Polluting digital screens are far from private matter

Green issues are quite rightly topping campaign agendas for municipal elections being held across France in March.

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Those hoping to become Mayor of Paris, for example, are offering all kinds of ecological measures – from increased pedestrianisation and tree planting to banning outdoor heaters on café terraces.

A war that the city is already losing, however, is the one against digital advertising screens.

These are the flickering, polluting monstrosities that are slowly appearing in every corner of the ancient city, including once beautiful squares and boulevards.

All are officially banned by Paris’s Environmental Code, but ruthless advertising companies with no social conscience are using a loophole in the law to bypass it.

Former Ecology Minister Delphine Batho has called for an outright ban on the screens in city railway and Métro stations and airports (see here), but the problem is far more widespread.

Paris’s current Socialist council is certainly relaxed about ugly installations being placed behind shop windows, and thus pretending that they are a private matter that nobody is allowed to complain about. This is despite the screens facing outwards, on to public roads and towards neighbouring residential buildings.

The highly aggressive films are certainly impossible to ignore – they do not attract attention, they demand it.

At night, they are like rogue cinemas that local residents are forced to watch, whether they want to or not.

Drivers are among those being distracted, thus causing a significant road safety danger.

The facades of Haussmann buildings are also being converted into the kind of luminous hoardings that you would expect in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square.

I know of one particular block in the first arrondissement in Paris where two screens run by the French multinational Phenix Digital appeared overnight in first floor windows of the building opposite.

They now broadcast for 12 hours every day, including on a Sunday, when the clothes shop that houses the screens in its upstairs windows is shut.

The majority of the advertising is nothing to do with the retail store, but instead displays garish footage on loop.

Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, and her colleagues do not care. They ignore all complaints, just as they refuse to discuss a Greenpeace petition calling for a ban on the Paris screens that was launched last November.

The reality is that councils make millions from taxes paid by firms such as Phenix and JCDecaux, and want less regulation, not more.

Each screen uses up 15 times more electricity than a backlit paper poster. They have also been linked with physical and psychological ill health, including in children.

According to its Climate Plan, Paris wants to reduce energy consumption by 50 per cent by 2050 – something that certainly won’t be possible as the screens proliferate.

Yet despite knowing full well that it is bypassing environmental plans designed to protect society, Phenix actively boasts about filling “more than 50 cities in France” with its “urban screens”.

There were only 40 in mid-2016, and now there are some 1,500 that around 8million people come into contact with every week. These figures are getting higher all the time.

When approached, Phenix argued that this all amounts to “freedom of expression”, suggesting that their rampant consumerism is part of some kind of sacred value system.

Such weasel words are straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, the literary classic that warned of a dystopian future full of unavoidable screens – ones that are just as likely to be carrying out surveillance as broadcasting dizzying propaganda on behalf of very rich and powerful organisations.

At the end of last year, a group of French MPs proposed legislation to outlaw this style of intrusive digital advertising in the toilets of Paris cafés.

It is about time they saw the bigger picture, and – like Delphine Batho – took action to get the screens removed from all ecologically-responsible cities and towns.

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion