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.


(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


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Reader question: Can I buy a car in France if I’m not a resident?

If you spend only part of your time in France but don’t officially reside in the country, what are the rules regarding vehicle ownership? Can second home owners buy a car for the time they spend here?

Reader question: Can I buy a car in France if I’m not a resident?

Whether you actually need a car in France depends a lot on where you live. Larger towns and cities increasingly have public transport and cycling and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that means owning a car is not always necessary.

But, for those who live in rural areas, owning a car is vital, while even in well-served towns and cities, a car remains a necessity for many people.

But what happens if you’re a second home owner who is a non-resident in France? Can you buy and own a vehicle here?

The short answer is: Yes, you can. But – there’s always a but – you need to be aware of certain issues.

Buying a car

The most straightforward way to own a car in France is to buy one here. That way, it will come with the necessary registration documents and the car will already be registered in France.

You still need to change the details on the vehicle’s certificat d’immatriculation – informally known as the carte grise – to show that you are the registered owner.

Car dealers will usually arrange the paperwork, possibly for a fee, with your input limited to signing the right bits of paper. You will need to provide valid ID (such as a passport) and proof of address in France that the car will be registered to.

To do this you will need to provide documentation that includes your full name and address.

Any of these are accepted:

  • The title deed to the home if you are the owner;
  • A rent receipt in your name if you are a tenant;
  • A recent bill for the taxe d’habitation or local tax that is less than six months old;
  • A telephone, gas or electricity bill (water bills and mobile phone bills may not be accepted)
  • A certificate of insurance of the home

If you’re buying privately, however, you’ll need to sort out all the paperwork yourself. 

The registration process is these days entirely online at the Agence nationale des titres sécurisés (ANTS) website.

READ ALSO Second home owners in France: Can I register a car at my French address?


If you have the funds to buy the vehicle outright, you’ll have no problems – simply hand over the cheque at the appropriate time. It will be harder, however, to access financing for your vehicle if you’re not permanently resident in France.

READ ALSO How to get financial help in France to buy an electric car

Second-hand vehicles

If the vehicle you want to buy is more than 4 years old you will also need: a valid roadworthiness inspection – known as a contrôle technique (CT), unless the vehicle is exempt from it. 

The CT must be less than 6 months old on the day of the registration request (2 months if it’s a counter-visit to confirm that defective points detected during an initial test have been repaired). 

If this deadline is exceeded, you will have to pay for a new test, and sort out any defects at your own expense.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the French ‘contrôle technique’ 


Any vehicle permanently kept in France must be insured in France. Be aware that any vehicle brought permanently into France from another country must – legally – be registered with French authorities otherwise owners risk a fine of up to €750.

This is especially important for Britons after Brexit. French insurers will no longer insure a car registered in the UK. And British insurers will not insure cars registered outside Britain. Nor will British insurers insure vehicles of permanent residents in France. 

Remember also, that DVLA rules mean cars are considered exported if they have been taken out of the country for more than 12 months – and they, then, cannot remain on UK plates.

READ ALSO Seven need-to-know tips for cutting the cost of car insurance in France

Here, the vehicle is insured, rather than the driver, and it must always be covered. You can cut the cost of insuring your vehicle in France by reducing the level of coverage temporarily during periods you’re not in the country. 

But you will have to be aware of maintenance issues caused by leaving your car unused for any length of time.

CTs and the art of motorcar maintenance

Speaking of maintenance, French cars that are four years old or more must undergo a contrôle technique road-worthiness test every two years. 

These are carried out at dedicated test centres in towns and cities across France, and it is your responsibility to ensure your car is roadworthy and tested so it can be used on French roads. Proof of testing is fixed to the windscreens of tested vehicles so that officials can check easily.


The Crit’Air system was introduced in 2017 and assigns a number to each vehicle based on how much they pollute, so you will need to apply for a number to stick on your windshield. 

READ ALSO How France’s Crit’Air vehicle sticker system is taking over the country

In the many towns and some entire departments, the sticker is a requirement year round, even if they are only used to ban the most polluting vehicles during spikes in air pollution. Basically, it’s a good idea to have one just in case you travel in or through those places that require them.

Crit’Air stickers are obligatory in Paris, Grenoble, Lille, Bordeaux, Rennes, Strasbourg, Toulouse, and Marseille.

READ ALSO By country: How hard is it to swap your driving licence for a French one?

Importing a car

You can import your car from another country, if you wish. But you will need to deal with additional paperwork.

On the British side, you will need to declare that you are exporting via National Export System. To do this, you must get an Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) number – but you can only obtain such a number if you are only moving goods for personal use (if you are simply bringing a car for yourself).

You will also need access to the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) platform – again this is only possible for traders. If you fail to declare your export officially, border officials may block you from entering France with the vehicle. 

On the French side, you will need a 846A certificate to be able to drive your imported car legally – or to eventually sell it in France. 

READ ALSO Reader question: How can I import a car from the UK to France?

Obtaining such a certificate is no easy feat. But it can be done…

READ ALSO ‘Be prepared to be patient’ – Registering your British car in France after Brexit

You cannot keep a foreign-bought vehicle registered in two countries. Part of the process of switching to French plates is to inform authorities in the second country that it has been exported.