Letting French pedestrians see the light; Paris drivers glare at headlight law

French motorists are being driven up the wall by the government's latest decree: a trial regulation requiring them to use headlights when driving at night in brightly lit metropolitan areas.

The experimental regulation makes the traditional practice of driving with feeble parking lights illegal.

"You foreigners just don't understand," explained one Frenchman who, like a good portion of his 18 million motorized compatriots, practically worships his automobile. "But we are tired of having to obey absurb government regulations. We are individualists at heart and we don't like being pushed around."

"First we had to obey new speed limits," quiped another. "Then we were ordered to wear safety belts, and now we have to keep our main headlamps on. It's our own business if we want to get killed on the roads, not the government's . . . ."

But in a country where aggressive driving is best described as a national pastime, the committed motorist has little to say about the harassed pedestrian's right to see well-lit oncoming night traffic in order to survive.

Yet ever since the French government implemented its "see and be seen" decree Oct. 15, hardly a day has gone by without heated debate on radio and television, in newspapers and cafes over the pros and cons of using full headlights in town at night.

It is what serious-minded Frenchmen call a "faux probleme" -- a nonexistent problem. Yet the conservative daily, Le Figaro, has asked extravangantly wheter "motorists are experiencing their 1968 revolution?"

Only the Alsatian Rhine city of Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament, obliged its motorists in 1968 to adopt headlights at night for safety purposes. The townspeople never complained, and now they regard the heated protests of their fellow citizens with mild amusement.

The issue has been hotly disputed in Parliament. Paris Mayor and Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, always ready to needle the government of Prime Minister Raymond Barre, referred to the decree as yet another example of the administration's "mania to control every slightest detail of the lives of the French people."

Motorists, many of whom seem to consider it their solemn right to maintain their vehicles as lethal as possible, quickly formed the now highly vocal "National Committee Against the Use of Headlights in Towns."

French motorists do not realize how ridiculous they have become in the eyes of other Europeans. Practically every other European country requires headlights in towns.In West Germany it has been law since 1949. And both the Swiss and the Belgians recently adopted the requirement without murmur.

Pierre Baudis, Republican mayor of Toulouse and a member of the European Parliament, believes that the question of headlights is really a European question. "In the European Parliament we have discussed European summer time, we have discussed herring fishing in the Baltic, so why shouldn't we discuss automobile security as well as the problems faced by the pedestrian, whom we forget all too often?" Mr. Baudis said.

Transport Minister Joel Le Theule noted that France had adopted a series of effective safety measures over the past seven years in order to reduce accidents. These include the obligatory use of the safety belt.

"Overall accidents have dropped drastically from 17,000 in 1973 to 12,000 in 1978," Mr. Le Theule said. "But we should not feel complacent. The headlight requirement is just another security measure."

In an effort to temper some of the outcry, Mr. Le Theule announced that the decree's full implications would be studied carefully and would not become law until the end of March 1980.

"If our conclusions are positive, then we shall keep the requirement," he said. "If negative, then we'll get rid of it."

But one wonders whether the French motorist will ever acknowledge that he is not alone on the roads. His stubbornness boggles the mind.

One motorist, when asked why he insisted on driving to work every day and sitting in two-hour traffic jams either way when he could easily take a 20 -minute train ride, said in surprise: "But I've got a car. I've got to use it sometime . . . ."

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