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The ‘French Ulez’ will spark wider protests

The Gilet Jaunes achieved little politically, and French discontent remains high. Credit: Getty

January 9, 2024 - 10:45am

Last week, France extended the ban of older vehicles in our own equivalent of Ultra Low Emission Zones — ZFEs, les Zones à Faibles Émissions  in 11 densely populated urban areas. ZFEs are about as popular as Ulez in the UK, but in a country where the mayors of most large cities only rule the historic centre, a lot of opposition comes from the métropoles — the outlying areas with federated municipalities that would be simple boroughs in, say, London.

This makes sense. Just as Sadiq Khan’s recent extension of Ulez to all of London was mostly fought on less dense peripheral areas where transport is unreliable and a car is necessary, it’s the less affluent suburban areas around cities such as Paris, Lyon and Marseille which protest the most. The unexpected Tory victory in last July’s Uxbridge by-election was noticed further than Westminster. Dutch farmers find it chimes in with the BBB revolt. Germans have complained and dissented as their beloved cars are kicked out, or merely restricted, as in Berlin where the recently elected conservative coalition has reversed pro-bike policies and re-opened a number of pedestrianised streets to cars.

As with Ulez, French politicians have realised that ZFEs are a hot potato. Not only does the issue pit “eco-bobos” — who can afford living in the heart of cities with good public transport, and smugly virtue-signal their beliefs at little personal cost — against less well-off citizens; ZFEs have also come to symbolise the Brussels top-down green agenda, a set of technocratic measures that not many would actually vote for.

The French ZFE rollout, which may extend to 43 urban areas of over 150,000 inhabitants, was initiated by the state, following EU legislation (80% of French legislation is now a direct transposition of EU law). A 2019 law rules that any cities where the air rises above the NO2 toxicity threshold of 40 μg/m3 must create one. There are currently 11 urban areas immediately targeted for ZFEs. Local mayors, except the Green or Green coalition-dependent ones, are less than enthusiastic: they can tell a vote-loser when they see one.

Gaël Nofri, deputy-mayor of Nice, said blandly that the city wasn’t planning to task the local police with checking ZFE violations introduced last year (fines can go up to €450) since “the state, which got the law voted in Parliament, isn’t getting national police to do it”. The Mayor of Toulouse, Jean-Luc Moudenc, followed suit creatively: not only is the municipal police officially off the ZFE beat, Toulouse created a regional “ZFE Pass” which allows any car to be used 52 days a year in the Zone.

By contrast, the Green-managed Paris and Lyon stepped up the pace even faster than the nationwide roll out, barring diesel cars registered before 2001, and all cars registered before 1997. But those have been banned from Lyon and Paris (and their unwilling suburbs) for the past five years. More recent vehicles, including commercial vans and lorries, will be further outlawed directly after the end of the Paris Olympics later this year. 

The periphery mayors are furious. “This targets the poorest residents and workers,” thundered Christophe Gourgeon, Républicain Mayor of Gennevilliers, North-East Paris (think Tower Hamlets). His Communist counterpart in Aubervilliers, North Paris (think Walthamstow) for once agrees: “It’s always the same people who are disproportionately hit, and without aid they can’t afford to change.”

Everyone in Paris recalls the start of the 18-month-long Gilets Jaunes revolt: a surprise road safety bill that lowered the speed limit from 90 to 80 km/h on non-motorway roads. Not many in France expect another iteration of the Yellow Vests, mostly because, apart from massive disruptions, the movement didn’t achieve much in political terms. Rather, the slow ZFE rollout has added to the country’s simmering frustration, and will stoke the next conflagration. Like in Britain or the United States, inchoate resentment of the “elites” reshapes political opinion. Green concerns are seen as luxury beliefs, imposed on the rest of the nation by the comfortably-established bourgeois.


Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.

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Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago

Curious how everyone always supports ideology such as lower pollution, clean air, recycling, reduced plastic etc, until it starts costing them money. It’s not a case of ‘luxury beliefs’, it’s time to suck it up – you want a nicer world to live in, you’re going to have to either change, or pay for it.

John Walsh
John Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

There is no such thing as climate change but the taxes that are,as usual, imposed on the populace is very real.

John Walsh
John Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  John Walsh

Sorry,ARE very real.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  John Walsh

Low emission zones are put in place to reduce local pollution and have nothing to do with addressing climate change.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

That’s the excuse. The air in London is the cleanest it’s been for over two centuries. The only place, except for some very localised hotspots alongside major roads, where air pollution is high is on the Tube – Mayor Khan’s personal responsibility.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

This aldo ignores the fact that EV tires burn off 25% more particulate matter because the vehicles are heavier.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I agree with you. You will find a repeating motif – somebody (not me) should do something which doesn’t affect me personally.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  John Walsh

The fossil fuel interests and billionaires want you to confuse climate change policy with all other “green” measures aimed at limiting very real pollution that mildly inconvenience you. Keep at it…

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Much like every Govt policy announcement. Where’s the detailed cost & benefit analysis? We all want the things you mention but at what cost and how much impact will those costs provide…I think we will be paying trillions with limited impact at the Developing World still using fossil fuels at an increasing rate

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Haggerty

So I take you are happy with polluted air.

Paul T
Paul T
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Its impossible to discuss anything with the person that brings their sister-in-a-wheelchair to every debate.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

Yet we’re debating, you are not. Hope that helps.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

You answered your own question.
The middle class, virtue signalling class who are most vociferous about these beliefs don’t seem to end up paying much for it.

“you’re going to have to either change, or pay for it”
So if you believe in these, then lead by example – no more flight holidays, cars, heating, private jets….
Then talk about measures which increase energy costs, or impact transport availability for the most exposed parts of society.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I didn’t ask any questions. And as already observed, this is about local pollution, not private jets.

Mint Julip
Mint Julip
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

There are approximately 650 airplanes landing at Heathrow every day, and 6000 across GB skies in general, every day of the week. Please don’t obfuscate the issue of flying with ‘private jets’. If you fly at all you are part of the problem.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

If that is the case, can you explain why older, more polluting vehicles (over 40 years old – classic cars) are exempt ? You could drive a Trabant around inner London all day without any problem. But the pollution would be appalling.
I suggest that these measures are also about raising income from motorists. There comes a point at which any benefits from reduction in pollution (which is lower than it has been in the past in most respects) outweigh the costs. Pursuing a target of zero for iedological reasons would not be sensible.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Because classic cars obviously contribute nothing to the general pollution, but I expect you know this already.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Of course it’s a luxury belief. It is supported by the wealthy residents living in the core, who won’t be taxed regardless, and opposed by the less wealthy residents outside the core.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

How can wanting clean air be a luxury belief? Seems you are just being cynical for the sake of it.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

The air is already remarkably clean. The study saying it will save 4,000 lives has be thoroughly debunked. So what you have is a naked tax grab that punishes people who cannot afford EVs, which themselves burn more particulate matter from tires than traditional cars.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Where’s the study saying Paris’s air is clean? Nothing in Paris is clean.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

lol, that’s true

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I like the world just fine, thanks. The idea that a few pen strokes from bureaucrats will result in “nicer” anything is a stretch. These people can barely manage the basic roles of public administration, but they are well-paid for their efforts with pensions a lot of others would like to have.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

You highlight the problem by referring to “everyone supports ideology such as lower pollution ..” It is the ideology that is the problem. While many will value lower pollution etc it is the fact that revenue raising fines are imposed that have arbitrary impacts and that often contribute little in practice to lowering pollution etc and indeed in some instances may increase it such as the impact of tyre particulates production by EVs that produces resistance. It is the feeling that measures that are relatively cost free to the wealthy bureaucrats are disproportionately impacting the less wealthy for more Virtual signalling than effective results that rankles.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The reality is the charge is only attracted to polluting vehicles over 18 years old, and any of those owners can benefit from the scrappage scheme to swap their car.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

“Classic cars” like Trabants are, however, exempt.

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 months ago

Since the emergence of environmental activism in the 1990s, national and local governments, advised by powerful civil and public servants, have used the ‘green’ label to impose taxes and increase revenue – and taxes are a primary means of controlling pliable electorates.

Klive Roland
Klive Roland
6 months ago

The author seems to suggest that the Gilets Jaunes movement arose from a change in speed limits. This is not true: it resulted from higher taxation of fuel for motor vehicles.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Klive Roland

Could you point out where you got that impression from? I’d suggest that it’s extremely unlikely the author believes what you suggest.

Klive Roland
Klive Roland
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The article appears to have been edited since I posted my comment. The offending sentence has been removed.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Klive Roland

Ah, fair enough, and thanks for the reply.

David Barnett
David Barnett
6 months ago

We need a law that all fines and taxes imposed to modify behaviour be inaccessible to any government or quasi-government agency for revenue purposes. All the costs of enforcement to be born by the enforcing agency. All the revenues to a non-government fund.
Perhaps the fund could compensate those injured by unaccountable parties (or some similar charitable purpose). Then see how many of these scams survive on their genuine merits…

rupert carnegie
rupert carnegie
6 months ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Good idea – though I doubt it will be embraced by many finance ministries given their struggle to increase the tax take.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

Not only does the issue pit “eco-bobos” — who can afford living in the heart of cities with good public transport, and smugly virtue-signal their beliefs at little personal cost — against less well-off citizens
Hmmm; where have we seen this dynamic before, this division by social class? And how does it typically end?

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago

Not sure why the author is putting “elites” in quotation marks for France. If there’s anywhere that has elites in power, it’s France. There’s nothing subjective about it. And Macron has only made that worse.
Curious how keen she is to sit on the fence on this. She’s not usually short of an opinion.

Rob N
Rob N
6 months ago

Can anyone clarify whether Mayor Khan got to impose his ULEZ expansion on parts of ‘London’ which don’t get to vote for him? Does the GLA cover all the ULEZ zone?