engulf Paris.
(Photo credit: Fred Dufour / AFP)
Chart by: BigCharts