The Heated Terraces of Paris Are Safe, For Now

A ban on outdoor gas heaters from Parisian cafés doesn't look like it will be implemented anytime soon.

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Jacqueline Feldman

PARIS — On January 24, the Paris Administrative Court overturned a ban on gas-fueled heaters for café terraces, which was supposed to take effect this June 1. The decision is a victory for café owners who consider themselves the cultural stewards of immortal Paris. For environmentally minded politicians, it is an outrage.

For over two years, Jacques Boutault, mayor of the 2nd Arrondissement and a member of EELV, the French Green Party, has crusaded against heaters on open-air terraces. “We are going to bring about a world where we must heat the streets in winter and cool them in summer to liberate ourselves from the hazards of climate,” he says. “We will finally realize the dream of becoming master and possessor of nature. No. Nature does not belong to man. Man belongs to nature.”

There are more than 8,600 restaurant terraces in Paris. These terraces account for 30 percent of revenue for the city’s restaurants, according to Jean-Pierre Chedal, president of restaurateurs at Synhorcat, the union for restaurateurs and hoteliers in Paris. Most terraces are heated so patrons can enjoy year-round a quintessentially Parisian experience.

“The terrace is an essential element of the Parisian café,” says Xavier Denamur, who owns five restaurants in Paris, four of which have terraces with a combined total of eleven outdoor heaters. “It is the place where one loiters, where one falls in love.”

Electric heaters on the terrace of La Rotonde, a cafe once frequented by French surrealists like Breton and Artaud and American expatriate writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald (Jacqueline Feldman).

Proponents of the ban take issue with carbon dioxide emissions from outdoor heaters and the energy required to run them. After months of advocacy by EELV politicians, Paris banned gas heaters in May 2011. Restaurateurs had two years to comply. The ban sparked a lawsuit by CFBP, the French gas utility company, as well as protest from Synhorcat.

Marcel Benezet, president of the café branch of Synhorcat, advised café owners not to make the expensive change from gas to electric heaters until the last minute. But there were reasons to resist besides the inconvenience of the switch. More than 42 million people, two-thirds the population of France, annually travel to Paris, the city that attracts more international visitors than any other, and many of them patronize terraces.

“You probably remember that movie of Woody Allen,” Chedal says, referring to Midnight in Paris. “Just try to remember your first time in Paris. You probably came to have that experience on a terrace on the Champs-Elysées, or in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”

On a sunny Saturday in February, visitors fill the heated terrace of Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, one of the Left Bank’s most beautiful neighborhoods. Opened in 1813, the café awards a literary prize, sells souvenir tea sets, perfumed candles, and USB flash drives, and was a haunt of Wilde, Joyce, Hemingway, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, among others. Guests on the terrace at Les Deux Magots speak many languages, and some stash suitcases at their feet. Before them, musicians perform on a sidewalk beside a 6th-Century abbey and a crêpe stand that advertises hot wine in English and German as well as in French. Waiters in jackets, bow ties, and long white aprons gracefully squeeze between the outdoor tables.

Two Americans, Larissa Marilyn and Bradford Alexander, sit below the heater on the terrace at Les Deux Magots. Marilyn first visited the café as a teenager, while on vacation with her mother, who taught her to read French literature. “It’s part of my literary and cultural education,” she says of the café.

“It’s a terrific experience,” Alexander says, “going through all these places where these artists and writers had their great ideas.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve had no moments of inspiration,” says Marilyn.

Boutault sees himself in opposition to tourists like Marilyn and Alexander. Restaurateurs who heat terraces, perpetuating romantic notions of Paris for the city’s tourists, sacrifice the quality of the air its inhabitants breathe, he says.

“A city is also, and first and foremost, its residents, the people who live there daily,” he says. “It is not a museum. We are not indigenous people to be photographed because we have a lifestyle that is ‘so romantic.’ ”

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Terraces have always been part of café culture in Paris, but heated terraces especially proliferated after smoking was finally banned in French restaurants in 2008. The number of terraces in France increased from 30,000 to 45,000 between 2007 and 2009, according to an organization called Rights of Nonsmokers, which sued five restaurants last year in an unsuccessful attempt to enforce the smoking ban on tarp-enclosed terraces.

“We say, c’est dommage, it’s too bad that restaurants have become nonsmoking spaces,” says Chedal. “You need terraces to be able to welcome clients and provide them with a minimum of comfort.” Without terraces, smokers mill about outside restaurants, making noise and mess, Chedal says.

In its January ruling, a tribunal from the Paris Administrative Court ruled the city had not sufficiently justified why gas and not electric heaters had been banned, writing the city conducted “no serious study” showing gas heaters pollute more than electric ones. While electric heaters do not emit carbon dioxide as gas heaters do, they cause more than double the carbon-dioxide emissions of gas heaters during the production and distribution of electricity, according to a 2007 study by RTE, France’s Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, and ADEME, France’s Agency for the Environment and Energy Management, which the tribunal cited. The city maintains that gas heaters are worse because they dirty the air those near the heaters breathe.

The city of Paris is preparing to appeal the tribunal’s decision and has also argued gas heaters are riskier than electric ones, likelier to start fires. But few accidents are reported that involve gas heaters on terraces. The city’s apparent concern, preferring electric heaters to gas, is less with emissions generally and more with emissions in its backyard. “So you don’t pollute in Paris, you pollute the countryside,” Denamur says. “It’s hypocritical.”

Boutault and other EELV politicians pushed to ban all heaters, not only gas ones, in 2011. Boutault says the tribunal’s decision makes clear they were right all along. “We should have prohibited the two,” he says. “The mayor of Paris, who is Socialist and not Ecologist, considered in error that electric was less polluting than gas.”

Restaurateurs rent terrace space on sidewalks and plazas from the city, under temporary leases the city can terminate at any time. “The mayor of Paris has an economic interest that terraces are rented,” says Joël Pedessac, director of CFBP. He describes the city’s banning gas but not electric heaters as “political.” The city may never entirely ban heaters, because it holds a stake in terraces. “It is important for the city of Paris, its people, its life, to have terraces where people will go,” Pedessac says. “From an environmental point of view, it’s not good.”

Denamur says a switch from traditional gas to electric heaters would also aesthetically imperil café culture in Paris. Restaurateurs rate gas heaters prettier and more discrete than electric ones. Typically the tall machines, called “parasol” heaters, elegantly taper into a glowing cylinder underneath a little metal umbrella.

The terrace of Denamur’s café Le Petit Fer à Cheval appears on the cover of Lonely Planet’s 2009 “Paris Encounter” guidebook. Two graceful gas heaters stand before the 19th-Century building. “Imagine the beauty of this façade with protrusions of rectangular radiators,” Denamur writes in an email. “Naturally I have not replaced my movable gas heaters with ugly radiators.” He said he would not “disfigure my façade with this equipment.”

Boutault says he and other EELV politicians will fight until all terrace heaters are eradicated. He ascribes the restaurateurs’ determination about terrace heaters to a “short-term ideology” of profit-making at any cost. And he scorns tourists who need heaters in the first place.

“In wintertime, oui madame, it is still cold outside,” Boutault says. “Eh bien, when one goes to have a coffee on a terrace, one doesn’t heat the street, because this pollutes, this is wastefully expensive. One puts on a little sweater, one puts on a little blanket, and one is outside, and it is cold.”

Inset image lower right: Gas heaters on the terrace of the Closerie de Lilas, where Hemingway famously wrote and a steak named after the writer goes for 45 euros. (Jacqueline Feldman)

About the Author

  • Jacqueline Feldman is a writer and Fulbright fellow in Paris.