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DRIVING

Why France’s high-vis drivers’ rebellion is about more than just petrol prices

The upcoming fuel protests are not just about rising petrol prices, they are the latest skirmish in a long running battle in France between the countryside and the capital, the metropolitan elite and the rural poor, motorists and ecologists, and they will test President Macron's nerve, writes John Lichfield.

Why France's high-vis drivers' rebellion is about more than just petrol prices
Will the "yellow vests" follow in the footsteps of the bonnets rouge and force Macron into a climb down? Photo: AFP

As he tours the east and north of his country this week, Emmanuel Macron might consider the hundreds of useless structures which span motorways all over France.

They are elaborate monuments to a €1 billion fiasco and act of political cowardice which occurred in another political age – five years ago.

Demonstrations and violence by red-hatted hordes in 2013 persuaded President François Hollande to scrap plans to impose an ecological tax on trucks.

Journeys were to have been recorded by cameras and sensors on motorway gantries. The gantries still exist but have never been used.

(Cameras on a defunct eco tax gantry over a motorway in France. AFP)

(Protesters separated from one of the eco tax “gates” by barriers and riot police in 2013. AFP)

On 17 November, President Macron faces a potentially even more explosive rebellion, not just by truck drivers and their allies but by tens of thousands of rural and suburban motorists.

They are being exhorted – despite concessions made by the President yesterday – to block roads all over France on Saturday week to protest against a rapid rise in pump prices.

The uniform of this revolt is not a red woollen hat but the yellow hi-vis jacket which French drivers carry in their vehicles by law. A “gilet jaune” draped over the dashboard of a car has become the symbol of a viral protest which threatens to cripple an already unpopular President.

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(The “yellow jackets” protesting fuels prices in a stand off with French riot police. AFP)

The revolt is primarily about a steep rise in pump prices, especially for diesel (which still powers over 60 per cent of French cars). In the last 12 months, the typical French forecourt price for “sans plomb 95” has risen from €1.36 a litre to over €1.60. The price of diesel has risen from €1.24 to over €1.50.

Most of that rise is due to a leap in the wholesale price of oil from $60 for a barrel of Brent crude to $85. But the anger of the “yellow jackets” is not directed against Opec, for reducing production, or against Donald Trump, for blocking exports from Iran. The anger is focused on a Hollande-era environmental policy, extended by Macron, to drive up taxes on car fuel and especially on diesel (gazole).

“Gazole” was undertaxed for decades in France in the mistaken belief that it polluted less than petrol. The gap is now – rightly – being closed. Taxes on diesel went up by 8 centimes last January and taxes on petrol by 4 centimes. The diesel tax will go up by another 6.5 centimes in the New Year. and petrol by 2.9 centimes.

But the hi-vis rebellion is not just fuelled by pump prices or by environmental policy. Motorists in rural and outer-suburban France were already furious with Macron for forging ahead in July with a reduction in the speed limit on most two-lane roads from 90 kph to 80 kph.

(Bikers protest against 80km/h speed limit. AFP)

Both measures – the fuel price rises and the 80 kph limit – are seen in rural and “peri-urban” France as an attack by a “metropolitan President of the rich” on the countryside and the poor. 

Outside the cities, protesters say, a car is not an occasional instrument of pleasure. It is a necessity. We are being doubly and trebly punished by speeding fines, oil prices and fuel taxes. This is, intentionally or not, an assault on our way of life.

The yellow jacket protests are all the more menacing for being spontaneous and seemingly apolitical, spread on social media by a loose alliance of blogs and web-sites. Attempts by the right and far right to exploit the pump rage are being systematically rebuffed, according to the leaders of the revolt.

How long this will remain true is open to question. The red bonnet rebellion began in Brittany as a protest against truck taxes and rapidly spread to become an anti-green, anti-urban, anti-“elitist” revolt against a centre-left government. François Hollande, scenting danger, caved in.

Emmanuel Macron also scents danger. This week he hijacked an idea already introduced by the Hauts de France region. There will be a €20 a month tax “refund” for anyone who drives more than 30 kilometres to work, so long as they earn less than twice the minimum wage and no public transport is available.

That is unlikely to quell the protest. The yellow-jackets insist that Macron must abandon next January’s tax rises.

He has refused. The fuel tax rises, he says, are part of an inevitable movement away from fossil fuels and especially away from high-polluting diesel cars.

Macron is right. He is also right about the 80 kph limit. France has over 3,500 road deaths a year, more than double the number in Britain with the same population of people and cars. Most of the deaths occur on two lane roads.

But the protesters also have a right to be aggrieved. The coincidence of oil price rises and higher forecourt taxes has been disastrous for many rural or suburban families.

A fall in crude oil prices might ease the tension for a while but this dispute foreshadows other crises to come: Motorists v environmentalists; Cities v the countryside and outer suburbs. The fault-lines follow closely the cultural divides revealed in last year’s presidential election and also seen in Britain and the United States.

President Macron, already struggling in the polls, is about to face a high-visibility test of his courage and nerve.

John Lichfield is the former France correspondent and foreign editor for the Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield

 

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DRIVING

The law changes drivers in France need to know about in 2023

From petrol discounts and motorway tolls to low-emission zones and help to buy a greener car, here’s what’s changing for motorists in France in the next 12 months.

The law changes drivers in France need to know about in 2023

Petrol prices 

The French government’s €0.10 per litre discount on petrol and diesel ends on January 1st, and TotalEnergies’ discount-match at its fuel stations also finishes.

Motorists may be able to look forward to some help from the supermarket chain E.Leclerc, which also owns several petrol stations across France, after the head of the chain E.Leclerc, Michel-Edouard Leclerc, told BFM Politique on December 18th that the company would “make a gesture” to help motorists in France with rising fuel prices, but he did not provide any further details.

But the blanket discount will be replaced by targeted assistance for households on lower incomes who rely on their vehicles for work, with about 10 million workers expected to receive a one-off payment of €100.

To apply for the aid, you will need to register your details on the tax website. 

READ ALSO Who will get France’s €100 fuel hand-out and how?

Carpooling

The French government has unveiled a plan to encourage carpooling on Tuesday, offering drivers who register on carpooling platforms a benefit of €100.

Drivers will be able to register starting on January 1st, and the payment of €100 will be done in instalments – with a lump sum of “at least” €25 upon registration and then the remaining amount distributed over the course of 10 carpool journeys.

“Carpooling is a very effective lever for reducing our country’s fuel consumption in a sustainable way. It is good for the climate and good for the purchasing power of the French,” French environment minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher told Huffpost.

READ ALSO French government announces €100 payment for those joining carpooling platforms

Motorway tolls

From February, motorway toll fees will rise by an average of 4.75 percent, after rising 2 percent in 2022.

The Transport Ministry pointed out that the 4.75 percent toll increase – announced in October – is “markedly lower” than France’s inflation rate of 6.33 percent. 

On some networks, electric vehicles will benefit from a five percent discount, while regular users – who make a minimum of 10 return journeys a month on the same route – may be eligible for a discount of 40 percent, up from the current 30 percent. Check with the motorway operator for details.

READ ALSO Driving in France: What is télépéage and how does it work?

You can find out tariffs for autoroutes on the website of France’s official autoroute body AFSA – where you can also calculate the cost of your journey – including fuel.

Breakdown fees

No one wants to break down on the motorway, but if you do, you probably want to know how much getting your vehicle fixed will cost. The annual government-set charges are clear.

If your vehicle can be repaired at the side of the motorway in 30 minutes or less, you will be charged a government-set fee. A decree published in September 2022 indicated that the fee was to rise €131.94 in 2021, to €138.01, plus parts.

READ ALSO French motorway breakdown services cost rises

Extra help to buy electric vehicles

French president Emmanuel Macron announced in October an increase in the financial aid available for anyone who trades in a combustion engine car for an electric one from January 2023.

In a partial reversal on previous plans, under which the ecological bonus for trading in an older car for an electric model was set to fall, Macron said: “Because we want to make the electric car accessible to everyone, we are going to increase the ecological bonus from €6,000 to €7,000 for half of [France’s] households.” 

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: The financial aid available to buy an electric car in France

Electric car charge points

Since October 1st, electric vehicles parked in front of a public charging station must be connected and charging – drivers cannot simply use them as an extra parking space. Anyone who ignores the rule risks a fine of €58.

Crit’Air sticker extension and more fines for polluting vehicles

France’s environment minister announced in October a major extension of the city low-emission zones controlled by Crit’Air stickers, plus an increase in fines up to a maximum of €750. 

Between 2023 and 2025, 43 more French cities will create low-emission zones, on top of the 11 that already have them.

READ MORE: Crit’Air: Drivers face €750 fines in France’s new low-emission zones

The Crit’Air system requires all motorists – including the drivers of foreign-registered vehicles – going to any of the low-emission zones to get a sticker for their vehicle. The sticker assigns the vehicle a number from 0 (all electric vehicles) to 5 (the most polluting).

Some low emission zones will begin gradually banning more polluting cars. Paris, for instance, intends to ban Crit’Air 3 vehicles in July 2023, a move held back from July 2022.

READ ALSO Driving in France: How the Crit’Air vehicle sticker system works

Winter tyres

France introduced a law, the Loi Montage II (mountain law II), in 2020 making winter tyres, chains or socks compulsory in certain areas, which will finally come into effect in 2023.

The law makes either snow tyres, all-weather tyres or chains compulsory in 48 of France’s 96 mainland départements – generally those areas which are mountainous, with local authorities in those départements responsible for deciding where such rules will be applied.

READ ALSO Winter tyres and snow chains: What are the rules in France?

Insurance

Drivers in France may not have to worry about the little green stickers that they attach to their windscreen (windshield) soon, after French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced plans to scrap them in favour of a digitalised system set to start in 2023.

The goal, according to the finance minister, is to simplify the process for drivers and reduce costs.

French car insurers, like France Assureurs, have been pushing for the piece of paper to be scrapped for some time.

READ ALSO France announces plan to scrap vehicle insurance windscreen stickers

Roadworthiness test for motorcycles

After some back and forth, the French council of the state decided in October that motorcycles (two-wheeled vehicles) would also need to comply with “roadworthiness” testing starting January 1st, 2023. This is part of a decree passed by the French government in August 2021, and it specifically concerns two-wheeled vehicles registered to dates prior to 2016. The council of the state specified that the vehicles concerned are “motor vehicles with two, three or four wheels with a cylinder capacity of more than 125 cm3.” As of December 2022, the details regarding how this plan will be implemented were not yet available, so it is possible enforcement measures will be staggered, according to reporting by Auto-Moto.

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