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Winter weather halts French travel

France experiences its biggest snowstorms in a quarter century. Flight cancellations force passengers to spend Christmas at the airport. After the success of its free-rental bicycle scheme, Paris sets out to replicate the experience with electric cars. And are French black truffles literally “to die for?”

Paris snow

Top news: In the 1980’s, Christmases were usually white and snowy in France — check out these rare 1987 photos of cars stranded on the Champs Elysees and sled dogs frolicking on the Champ de Mars.

Then, for many years, there was no or very little snow in the Paris region. So it came to many as a pleasant surprise when two years ago it started to snow again.

But this month, as France experienced some of its largest snow storms in a quarter century, people had mixed feelings about the white stuff.

In December alone, France suffered two large snowstorms, one in early December and the second just before Christmas day.

After the Dec. 9 snowfall, there were more than 4.3 inches of snow on the ground in the Paris region, a level not attained since 1987.

"We had to deal with a weather phenomenon with no precedent in the last generation," Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told Europe 1 radio.

According to the Interior Ministry, during the first storm in early December, several highways were shut down and 3,300 stranded commuters were left with no other option than spending the night in shelters in and around Paris.

The French government was quickly blamed for not taking appropriate measures as snow disrupted traffic all over the country.

So when the second snowstorm hit on Dec. 23, more people were prepared. Fewer passengers were stranded, as many decided to use public transportation instead of driving — buses were affected, but the subway network mostly operated normally.

In an effort to ease traffic, trucks were banned from driving in and around Paris, hitting businesses at a crucial time of the year.

While road traffic was less affected by the second snowstorm, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, the second-busiest in Europe, suffered massive disruptions.

Many planes were grounded because of a lack of de-icing fluid, turning holiday travels into a nightmare for many passengers.

About 400 flights were cancelled. Three hundred people had to sleep inside Charles de Gaulle on military beds, and the French authorities booked 3,300 rooms for stranded passengers.

Scenes of mothers having to take care of the babies in the airport for long hours were broadcast all over the world.

Airport staff tried to bring some relief to passengers, handing out presents to children, and sometimes bringing adults champagne in plastic cups and smoked salmon in an effort to salvage their Christmas.

But to make things worse, Eurostar trains between Paris and London were also disrupted because of the snow.

"The weather is unpredictable," said the Transport Minister Thierry Mariani. "You can go to all the effort you like but at the end of the day it's the weather."

At the time of this report, traffic had returned to normal at Charles de Gaulle.

Money: Four years after Paris led the way in free-rental bicycles schemes, the French capital has set out to offer a similar service with electric cars.

The scheme, called Autolib, is expected to launch in fall 2011.

After a competition between several automakers, the French conglomerate Bollore won the contract and will invest about $130 million. It will provide 3,000 electric vehicles and 1,000 stations will be built in Paris and its suburbs.

The electric car, called Bluecar, is designed by Italy’s Pininfarina. It has a range of 155 miles and a four-hour charge.

In order to use the Autolib, Parisians will have to pay a $16 annual subscription and about $6 for the first half hour of driving.

More than half of Parisians do not own a car, and 16 percent of them use their car less than once a month, while cars spend on average 95 percent of their time parked, according to Paris-based urban consultant APUR.

The Paris government is hoping to see a similar success with Autolib as with the bicycle scheme, called Velib.

Despite issues linked to vandalism and theft, the free rental bicycles have become part of the French capital’s landscape, pushing Parisians and visitors alike to cycle rather than ride public transportation.

The experience has been replicated in London, Montreal and other cities around the world.

Elsewhere:  Who knew gastronomy could rhyme with criminality?

Anyone who has read Peter Mayle’s touching bestseller “A year in Provence” — an accurate and witty description of life in the south region of France — knows that truffles are no laughing matter in France.

The beloved mushrooms can cost up to $1,000 for 2.2 pounds, and their culture is surrounded by ceremony and tradition.

Now Grigian-based truffle produce Laurent Rambaud is accused of shooting a poacher he found on his land.

The poacher died and Rambaud is in jail and suspected murder. But local villagers have protested in support of him.

Aside from this disturbing incident, the French truffle industry is also going through rough economic times. Its production has reportedly shrunk from 2,000 tons in the 19th century to 50 tons today, and is facing increased competition from China, which grows its own truffles at a cheaper cost.

The Chinese truffles might not be as delicate as the French black ones. But in these days of economic hardships, and with the French production’s decline, Chinese truffles make French producers particularly vulnerable.