Court of auditors savages France for ecotax failure

France’s national Court of Auditors has been fiercely critical of the country’s government and MPs for allowing the French heavy goods ‘ecotax’ to be abandoned. The tax was first suggested as part of an exploration of environmental ideas in 2008 and approved by MPs in 2009, but in November it was abandoned after a series of protests. The Court of Auditors says that the decision was ‘a strategic failure’ and ‘a mess’ that will damage the public finances and the credibility of the country’s transport policy.

The heavy goods ecotax aimed to enforce the ‘polluter pays principle’ by charging for the environmental costs of moving goods by road. It targeted the 800,000 tonnes of goods transported on France’s non-toll motorways, main roads and secondary roads, with the revenue earmarked for developing public transport. It was approved with overwhelming support by MPs in 2009 under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.

However, with the ecotax due to come into effect in January 2014, there were demonstrations in 2013, particularly in the north-western region of Brittany where the ‘red cap’ movement became notorious for its violent protests (the red cap, or ‘bonnet rouge’, is a symbol of freedom from pre-revolutionary France). The movement was made up largely of agricultural, industrial and regional business interests. The contract was annulled in October 2014, and MPs finally voted to end the scheme in November 2016. Meanwhile, Belgium successfully introduced a national road charging scheme which has been successfully operational since April 2016.

In its annual report (only in French) published on 8 February, the Court of Audit was scathing in its criticism of the decision to let the ecotax lapse. It said the ecotax had been ‘an ambitious instrument in both politics and transport,’ and it described its demise as ‘a failure of public policy with likely long-term consequences’. The court added: ‘Costly for the public finances and regrettable for the coherence of transport policy and its financing, the abandonment of the ecotax amounts to a mess.’

The court estimates that the ecotax would have brought in €9.83 billion net in the period 2014-24. Instead, the state has had to pay out €958 million to the company that had the contract to run the scheme.

The report was published as France heads for presidential elections and the European Commission prepares a May 2017 review of the Eurovignette proposal, which will seek to promote distance based road charging across the EU.