For weeks France had been anticipating running out of gas and electricity this winter… The first shortage will actually come from fuel. Six of the eight refineries and biorefineries in France are on strike, a movement which was renewed this Thursday, October 13 on the five sites of TotalEnergies and a last at Esso-ExxonMobil, announced the CGT. On Tuesday, nearly one in three gas stations (31.4%) had supply problems.
Difficulties are multiplying in a country where the place of the automobile remains decisive. School pick-up tours canceled, paramedics having to lower their interventions, garbage trucks at a standstill… and French people sometimes not being able to go to their place of work, due to lack of fuel. Four years after the movement of the yellow vests, triggered in particular after a planned increase in taxes at the pump, the current crisis still illustrates a France at several speeds. Explanations with Eric Leser, journalist and author of Automobile, France from above against France from below (Ed. Eyrolles), and Mathieu Flonneau, historian of mobility, teacher-researcher at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and author from In all directions. Circulate, share, secure (Ed. Loubatières).
L’Express: What do you think the current fuel crisis reveals?
Eric Leser: The fact that the government has taken time to understand the impact of this crisis shows that a gap is still present in French society. The automobile marks, in my opinion, the difference between the France of the metropolises, which can do without it, and has access to public transport, and that, peripheral, which cannot do it. The first France considers the car as a factor of nuisance and congestion. The second, the majority, needs their car to do their shopping, to go to work, to see friends. These two Frances live on different planets. But today, we solve the problem of the car only from the way it is used in the big cities. This makes life much more difficult in peripheral France and increases the pressure on motorists who often belong to the less well-off categories.
Mathieu Flonneau: This crisis reveals, like others since the beginning of the 2010s, great tension around mobility issues. The automobile has long been an element of the republican contract, of the social contract. It was part of a project for a society of growth, of distributed progress. A largely inclusive project, a strong point of French industry. All of this is being hackneyed, disappearing and being strained by the energy crisis. The conjuncture accentuates something older. Gradually, the tensions reveal a structural crisis. To sum up: today, we have a social conflict, in a context where fuel is very expensive, with an artificial maintenance of fossil fuel subsidies. These three elements question the purpose of our automotive society: is it sustainable, or not?
On the other hand, government response has been slow because French technocracy is Parisian-centric. What was a tension in peripheral France ended up becoming obvious to everyone. There is certainly an automobile populism, but there is also a reverse populism, which aims not to consider that economic, usage and family interests underlie the use of the car. Interests related to lifestyles other than those of metropolitans.
How to explain that solutions such as carpooling or electric vehicles are not more popular in this context of rising energy prices?
Eric Leser: During the yellow vests crisis, there was an opposition between the France of the end of the world and that of the end of the month. This tension is obviously always very present, and complex. In any case, there is one obvious thing: one way or another, to carry out this energy transition, you are going to have to impoverish people. Some people may think it’s helpful, and will make sacrifices. Others won’t be able to. This is all the more glaring as, at the present time, solutions linked to electric vehicles and carpooling exist but remain on the margins.
Mathieu Flonneau: Regarding carpooling, let’s simply note that a car is not a toothbrush. It is an object that is invested in statutory and individual terms. On the other hand, on the electric, it should also be noted that the debate focuses a lot on the private automobile. But that’s just one part of that conversation. There is also the utilitarian dimension to take into account, that of heavy goods vehicles, where the substitution of thermal vehicles by electric ones is even more illusory in the short term than for individual vehicles.
Is the extension of low emission zones, which must concern all agglomerations of 150,000 inhabitants by 2025, likely to cause tensions other than those we are experiencing today?
Eric Leser: They are a symptom of the gap between the two Frances. Wanting to reduce polluting emissions is not debatable, of course. It’s necessary. But the way to do it lacks pedagogy, support, and is a real disaster on the social level. You place 40% of the French population under house arrest, excluding vehicles that are too polluting because they are too old. On the social level, it is aberrant.
Mathieu Flonneau: The crisis is most likely ahead of us. From the moment you deny 70% of people access to certain territories, we can fear serious tensions Trajectories are certainly drawn, with changes in use, such as carpooling or electric. But these proposals correspond to niches. What is disputed here is that environmental sustainability is built against economic and social sustainability. The response to environmental needs cannot be built on the ruin of the industrial apparatus and the social apparatus. Today we have great difficulty in reconciling contradictory injunctions. We arrive at a regression of the debate which tenses the users, essentializes them, whereas the subject deserves a real pedagogy.
This weekend took place at Le Mans the GP Explorer, an F4 race organized by the youtubeur Squeezie, with about twenty other personalities. The event broke the record for connected spectators on the Twitch platform, and brought together more than a million people, mostly young people. So the car still fascinates the younger generations?
Eric Leser: In large cities, young people pass their permits less and less, more and more late. But in small towns, in the suburbs, the car is an element of freedom. It is always essential to go see friends, to move around. We must not forget that our current civilization was built around the car. Commercial areas are the result. Even today, even among young people, it is difficult to do anything without borrowing a car.
Mathieu Flonneau: To claim that the car no longer inspires dreams is to misunderstand the reality of what is the very essence of the automobile. It is an imaginary of freedom in a society where we are more and more limited, stuck, traced. The automobile has always represented a form of escape from these assignments. His myth still retains a part of reality today.