OPINION: Why the yellow vests are accountable for over 100 deaths in France

Since the Gilets Jaunes rebellion encouraged mass destruction of the hated speed cameras, more than 100 extra people have died on French roads compared to last year, and they should be considered victims of the movement, writes John Lichfield, even if he understands the source of their road rage.

OPINION: Why the yellow vests are accountable for over 100 deaths in France
Yellow painty sprayed over a speed camera by the side of a road in rural France. Photo: AFP

Should these casualties – many of them in the Yellow Vests’  rural heartlands – be counted as victims of the longest protest movement in post-war French history?

Yes, they should. Over 75 per cent of the country’s radar speed traps have been destroyed or vandalised since the Gilets Jaunes protests began in November. 

The figures for road deaths in February – a 17 per cent increase or 40 additional deaths – are calamitous. There were smaller increases in November, December and January. By my calculation, the Gilets Jaunes movement has now “killed” at least 110 people.


The National Observatory on Road Safety says that most of the extra deaths can be attributed directly to the absence of  speed traps. “There has been a slackening of discipline on all types of roads,” the observatory said.

READ ALSO: What's behind the steep rise in road deaths in France?

The government’s road safety tsar, Emmanel Barbe, reports  a “truly stupefying” correlation between the destruction of radar traps and a boom in deaths on rural, two lane-roads since November. In other words, the Gilets Jaunes are killing their own people, not with bullets or bombs but with hammers, crow-bars and yellow paint. 

The connection between yellow vests and radar traps is both visceral and existential. The government’s decision last year to lower the speed limit on most two-lane roads from 90 kph to 80 kph was a vital, and often overlooked, factor in the explosion of rural and outer-suburban fury.

READ ALSO: France has lowered the speed limit – here's what you need to know


There are good arguments for and against the new 80 kph limit. In rural France, if my experience in Calvados is typical, those arguments were rarely heard. 

Everyone was convinced that the Metropolitan elite was imposing yet a new hidden tax – in the form of even more speeding fines – on a suffering and allegedly despised Peripheral France. The 80 kph limit was seen as an arrogant imposition by a remote technocracy. “They” had no conception of how frustrating and time-wasting it was to trundle along straight two-lane roads between towns 30 or 40 kilometres apart.

There is something brutally perverse about the planning, or lack of planning, of speed limits in rural France. 

In one stretch of a Calvados D-road that I know well, the limit goes from 50 kph, to 80kph, to 70 kph, to 50 kph again, then 80kph, then 110kph in the space of three kilometres. At one point, according to the signs, the limit is 50 kph on one side of the road and 70 kph on the other.

I know from bitter experience that it is hard to adjust to the new 80 kph limit when you have a cruise device set in your brain at 90kph. I fell foul other day of what must have been the last functioning speed trap in Normandy.

There goes another €40 to keep Emmanuel Macron in limousines and gold-leaf dinner services. Where did I put my Gilet Jaune?

On the other hand, I’m constantly astonished by how aggressive and rude French rural drivers can be. If you try to observe the limit, you rapidly find another car taking up position 5 millimetres from your back bumper.

Much of this road rage is explained by the fact that enforcement of speed limits is relatively new. When I arrived in France 22 years ago, there were few radar traps. You could drive on motorways at 160kph with impunity.

In 2002, President Jacques Chirac decided to take a radical new approach to road safety. He would enforce the rules. The number of road deaths in France has plunged since then, falling from 7,242 in 2002 to 3,503 last year.

French roads are still almost twice as dangerous as British roads (6.4 deaths a year per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 3.7 deaths in the UK.) They are much safer than roads in Italy or Spain and almost half as murderous as the roads in the United States (10.9 deaths per 100,000).

If you look at the small-print of the road statistics you see that members of the urban elite are unlikely to die in a car crash in France. Four fifths of road deaths happen in rural areas. Poorer people are more likely to die than richer ones.

There is another great irony in the Gilets Jaunes war on radar.

The French state is planning to replace all those smashed speed traps with a new generation of fixed speed cameras. 

They will be able to trap up to 32 speeding cars at one time. They will be able to detect whether a driver is using a mobile phone or whether he or she has fastened his or her seat-belt.

And they will be set on higher poles to make them harder to vandalise.

Member comments

  1. “There goes another €40 to keep Emmanuel Macron in limousines and gold-leaf dinner services. Where did I put my Gilet Jaune?”
    This paragraph made me laugh out loud. Thanks for this article John Lichfield.

  2. As a parent who’s daughter was badly injured by a drunk driver who was speeding and I get very annoyed at the dangerous tailgating by many French drivers. Perhaps if they spent weeks visiting their child, a relative or friend in hospital they might be taught just what can happen.
    I recall your reference to Chirac insisting that road safety rules were imposed by the Gendarmes just before we moved here. The difference in driving standards was a revalation for a time but now it seems as if the French have a sort of anal fixation to the rear of my car. So much so that I have fixed my old dashcam to record anything behind us but even the sight of that doesn’t prevent most drivers from glueing themselves to our trailer hitch.
    As an HGV driver in the UK we were trained to leave a 4 second gap in good conditions between us and the vehicle in front – 2 seconds for cars – in France most of the time that distance is in milliseconds, so brace yourselves and make sure your headrest is properly setup!

  3. I can only agree with John. It is the idiots who drive dangerously and will cause accidents, whatever the speed limit. I used to think that was a very French thing, but several trips to England over the past few years, tell me that it is just as bad there now. What turns perfectly polite and thoughtful people into complete monsters once behind a steering wheel?

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.