The French Government is bringing in a new law to banish electric scooters from the nation's pavements. It follows hundreds of collisions with pedestrians, some of them fatal. Transport Minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, says it will 'restore a sense of tranquillity for pedestrians'.
Competition time... Rearrange the following into a well-known phrase or saying: chance, fat.
For one thing, nothing is better guaranteed to make the French behave in a certain way than a law telling them to behave otherwise. Left to their own instincts, they are a polite, considerate, well-mannered people. They just don't like being told to be so by jumped-up politicians in Paris. If you were to draw a Venn diagram with circles marked 'what's law' and 'what happens', the overlap would be like a sliver of fingernail. So compliance and enforcement are going to be, as management jargon has it, challenging.
In any case, the hazards of French pavements are far too many and various for such a modest reform to make any detectable impact. The country that invented the flâneur and the boulevardier seems determined to make life as difficult as possible for their base element, the pedestrian. The idea of strolling elegantly to see and be seen is laughably obsolete.
We don't even get to look where we're going. The older and more fastidious of us hardly dare raise our eyes from the ground, as we weave around the consequences of urban France's love affair with le chien. Forget what you were taught in classroom French: un trottoir means a place to empty out one's dog. Meanwhile, in a city of seven universities and heaven knows how many colleges, the likelihood is that the pavement-wide gaggle of youngsters coming towards you last looked up from their phones at école maternelle. They are entirely capable of trampling you into the dust without even noticing, unless they have an app to alert them about it ('Hi Jean-Claude! You have just stomped an elderly Scotsman. Please rate this message Okay, Cool, or Awesome').
Djebbari's new law only applies to a small minority of the machines that scatter pedestrians hither and yon on French pavements. It does not mean 'scooter' in the Vespa sense, though owners of those too seem to think they have an entitlement to roar through 'pedestrianised' streets at high, fume-belching, peace-shattering velocity. In France, there is an especially heavy variety with two front wheels rather than one, which I'm told is a ploy for getting around the need to have a licence.
The scooters Djebbari has in mind are those right-angled jobs – footplate, and upright handlebars – that kids of my generation played on until your fifth Christmas and first bike. The electric ones, which retail for about €350, can certainly shift. But so can what guitarists would call the acoustic version, especially if powered by a muscular millennial with a Dennis the Menace complex, which is most of them, and a mobile phone in one hand.
It's not clear that the new law will even catch all the variants of electric scooter, such as the ones that look like a plate-warmer on wheels, on which the owner stands to attention inclined slightly forward. It will, presumably, exclude mobility scooters. But French pavements are so cluttered with wheelie bins, chained bicycles, shop displays and street furniture (concrete telegraph poles often stand in the centre of pavements, not the kerb) that most mobility scooter-users prefer the road anyway.
And actually, by far the biggest threat to pedestrians comes from bicycles. Montpellier has many kilometres of cycle lane, but cyclists of all ages seem generally to prefer the pavement, and certainly have no intention of cycling on the road. They are especially hazardous at night, since French law does not require lights (or crash helmets, for that matter). Montpellier's economy consists almost entirely of students delivering pizza to one another, so night walking becomes a constant ordeal of pavement-hogging bikes that suddenly rear out of the darkness at the speed you would expect from a sinewy youth on piecework.
Almost as bad are skateboards, another kiddie conveyance that for some reason fascinates idiots into middle age. A couple of weeks back, I narrowly serious injury when I walked round the corner of a backstreet on my way to our local market to find a 40-something man on what I hope was his kids' skateboard bearing down at terrifying pace. His unfortunate family were cycling hard down the pavement behind him: three children, with mother bringing up the rear and no doubt wondering how she had managed to conceive such a brood while married to an eight-year-old.
In the moment, I'm afraid my poised French deserted me, and instead he got scatological English, loud and lots. He looked most hurt and asked indignantly whether I had not heard him coming – the implication being that it was my responsibility to remain alert for puerile bampots on ball-bearings. Besides, you only really hear skateboards when someone falls off, though this does happen gratifyingly often. Near us is an old church converted into an exquisite venue for choral music. It has concrete balustrades outside, across which skateboards clatter from dawn to dark. Occasionally, amid the cacophony, you catch the satisfying snap of a collar-bone, but it is scant consolation for trying to enjoy Fauré's Requiem
against what sounds like Keith Moon tuning up.
The poor pedestrian is even under threat from fellow bipeds. Joggers, a constant nuisance on UK pavements, are happily rarer here and, if I'm to be honest, many of the Lycra nymphs that glide past me in France are altogether more pleasing than the sweaty semmits of the Edinburgh streets. Also, it's just them and their headphones. Whereas our market, a double row of food stalls beneath the old town aquaduct, is a magnet to that breed of Frenchman who thinks a crowded space full of toddlers and fresh food is the ideal spot to walk his dog. The beasts that snuffle hopefully at the goods on display range from the mounds of muscle and fang employed as bodyguards to the kind of manicured gerbil-on-a-string for which the French pay thousands of Euros.
Then there are those shopping-bags-on-wheels that you saw old ladies with when I was a boy. French people of all ages use them. They are fabric, but attached to trolleys capable of shifting upright pianos. Either pushed ahead into your shins, or trailed behind for you to trip over, they are hazardous to anyone reckless enough to let their attention stray to the stalls. They take their place alongside armour-piercing baby buggies as battering ram of choice for determined shoppers.
Nor are buggies the only baby hazard. Eco-conscious French parents don't lug their kids around in armoured 4x4s as in British cities. Instead, they attach small caravans to the back or front wheel of their bicycles, like those articulated barges you see on the Rhine. One of those, 10-feet long and full of well-nourished kids, can sweep a busy pavement clean. It is especially grating when the pampered brats look old enough to have their own driving licences.
A sense of tranquillity for pedestrians, Jean-Baptiste? Aye, right.