Why French infrastructure fears Ségolène Royal

Ségolène Royal (CC pic: Philippe Grangeaud)

Ségolène Royal (CC pic: Philippe Grangeaud)

How quick the British media was to pick up on the appointment of Ségolène Royal to the French cabinet by President François Hollande last week. They leapt gleefully on the idea that the lothario president had been forced to keep his ex-partner out of his cabinet while he was still attached to her successor in that position, Valerie Trierweiler.

Rather less coverage, oddly enough, of the fact that she’s now in charge of both transport and energy infrastructure – and could well be set to make waves in both areas.

In fact, Royal’s first official policy decision last week was to promise a review of the controversial ‘écotaxe poids lourds’ road charging system.  This project, for which the French state signed a contract worth €2.8 billion over 13 years in 2011, was supposed to introduce a satellite-based charging system for heavy goods vehicles travelling on previously free highways. But, as I blogged in January, it’s aroused fierce hostility over the cost to businesses of the charge. Royal has previously expressed her opposition to the écotaxe, and may well scrap it. That could be a popular move, but will deprive the state of an estimated €1.2 billion-a-year revenue that had been earmarked for transport infrastructure investment, to say nothing of the hole in France’s carbon reduction plans – and the €800 million-plus termination fee the private provider is reportedly due if that happens.

Despite being a member of the Socialist Party, Royal’s support for public investment in socially useful infrastructure is far from guaranteed. In 2011 she threatened to delay the biggest rail project in Europe, a €7.8 billion project to build 340km of high-speed rail line linking Tours and Bordeaux. In her then role as president of the Poitou-Charentes region, she withheld her region’s share of subsidy contribution, leaving a funding gap. Her official objection was that the project was to be built, financed and operated (albeit with lots of public subsidy) by a private consortium, and she wasn’t going to support private profits with public money. After a brief war of words with the French government and an irate Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, the then Sarkozy government stepped in to pick up the tab.

A project which could genuinely be axed on her watch is the fraught issue of whether to build a new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in the Loire region. Ecologists have opposed the project for decades and it’s currently the subject of a legal challenge. Royal has only said she’ll wait for the outcome, but has previously called for a moratorium.

Nuclear power doesn’t thrill Royal either. In her failed bid to become Socialist candidate for the 2012 presidential election, she promised to stop the construction of the troubled Flamanville nuclear power plant by EDF in Normandy. France relies on nuclear for over half of its energy generation, and Hollande has promised to reduce this dependency. In her anti-nuclear sentiment she is in step with the president, though – characteristically – more outspoken.

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About René Lavanchy

You can contact me at rene dot lavanchy at googlemail dot com.
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