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Why Paris will ban cars from the city Sunday

To fight smog, socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo said that the goal was to show that 'Paris can operate without cars.'

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Police officers control vehicles along the Seine river in Paris, Monday, March 17, 2014. Cars with even-numbered license plates are prohibited from driving in Paris and its suburbs Monday, following a government decision over the weekend. Paris is taking drastic measures to combat its worst air pollution in years, banning around half of the city's cars and trucks from its streets in an attempt to reduce the toxic smog that's shrouded the City of Light for more than a week. The Eiffel Tower is seen in the background.

(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

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Central Paris goes car-free on Sunday as part of its fight against air pollution, at a time when the Volkswagen emissions scandal again turns the spotlight on diesel and the air pollutants it produces.

The French capital's central arrondissements and areas around landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees will be free from car noise and exhaust fumes, allowing people to stroll, cycle or skate between 0900 GMT and 1600 GMT.

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Exceptions are allowed for taxis, buses and emergency vehicles. Paris has occasionally closed selected roads to traffic in the past, but not as large an area as will be covered on Sunday.

Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, who late this year will host the United Nations World Climate Conference, told the daily Le Parisien that the goal was to show that "Paris can operate without cars."

Last December, Hidalgo proposed to ban from Paris by 2020 any diesel vehicles built before 2011. When the Eiffel Tower disappeared in smog last March, the city offered free rides on subways and buses and imposed a partial driving ban.

At the time Gizmodo reported that smog in Paris is forcing France to give up its love affair with diesel:

Last week, the smog in Paris got so bad, city officials made public transit free and banned half the city's cars from the road. The vehicle ban only lasted a day, with the reduced traffic and changing weather patterns alleviating the smog situation. But why did the smog get so bad in the first place? Blame France's long love affair with diesel-powered vehicles—an affair the country will probably have to end, or at least modify, to prevent further smog emergencies.

Hidalgo's predecessor Bertrand Delanoe championed bike and electric car rental schemes, expanded bus and bicycle lanes and reduced speed limits during his years as mayor.

France has the highest percentage of diesel cars on the road in Europe. They have been popular as successive governments have subsidized the fuel, making it cheaper than gasoline.

While carmakers argue that diesel vehicles account for only a fraction of the pollutants in the air, experts retort that health risks are far greater because cities are where most cars are to be found and where most people live and breathe.

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The Paris event is not a first in Europe. Inspired by similar events elsewhere, notably the annual car-free Sunday in Brussels, a citizens' group called "Paris Sans Voiture" (Paris Without Cars) proposed the idea to Hidalgo who endorsed it. (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Tom Heneghan)