ANALYSIS: Political weakness, not yellow vests, killed off France’s 80km/h limit

How did the 80 km/h speed limit on secondary roads go from a road safety initiative to a political nightmare, asks Political Science professor Fabrice Hamelin.

ANALYSIS: Political weakness, not yellow vests, killed off France's 80km/h limit
The 80 km/h limit became the focus of bitter protests. Photo: AFP
He started the game with a tweet in December 2017: “I am in favour of 80 km/h on the two-way national and departmental roads: two thirds of accidents are concentrated on these sections of road. “
In May 2019, he appeared to end it in one sentence: “If the presidents of the departmental councils wish to assume their responsibilities, I have no problem with that.”
Less than a year after applying the 80 km/h speed limit, the Prime Minister laid down his arms.
After having said that he was ready to assume the unpopularity of the measure, Édouard Philippe disavowed his decision at the worst possible moment, on the eve of an election.
Those who had once seen the expression of “courage in politics” in this law looked on with astonishment as it became a retreat for electoral purposes, a few days before the confirmation of the historical lows for road fatalities achieved in 2018. How did we get here?
An initial political choice backed by scientific studies
The adoption of this measure in January 2018 took the public by surprise. However, it can be easily explained by a rational – some would say technocratic – view  of public policy. Here, the mobilisation of expert knowledge and evidence is at the heart of decision-making.
For the executive, the problem was clearly defined: it was necessary to reverse the curve of road accidents, quickly put an end to the disappointing results of the previous administration and reaffirm the direction of this policy by the executive, to which public opinion would attribute the results.
For many years, international scientific work has correlated the decline in traffic speeds with a decrease in accidents and fatalities.
This reduction of the speed limit to 80 km/h had been called for by the committee of experts at the National Council of Road Safety (CNSR) since 2013 and supported by motoring organisations.
Bernard Cazeneuve launched experimental trials in 2015. Figures put forward suggested that 300 to 400 lives would be spared. The measure would also be accompanied by an evaluation after two years.

An employee of the roads department sets up an 80 km/h speed limit sign in Grenade in south-western France. Photo: PASCAL PAVANI / AFP

This political reorientation responded to the failure of the other tools in use: the effectiveness of automated speed control devices was undermined by sat navs and radar detectors. It was necessary to renew the road safety toolbox.
As for the method, it was inspired by that of Jacques Chirac's government in 2002: responsibility for the reform firmly assumed at the top of government – which had then silenced the opposition, notably that of ministers – and a rapid implementation so as not to enter into discussions with the many stakeholders, particularly the local and regional authorities concerned.
The politicisation of road safety policy
This depoliticised vision of public policy, based on evidence and the adoption of what worked elsewhere, appeared in autumn 2017 to be fully in tune with the political change that had just taken place and the spirit of a new government that intended to promote action that was “both right and left wing”.
It opposed, however, another vision of the fabric of public policy, which accepts ideological assumptions, listens to pressure groups, and strives to surf the waves of public opinion. Today, the term 'social acceptability' is used. It is this more traditional mode of public policy making that has come to prevail here because of a politicisation of the road safety policy that was probably poorly anticipated by the government.
This politicisation can be seen first of all in the fact that political groups, here essentially located on the right side of the political spectrum, have reinserted road safety into their agendas. These include Les Républicains and the Rassemblement National.
This partisan involvement helped to spread the idea of ​​a measure that is evidence of the paternalism and authoritarianism of the central State, as well as the liberticidal nature and the punitive aim of the policies pursued.
It even went so far as to deny the road safety ambitions of government measures and to see them as merely an additional chance to levy taxes.
A motorcyclist at a demonstration against the new speed limit on secondary roads. Photo: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP
The issue of road safety relegated to the background
This politicisation of road safety has also been visible in the mobilisation of elected officials. Senators, the traditional voice of local officials, have in particular taken on the case: the creation of a commission to make proposals to the government is evidence of this, as is the communication by members of the Senate in the media and the adoption of measures against the law.
Finally, the presidents of the departmental councils took the floor on this issue in the name of “common sense”, their responsibility and their particular knowledge of the roads and their users in their departments.
This phase of politicisation redefined the problem and relegated the issue of road safety and scientific responses. Political actors have thus promoted broader issues and used arguments that relegated the road safety issue to the background.
They mobilised against the contempt of the executive and the “Parisianism” of the measure, emphasising the deterioration of road infrastructures, the respect of the State for decisions left to local authorities, or even the weakness of the necessary dialogue between the public authorities at different levels.
In short, the technocratic temptation that came out of regime change came up against the return of politics.
Six months of preparation and controversy
The return of politics can also be seen in the mobilisations that developed throughout the six months preceding implementation in July 2018.
The long period devoted to preparation for the installation of the new panels allowed the mobilisation of the various stakeholders concerned. That’s six months of controversy over the measure. They helped and hurt the government and its supporters in society in equal measure, enabling them to communicate and build a scientifically argued discourse.
They also allowed the Prime Minister to reaffirm the solidity of his convictions in the face of unfavourable public opinion, and thus to stick to his refusal to amend the measure or to make local and regional elected representatives essential interlocutors on this subject.
But in six months, the opponents of the decision were also able to develop the political stakes of the debate and use them to build a coalition of opponents to the measure going well beyond traditional road safety concerns: opposition between Paris and the provinces, the denunciation of contempt for local elected officials and the defence of transport in rural and peri-urban areas were the themes mobilised by hostile associations and pro-speed lobbies.
They reached public opinion and were taken up by national elected officials and departmental executives.
A burned-out fixed speed camera covered with plastic and tape reading “under technical maintenance”. Photo: Damien MEYER / AFP
The emergence of the “Yellow Vests”
The second half of 2018 saw the effective implementation of the measure. It certainly allowed the Prime Minister to verify the success of the measure and to defend his resolve in the face of growing opposition. At the beginning of 2019, he could thus return to Seine-et-Marne to present 2018 as a historic year for road safety in terms of the number of fatalities.
But these six months were also the months of Yellow Vest demonstrations.
This movement, which came out of the problems and symbols immediately linked to the road – roundabouts, yellow vests and fuel taxes, for example – led to massive degradation of automatic radars and a major national debate. These two consequences of the mobilisation of the yellow vests not only re-launched but also shifted the debate.
The weight of the absence of the Head of State
Alongside the collective mobilisation and its impact on public opinion and the placing of the issue on the media agenda, one cannot ignore the decisive role of political institutions in the way in which this sequence has played out.
First, the President's lack of commitment to the measure weighed heavily on its failure. Unlike the model offered by the series of reforms in 2002, the road safety policy was never taken on by the President.
The Prime Minister was left alone, facing his opponents and some of his own ministers as well. There is little doubt that within the framework of the Fifth Republic political innovation remains fragile when it is not explicitly supported by the President.
What was newer was the relative weakness of the Prime Minister's legitimacy in his confrontation with legislative powers.
Sure, he was able to count on his majority in the National Assembly, and the rules of operation of institutions. But a recent illustration of this weakness was an amendment made by the LREM (La République en Marche) group in the National Assembly: local officials, and through them the executive, would not assume responsibility for the modulation of speed limits on secondary roads.
Macron and Philippe meet with trade unions, employers' organisations and local elected officials at the Elysee. Photo: Yoan VALAT / POOL / AFP
On the other hand, the Senate and the Senate majority were able to play a major role throughout the political process.
In spring 2018, they set up an ad hoc committee, submitted proposals to the government in June of the same year, used the forums offered by the media and provided support to local elected officials. Of course, the political context was appropriate. During this first part of the current government’s term in office, opposition has been based in the Senate and the local governments.
In short, beyond the mobilisation in the street and the lobbying work carried out with the executive and the media, one of the principal keys to understanding the future of the road safety policy revival project lies in the strength of our national and territorial political institutions.
The return of remote governance of road safety?
Are there lessons to be learned from all this for good governance? It's hard to say. Of course, specialists in public action can today denounce the naivety of a government of technocrats who thought they could do without the necessary discussion, in a decentralised state, with local representatives.
But faced with the specific challenges of road safety in the autumn of 2017, could it reasonably have embarked on a long and difficult negotiation with local officials? More importantly, could the government have foreseen the extent, duration, and consequences of the of 'yellow vests' on the automated speed cameras, or even that the Elysée's response to this discontent would come in the form of debates in the regions?
What conclusions can be drawn for public road safety action? The objective of restoring the effectiveness of road safety policy seems to be getting further away; the desire to make the Prime Minister the guarantor of this inter-ministerial policy also seems to be at risk.
However, the game is not over and, paradoxically, it may still be through expert assessment that it will resume.
It is through the demand for the “highest level of road safety” – in other words, through the procedures for regulating speed variations on departmental roads – that the government can influence the future of the desired reform.
It is then through a form of remote governance that it may want to play the next game.
“Game over… Same player plays again!”
Fabrice Hamelin is a professor of Political Science at Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC). This article originally featured on The Conversation.

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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.