Let There Not Be Light: Light Pollution in France

Moon...and stars

Moon…and stars

One of the things that attracted us to this place back in 1997 was the lack of light pollution. We came house-hunting in April that year and enjoyed skies of cloudless blue in the daytime and inky velvet at night, peppered with countless stars. A comet that was the merest smudge on the London skyline arced across the night sky here, its tail quite distinct.

Fast forward 16 years and we are still in the happy position of being able to see the Milky Way clearly and pick out the constellations without difficulty – well, the ones we know, anyway. Friends living in the Célé Valley in the Lot claim their area is one of the least light-polluted in France. However, over that time, many local villages and hamlets have installed street lighting. We can see two from our house at night where previously there was almost nothing.

Clearly, people are concerned about security and crime and street lighting is, to a certain extent, a deterrent. It also helps people find their way around on foot more safely. But the halo effect dims the starlight. Apparently, light from a big city has an effect 100km away. Moreover, street lighting consumes energy and money, is disruptive to wildlife and potentially to human biological rhythms, too.

Local communes are responsible for street lighting and they can do plenty to counter its harmful effects without having to get rid of it altogether. This includes:

  • Installing streetlights that angle the light downwards to the pavement rather than upwards;
  • Switching lights off in the small hours and reducing the duration of Christmas lights;
  • Using energy-efficient light bulbs.

A national association – Association Nationale de Protection du Ciel et de l’Environnement Nocturne (ANPCEN) – has run a competition for the past few years to encourage communes to save energy and reduce light pollution. According to ANPCEN, street lighting accounts for 38% of communes’ annual electricity bills and 48% of their electricity consumption in kWh. ANPCEN give communes a star rating – what else? – from one to five and the designation ville/village étoilé(e).

I was pleased to note that of the 216 communes listed, two villages not very far away are villages étoilés: Beauregard (Lot) has four stars and Vidaillac (Lot) has one. I was less pleased to note that not a single place in Tarn-et-Garonne is listed. But the scheme is, of course, voluntary. And the 216 communes represent only a fraction of the c. 36,500 communes in France métropolitaine.

The website also includes an interesting map of light pollution in France. [For some reason the link doesn’t take you directly to the map but to the home page. On the home page, click on ‘Pollution lumineuse’ in the top bar and then on the 3rd item on the drop-down menu, ‘cartes de pollution lumineuse’]. While I know there are all sorts of caveats about how to measure this, greater Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon and the agglomeration around Marseille stand out very clearly. You can also click on your département for more local detail. We are in the north-east of our département, which is comparatively rural and far from any big towns, so the chances of seeing the stars are greater here.

The government has also passed a law requiring businesses to switch off exterior lighting and signs by 1 am, which it is introducing progressively.

Sadly, since the weather has reverted to type, we won’t be doing a lot of stargazing in the immediate future.

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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12 Responses to Let There Not Be Light: Light Pollution in France

  1. Pingback: C’est la Fête! | Life on La Lune

  2. Pingback: Montgolfières and Shooting Stars | Life on La Lune

  3. Anita says:

    An interesting post and I will have a look at the light pollution map link. We loved the lack of light pollution when we moved to our tiny hamlet in the Aveyron. Unfortunately a few years later a request was made for street lighting by one of our neighbours. Instead of the Marie installing one, they installed twelve! Although they are the traditional looking lamps that offer a soft orange glow, it’s not been the same since. One of our neighbours, fed up with the light intrusion, painted the one outside his house with black paint – now there’s an idea!

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    • nessafrance says:

      This seems to be a common story. When they install them, they go over the top. Your neighbour sounds an enterprising spirit – perhaps he’s the one who wound gaffer tape around the radar on the D916!

      Like

  4. hs martin says:

    The triangle noir du Quercy is a black sky zone that extends between Sauliac, Livernon and Labastide Murat in the Lot. It is supposedly the only black sky zone outside of mountain areas that exists in France and the astronomy club at Gigouzac organises astronomical visits to the zone.

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    • nessafrance says:

      The friends I mentioned in the post live in Sauliac and, if you drive around there at night, you certainly notice how dark it is. Looking at the light pollution map on the website I cited, you can see it’s one of the rare areas that is a black zone.

      Like

  5. amelie88 says:

    Indeed, stargazing where I live is rather limited. You can see the stars of course and in August it is possible to see the shooting stars of the Perseids meteor shower. But there is that slight inconvenience of light pollution that lies south of us known as New York City that makes it hard to see all the stars. You drive one more hour north and it’s like having a blurry filter lifted off your eyes–you can see all the stars!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I can imagine NYC would create quite a light halo! And it must have an effect across a wide radius. Occasionally we see shooting stars here but not as often as I’d like.

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  6. Sue Whatmough says:

    A very interesting post, Vanessa. I shall pass on the ANPCEN link to the Conseil M. at our next meeting. We haven’t notice an increase in light pollution round here and the valley villages we can see from our hilltop appear to be very economical with street lighting. I think it’s appalling how much electricity is wasted in cities and at Christmas too. What’s the matter with the human race? Don’t they know we should be conserving not consuming? Sorry, silly question, the vast majority seem to be in denial. Moan, moan. I’m glad to hear about the new law. I hope they haven’t given business five years to have turned off their lights! Am now going to have a look at the light pollution map. Thanks and I hope the weather perks up for us all soon.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’ll be interested to know how you get on. I understand the concours is free to enter. I was thinking of telling our local Maire about the ANPCEN scheme, although he might well know about it already. However, with municipal elections looming next year, he might want to drum up a bit of support…

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  7. lizgyooll says:

    We have had the same experience where we have been living in Tuscany; it’s been a mix of IT comunes wanting to spend their budget on totally inappropriate lighting in medieval villages and foreigners and Italians (especially city Italians) feeling nervous in the countryside and there surrounding their farmhouses with airport style lighting. I think it’s New Zealand that has encouraged/made law for lighting that has a downward beam. Here in Prévinquières, it’s a nonsense having over night street lighting when everyone seems to be in bed by 9.00pm … the lights turn off just about dawn chorus time.

    Sorry I haven’t caught up with you this time …. back to Italy next week and keeping our fingers crossed that there is someone who would like to buy the house; otherwise we are back to the drawing board. It’s all a bit difficult:(

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I think it’s often newcomers from the city who have withdrawal symptoms from streetlighting. But it’s daft having it blazing away in the small hours when no one is abroad.

      Good luck – I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this possibility turns into a definite sale.

      Like

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