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French government indefinitely suspends truck toll

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The French environment and transport ministries have announced they have indefinitely suspended plans for a controversial truck toll, an already watered-down version of the so-called ‘ecotax’. The tax was designed to raise €500m ($638m) annually, but had drawn substantial criticism from the trucking sector. 

A number of environmental groups have expressed disappointment with the government’s retreat, pointing to the current socialist’s government’s weakness at a time of economic malaise and deep unpopularity.  

The ecotax was originally proposed in July 2013, and had already been postponed twice, before being suspended and then replaced with a toll transit. The original ecotax on heavy goods vehicles was expected to raise €1 billion annually, but after protests from the trucking industry, a toll scheme was proposed for roads with the heaviest freight traffic. 

The toll transit was to apply to trucks over 3.5 tonnes driving on particularly congested highways. However, the toll had already been severely limited, down from 15,000km of highways to 4,000km. This was due to come into effect in January 2015, but the government has now suspended it indefinitely. 

The tax would have had a significant impact on a high percentage of automotive logistics vehicles travelling on France’s roads. Many countries in Europe already have similar taxes that affect heavy duty vehicles in place, including Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

Transport minister Alain Vidalies commented to the French press on how difficult it would have been to implement the ecotax, including in a trial phase, after speaking with haulage federation representatives. Further protests from truck drivers were scheduled to begin next week, but have been suspended after the news. 

French logistics provider Gefco was contacted in response to the news, but declined to comment. 

Green groups en coulère 

While the trucking industry will be celebrating the indefinite suspension of the tax, many environmental groups across France are angry. Cyril Jarny, director of the Group for the Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES) France, a non-government organisation that specialises in sustainable energy and environmental protection, told Automotive Logistics that the retreat was a sign of the government’s weakness. 

“This clearly shows that the French government retreats in the face of the transport companies, to avoid more contestation in a period of weakness,” he said. “This retreat is also due to the dogmatic position of our new minister of environment, Segolene Royal, about environmental taxes. She wants to promote a non-punitive environmental policy…This shows that our ‘old thinking’ politicians are still considering the environment as a specific field, not part of the economic development and not an integrated dimension of the global policy.”

Hubert Flocard, a retired director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told Automotive Logistics that the French government had effectively played all its cards already when it came to new taxes. “Among the many taxes that the government elected in 2012 imposed on the country, the only one that was really justified and needed for the good of the nation was the ecotax,” he said. “Unfortunately the government waited until the French people got fed up with new taxes to try to implement this ecotax, thus leading to regional or professional revolts (jacqueries) that the government yielded to.” 

GART, the French group transport authority, said in a statement that one of the groups concerned with the indefinite postponement of the environmental tax is the railways, as it is “a decision that could weigh heavily on the sustainability of financing transport infrastructure.” Without the money for rail infrastructure that the ecotax would have raised, there could be concerns about how quality of service may be impacted. STVA was contacted but said it did not comment on this type of news.