France can no longer do EVs and combustion engines en même temps

December 21, 2020

France likes to think of itself as a leader in electric vehicles. Sadly, the reality doesn’t quite live up to this perception. Apart from the Renault Zoé, French carmakers have been slow to launch attractive mass-market models and 2020 saw a raft of fast-charging stations along French highways close. But if 2020 exposed a mismatch between words and reality, it also marked a turning point. In the aftermath of the gilets jaune protests, the French government became much more serious in its commitment to e-mobility. Covid and the subsequent recovery package gave it an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is.

France’s plan to boost e-mobility in 2020 rests on two pillars: charging and subsidies. Some 68% of the owners of electric cars in France are unhappy with public charging. To address shortages, Transport Minister JB Djebbari announced the bold objective of reaching 100,000 public charging points by the end of 2021. This includes supporting the installation of new charging points through subsidies and reforming the renewable energy law to make it more attractive to sell clean electricity to vehicles, boosting the profitability of charging operations. For private charging the government made it easier to install plugs at home and launched a major effort to install plugs in large apartment buildings. 

In parallel, the government set out to boost demand for electric vehicles. In response to the Covid crisis, buyers could be eligible to receive up to €11,000 in subsidies by scrapping an old car for an electric one. Benefitting from these subsidies and new European CO2 standards, EV sales jumped from 2% to 9% of new sales, making 2020 a vintage year for the electric car. 

Freight was next in line. Djebbari announced €100 million in purchase incentives for trucks – electric and hydrogen. The government also set up new subsidies to support road freight companies to install charging stations from 2021.Though these developments are encouraging, this pales in comparison to the €1 billion committed to electrifying freight in Germany. 

Despite this very real progress, there’s no cause for jubilation yet. First, the Covid recovery package in March was like a mint pudding – green on the outside, brown on the inside. 70% of the new cars sold with the scrappage scheme were combustion engine cars, including diesel. This contrasts sharply with Germany where no subsidies were given to engined vehicles. The government also stepped back from an ambitious CO2 taxation scheme for cars. Instead, the government introduced a symbolic new “weight” tax on heavy cars representing only 2% of sales.

President Emmanuel Macron watered down the proposal to ban the sales of heavily polluting cars in 2025. It was a flagship proposition of the Citizen’s Convention on Climate, a democratic experiment giving citizens a voice in shaping climate policy. He claims the EU would not allow such a ban, but everyone knows a good old tax would do the job.

For too long France has wanted to do EVs and combustion engines en même temps. But one can’t have it all. In 2021 the EU will launch new car CO2 standards and perhaps even a ban on combustion engine cars. A great opportunity for France, and President Macron, to show their true face.

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