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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With leaps and bounds, parkour athletes turn off the lights in Paris

A dimmer Eiffel Tower shortly before midnight on Sept. 23, 2022.

By Constant Meheut

After taking a few steps back to get a running start, Hadj Benhalima dashed toward the building, pushed against its wall with his foot, propelled himself upward and stretched out his arm.

At the peak of his leap, he flipped off a light switch, more than 10 feet off the ground. A click sound rang out, and the bright lights of a nearby barbershop went off instantly.

“Oooh,” his friends cheered, as Benhalima, a thin 21-year-old dressed all in black, landed back on the sidewalk. It was the second store sign he had turned off on a recent nighttime tour across Paris’ upscale neighborhoods. Many more would follow as he soared up and dropped back down across the city.

Over the past two years, groups of young athletes practicing Parkour — a sport that consists of running, climbing and jumping over urban obstacles — have been swinging around big French cities switching off wasteful shop signs at night, in a bid to fight light pollution and save energy.

Videos of their feats, showing Spider-Man-like aerialists clinging to stone facades and balcony edges before plunging streets into darkness with the flick of an elevated switch, have been popular on social media since the start of the trend.

But these so-called Lights Off operations have become extra resonant in recent months, with France embarking on energy conservation efforts to cope with Russia’s chokehold on Europe’s gas.

Paris, the City of Light, is a favorite target. While its landmark monuments now go dark earlier than usual, many store signs still stay lit all night.

“Everyone can contribute in their own way” to save energy, said Kevin Ha, the leader of the Paris-based On The Spot Parkour collective, with about 20 members. “We put our physical abilities to good use.”

Several times a month, Ha and his compatriots can be found vaulting their way around Paris, on the hunt for electric advertising signs perched above awnings or illuminated store names.

They search out the small emergency switches installed outside storefronts, usually about 9 to 13 feet high. Most of the time these switches control only outdoor signs, meaning the group cannot extinguish the window displays bathing a store’s interior in golden, if wasteful, light.

While scaling other people’s property to turn off their lights may strike some as a form of trespassing, the Parkour athletes — or nonviolent vigilantes, to some — insist their activities are only about enforcing seldom-respected rules.

More than a decade ago, Paris City Hall issued orders requiring stores to turn off all signs and window displays from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., but the ordinance is widely ignored with little consequence.

“For 10 years there has been no follow-up, no control, no sanction,” said Anne-Marie Ducroux, the head of the National Association for the Protection of the Sky and the Night Environment, which has long lobbied to increase efforts against light pollution.

That is why On The Spot members have taken matters into their own hands. The group often converges on the so-called Golden Triangle neighborhood, in western Paris, the epicenter of French luxury, where elegant Haussmann-era buildings with cream-colored facades line the streets.

Enforcing the orders in place of the authorities certainly enters a legal gray area. But the group said all the police officers they have met during their rounds have approved of the initiative — as long as it causes no damage. And they have the full support of the City Council.

“They are right to take action,” said Dan Lert, a Paris deputy mayor in charge of the environment. “It’s also thanks to them that we’ll put an end to these shocking habits.”

Dali Debabeche, another On The Spot member, said these nighttime missions allowed him to hone his Parkour skills while “sending a message” about environmental protection. “We kill two birds with one stone,” he said.

Ha, 30, said the On The Spot collective was inspired by the Wizzy Gang, from Rennes, France, the first Parkour group to come up with the idea of acrobatically turning off store signs. A slick video of one such performance they posted on Instagram in 2020 reached over 700,000 views. Soon after, similar initiatives popped up across the country.

“We’re kind of a generation that is bearing the brunt of global warming,” said Mathieu Brulard, 27, a Wizzy Gang member. He added that he no longer believed “that the solution will come from political leaders,” and that these lights-out patrols were just the latest example of a younger generation ready to take action.

Smaller cities across France are supposed to abide by government-issued lights-off decrees similar to the one in Paris, rules which authorities said could save enough electricity to power 750,000 households every year.

On a recent nighttime expedition, five members of On The Spot were in their element. The streets around them glowed with dazzling signs for beauty and sport shops, and the shiny facades of luxury clothing boutiques.

“Terrific,” said Benhalima, eyeing the scene with obvious excitement. Spotting the glaring sign of a French bank where he has an account, he rushed to climb a gutter and turn it off. “My favorite one,” he said with a grin.

By the end of their tour, at 3:30 a.m., they had turned off nearly 40 signs.

Many of the targeted stores did not respond to requests for comment about the Parkour activities. Those that did said their signs were on at night because of issues with their automatic lighting control systems.

Some employees said they did not know about the decrees and questioned the legality of the group’s activity. “Are they even allowed to do this?” a perfume shop employee asked.

The “Lights Off” movement has perhaps never been more relevant than today, with France moving toward what President Emmanuel Macron called a new era of energy “sobriety.”

Paris authorities recently started switching off ornamental lights that grace monuments earlier than usual, part of a plan to cut energy use by 10% this winter.

The government also published a decree just this month standardizing lights-out rules for illuminated advertising signs throughout France. They now have to be turned off from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.; violation is punishable with a 1,500 euro ($1,480) fine.

But Ducroux, the lobbyist, said the new rule lacked the necessary ambition amid the current energy crisis.

The parkour initiative, however, may be having the desired effect.

Ha said he had noticed that in recent months, several shops had stopped leaving their lights on after his group targeted them. He hopes others will follow suit.

“At least, I’ll sleep better,” he said.

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