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France to loosen low-emission zone driving requirements for some areas

The Local France
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France to loosen low-emission zone driving requirements for some areas
A French Gendarme uses a smartphone to check the "Crit'Air" eco-vignette on a car near Lyon, France (Photo by JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP)

France's environment minister has announced that Crit'Air sticker requirements will be loosened in certain parts of the country that do not exceed pollution thresholds.

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France's Crit'Air system, which seeks to gradually phase out heavy-polluting vehicles from French roads, primarily in built-up areas suffering from severe air pollution, will be loosened in certain parts of the country.

The system was first introduced in 2017 in the biggest cities, and there are plans to gradually roll it out to smaller cities and towns by 2025.

Intended to lower levels of air pollution in cities, which are responsible for thousands of deaths a year, the scheme has run into sharp criticism from people who say it unfairly penalises people on low incomes, who are more likely to drive older, heavily polluting vehicles and less likely to be able to upgrade to a cleaner vehicle. 

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The mayor of Toulouse, Jean-Luc Moudenc told Le Monde there had been concerns "of a second social crisis like that of the Yellow Vest movement" because the Crit'Air system was "too restrictive".

In response, environment minister Christophe Béchu, said on Monday that a new classification will be created, called 'zones de vigilance' (vigilance zones). 

The minister said: "The aim is not to annoy the French or to take measures that would harm people on low-incomes, but to put an end to the number of deaths caused by air pollution, which still stands at 47,000 a year".

How does Crit'Air work?

The system assigns each vehicle a number from 0 (electric cars) to 5 (the most polluting vehicles). In areas where the scheme is in place, drivers must display a sticker in their windscreen showing the Crit'Air number of their vehicle (this includes non-French registered vehicles, so also affects tourists driving in France).

Depending on the local rules in place, vehicles with a Crit'Air 3, 4 and 5 rating may be either banned or restricted from certain areas. Cities can also introduce temporary extra measures when air pollution levels spike (usually in the summer).

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See here for a full explanation of how the system works, and how to order your sticker: Crit'Air: How France's vehicle emissions stickers work

What's changing?

The new 'vigilance' classification announced by the minister will apply to built-up areas where air pollution limits have not been exceeded. Areas that have exceeded air quality thresholds will remain as low-emission zones (ZFEs).

Essentially, this will mean that five French urban areas - Paris, Lyon, Aix-Marseille, Rouen and Strasbourg - will continue to qualify as ZFEs, as they regularly exceed regulatory air quality thresholds.

Other towns and cities will be classed as 'vigilance zones' - they will still have Crit'Air schemes in place, but will no longer be required to implement bans on certain vehicles.

Areas classified as ZFEs (Paris, Lyon, Aix-Marseille, Rouen and Strasbourg) are required to institute bans on Crit'Air 4 vehicles in city centres by the end of 2024, and Crit'Air 3 vehicles by 2025.

In vigilance zones this will not be a requirement, although local authorities may choose to do so.

So for example Toulouse, France's fourth-largest city, will be a 'vigilance zone' and thus it will no longer be required to enforce current restrictions, even though there is a ban on Crit'Air 3 vehicles was set to go into effect starting January 2024. 

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Minister Béchu clarified that "elected officials can go further or faster than the national standard, but this is in no way a legal obligation".

The major areas affected by the new 'vigilance' classification are Nice, Grenoble, Montpellier, Reims, Saint-Etienne and Lille. 

The mayor of Toulouse said in a press conference on Monday evening that the city will maintain restrictions on Crit'Air 4 and 5 vehicles, which is already in place, but it will "not put into force the Crit'Air 3 ban set to take place in January". However, the mayor told Actu Toulouse that this would be a "suspension, not a cancellation". 

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