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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France must do more on fuel prices or face rebellion this summer

The French government's aid for drivers hit by soaring fuel prices has so far been limited - John Lichfield argues that they must do more or face a 'yellow vest' style revolt by the summer.

OPINION: France must do more on fuel prices or face rebellion this summer
The 'yellow vests' protests of 2018 began as a protest over fuel prices. Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP

One of my neighbours in a hill village in Normandy drives to work in Caen every day, 90 kilometres return. Since the Ukraine war began, the bill for his weekly commute has increased by around €16 and is now €90 a week.

As Fabrice earns the minimum wage of just under €300 a week (after taxes and social charges), this is a significant chunk of his income.

“I don’t understand why the government doesn’t just reduce the taxes at the pump,” he said. “Everyone knows that half of what we pay for petrol and diesel goes to the government.”

Actually, Fabrice is wrong about that. The share of taxes in pump prices in France is more than half. It is about 57 percent (16.4 percent VAT; 40.7 percent energy tax).

Petrol and diesel prices were already rising before Vladminir Putin invaded Ukraine and the 21st century. They rose by around 30 centimes a litre in the last three  weeks, more on diesel than on petrol. For the last two or three days, pump prices have been falling as the market for crude and refined diesel falls.

The average across France on Wednesday is reported to be €2.03 for diesel and €1.97 for leadless petrol (sans plomb 95). At the end of January, it was roughly €1.70 a litre. When the Giles Jaunes revolt in provincial France began in 2018 it was around €1.50 a litre.

The government’s response, so far, has been to announce a 15 centimes a litre rebate on all petrol and diesel from  April 1st for four months – both at the pumps for motorists and in bulk supplies for truckers, farmers and fishermen. Why so little and so late?

The government says the rebate represents the whole of the €2 billion in extra taxes which the oil price rises have generated for public funds. To have reduced fuel taxes would have taken too long and involved recalling parliament. It would have given no benefit to professionals who pay no tax on their fuel.

Why the rebate has to wait until April 1st is unclear.

Anger is growing.

Three fuel depots in Brittany – at Brest, Lorient and near Rennes – are being blocked today by a coalition of truckers, farmers, fishermen and public contractors. They say that, with the fuel price so high, taxes or no taxes, it is no longer worth going to work.

Further measures, industry by industry, are expected when the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, announces its Ukraine war “resilience” package for the French economy on Wednesday afternoon. Castex is likely to announce compensations to truckers, fishers and others in the form of reductions in other charges.

Many questions remain.

The fuel price hikes are unlikely to change the direction of a presidential election campaign which is drifting towards a victory for President Emmanuel Macron on April 10th and 24th. If the high prices continue, they could produce a damaging backlash against Macron and his allies in the parliamentary elections in June.

To the high pump prices must be added an upward spiral in food prices and a shortage of vital industrial commodities like aluminium and titanium if the Ukraine war and sanctions on Russia last into the summer.

The government – and all European governments – will be praying for a continuing fall in crude prices in the days ahead. There is no obvious reason, other than speculation, why they rose as high as they did this month.

The European Union has not blocked oil or gas imports from Russia. The United States did so but scarcely buys any. Britain plans to do so, but not before 2023.

In other words, there is plenty of petrol and diesel available – for now.

The reason why French diesel prices have overtaken petrol prices (despite being taxed at a lower rate) is that France imports more refined diesel from Russia than petrol. Speculation on “possible futures shortages” on the main European oil market in Rotterdam has sent the wholesale price of both soaring.

Someone is making a lot of money from the problems of people like my neighbour Fabrice and the Norman fishers who say they can no longer afford to go to sea.

The French government – all EU governments – should consider windfall taxes on companies and individuals who make a killing from the Ukraine war.  The “oiligarchs” are not just in Moscow or Kensington.

The French government might start with TotalEnergies, ex-Total, the French energy giant, which made billions of euros in extra profits from the rise in market oil prices last year. TotalEnergies, unlike say BP and Shell, is also refusing so far to abandon its interests in Russia.

Declaration of no interest: I have an electric car. I can drive smugly past the big totems outside my local Super-U announcing pump prices over €2 a litre. I am pleased to see that President Macron is planning to announce, as part of his election programme, new government subsidies to make the leasing of electric cars affordable for people like my neighbour, Fabrice.

But that will take time. The government may be lucky and oil prices will continue to fall in the weeks ahead. Macron and Castex would be foolish to count on it. 

More needs to be done about fuel prices, and rapidly, if there is not to be a Yellow Vest-type rebellion in provincial France this spring and summer.

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POLICE

France proposes getting rid of penalties for ‘minor’ speeding offences

The French government is considering changing speeding laws so that drivers will not lose points on their licence if they are caught going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

France proposes getting rid of penalties for 'minor' speeding offences

France’s Interior Ministry is considering changing its current rules for minor speeding violations – proposing getting rid of the penalty for drivers who only violate the rule by going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

The Ministry has not laid out a timeline for when this could come into effect, but they said they are currently in the preliminary stages of studying how the change could be carried out.

“The fine of course remains,” said the Interior Ministry to French daily Le Parisien.

That is to say you can still be fined for going five kilometres over the speed limit, but there might not be any more lost points for driving a couple kilometres over the posted limit. 

READ ALSO These are the offences that can cost you points on your driving licence

Of the 13 million speeding tickets issued each year in France, 58 percent are for speeding violations of less than 5 km per hour over the limit, with many coming from automated radar machines.

How does the current rule work?

The rule itself is already a bit flexible, depending on where the speeding violation occurs.

If the violation happens in an urban area or low-speed zone (under 50 km per hour limit), then it is considered a 4th class offence, which involves a fixed fine of €135. Drivers can also lose a point on their licences as a penalty for this offence. 

Whereas, on highways and high-speed roads, the consequences of speeding by 5 km per hour are less severe. The offence is only considered 3rd class, which means the fixed fine is €68. There is still the possibility of losing a point on your licence, however. 

How do people feel about this?

Pierre Chasseray, a representative from the organisation “40 Millions d’Automobilistes,” thinks the government should do away with all penalties for minor speeding offences, including fines. He told French daily Le Parisien that this is only a “first step.”

Meanwhile, others are concerned that the move to get rid of points-deductions could end up encouraging people to speed, as they’ll think there is no longer any consequence.

To avoid being accused of carelessness, France’s Interior Ministry is also promising to become “firmer” with regards to people who use other people’s licences in order to get out of losing points – say by sending their spouse’s or grandmother’s instead of their own after being caught speeding. The Interior Ministry plans to digitalise license and registration in an effort to combat this. 

Ultimately, if you are worried about running out of points on your licence, there are still ways to recover them.

You can recover your points after six months of driving without committing any other offences, and there are also awareness training courses that allow you to gain your points back. It should be noted, however, that these trainings typically cost between €150 and €250, and they do not allow you to regain more than four points.

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