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Zooming In On French Transportation

Zooming In On French Transportation
 Patrick Jeantet
Former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Keolis

Various social and governance reforms have been made in the transportation sector since 2017. From a law for a new rail pact to a law on greening the mobility of the French, important initiatives have been undertaken. However, additional efforts could have been made in terms of investment programming to better connect the various regions and to further the sector's ecological transition. Several challenges remain for the years to come, from decarbonizing transport, increasing the modal share of electric rail and decarbonizing the freight sector. Patrick Jeantet, former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Keolis, weighs in on the French transport sector. 

This article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions:

  • SNCF - France's national state-owned railway company. It includes the high-speed rail network known as the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse - high speed train )
  • Public transport - Buses are very popular and operate inside and outside of big cities. They are the most used public mode of transportation nationwide (71%). The second most popular way (49%) to move around big cities is the subway, known as "le métro", which can be found in Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille, Lille and Rennes. 
  • Velib’ Métropole - A bicycle-sharing service in Paris. With 1,400 Vélibs stations in the city, it is the largest bicycle service in the world. 
  • Gilets Jaunes - The Yellow Vests: a nation-wide protest movement triggered by the price increase for diesel and petrol (40% between 2017 and 2018). The movement was particularly carried by the working class in France, regardless of political affiliation. 
  • The New Railway Pact - Adopted in 2018, this law combined the three French public railway entities into one single group, with the aim of increasing efficiency and improving the financial equilibrium. It opens up to competition in the domestic rail market and includes a social reform.
  • The LOM Law - The Law on Mobility Orientation, passed on December 24 2019, seeks to place the energy transition at the heart of mobility and transportation and facilitates the development of public transport.

Key Figures: 

  • There are 950,000 km of roads in France and nearly 30,000 km of railway, the second largest in Europe. 
  • 75% of French people use their cars to commute to work.
  • Public transport is used for about 9.1% of traveling. 

 Evaluating the French transportation policy:

  • President Macron had great ambitions for transportation policy that were cut short by several shocks. First there was the rise in oil prices between 2017 and 2018 (+40%), which fueled the Yellow Vests crisis and led to a freeze on carbon taxes. This was followed by the Paris Agreement in 2017 and its implications for climate action. Then, since the spring of 2020, the pandemic.
  • Between 2017-2021 there have been several social and governance reforms in the railway sector. However, more could have been done in investment planning to better connect the various French regions and to promote the sector's ecological transition.
  • The New Railway Pact brought about a reform that may seem paradoxical, as it opened the sector to competition, while at the same time strengthening the links between the railway infrastructure manager (SNCF Réseau), a natural monopoly, and the dominant Train Operator Company (SNCF Mobilité). The law transformed SNCF’s management through 3 main measures: the transformation of its governance by transforming public establishments into limited companies, the reform of its debt management and finally, a labor reform to eliminate the "cheminot" status of railway workers which offered them advantages in terms of retirement, salaries and holidays. The law encountered a series of strikes from the workers. It also adapted several SNCF operating rules to open the sector up to competition.
  • The LOM law provides guidelines for local authorities and creates incentives for employers to implement a transport policy that favors the environment. But it does not include the multi-year investment program promised by President Macron. This lack of programming is particularly damaging for the infrastructure whose maintenance and renewal is critical. The effectiveness of the law will depend to a large extent on the involvement of local authorities. 
  • During the pandemic, state intervention in the transportation field was sustained, both to guarantee continuity of public services and to support the most vulnerable sectors, i.e. air and road transport. The stimulus plan enabled a reaffirmation of support for the railway sector as well. The government provided a €7 billion aid package to the Air France-KLM group, conditional on the group's environmental commitments, but not on its productivity.
  • As far as the larger projects are concerned, the past five years have been a superposition of scattered decisions, rather than a truly coherent strategy for regional development. The government did not follow the advice of the Investment Guidance Council (Conseil d'orientation des investissements) to define its level of investment for the next few years, but it did make several important decisions. Among these, the validation of the CDG Express, a railway that will connect the CDG Airport to central Paris; the suspension of the highly contested Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport project; pursuit of several high-speed rail projects. 
  • Roads, despite being at the heart of the Yellow Vests protest and a main lever in decarbonization measures, remain the forgotten industry of the mandate, even if they account for 85% of transport flows and more than 75% of people use cars to commute. Vehicle electrification is a key issue, for which France has allocated €100 million of its stimulus package, compared to €2.5 billion in Germany. Regarding car travel in general, the LOM law essentially contains measures favoring carpooling and electric cars, and finally allows local exemptions to the 80 km/h rule introduced in July 2018. Such elements raise questions about the State's strategy for roads, even though decarbonizing their use is essential to reaching climate objectives. This is especially important given that public transport remains inadequate in rural France, leading to a high dependency on cars. 
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