John Lichfield: Road deaths back on political radar

Paris Notebook: I suspect that many radar traps have been switched off to increase the President's popularity rating

According to Bison Futé, or "Crafty Bison", the cartoon American Indian chief who is the symbol of safe driving in France, this was a "black" weekend for French motorists.

It was not half so black as the month of June, which saw a huge leap in the number of people slaughtered on French roads.

To Bison Futé, the weekend was coded "black", or difficult, because even more people than usual blocked the road exits from large cities on Friday and Saturday. Tomorrow is a public holiday for Bastille Day. Hundreds of thousands of people are taking a "pont", or bridging day, off today to create a four-day weekend.

June was black on the roads for another reason. There was a sharp increase in the number of road deaths – 408, compared to 306 last year. Whatever happens in the rest of the year, the death toll on French roads is now likely to increase in 2009, for the first time in seven years.

In 2002 President Chirac decided to make road safety a national priority. He took the remarkable step (for France) of enforcing the road traffic laws. Radar speed traps appeared everywhere. The death toll fell from over 7,000 a year to just over 4,200 last year – a cumulative saving of about 14,000 lives (or 50 South Atlantic airbus disasters).

It also meant that people started losing their licences in droves (70,000 last year compared to 10,000 20 years ago). Fury grew, especially amongst well-behaved motorists, like me, who kept falling into speed traps.

For some time now I have suspected that many radar traps have been switched off to assuage public anger and increase the President's popularity rating. I once suggested this to the interior ministry who, of course, dismissed my suspicions out of hand.

My only evidence is based on a sample of one – me. It is more than a year now since I got a speeding ticket.

I have no proof, only cynical intuition, but I suspect that the 33 per cent increase in road deaths last month may be the fault of Bison Agité (Hyperactive Bison), otherwise known as President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The truth unravels

A year ago, I reported that a club échangiste, or wife-swapping club, was about to open on the main square of a quiet town near my house in Normandy. That, at least, was what a jovial sign said on the front window. The building has now reopened, not as a knocking shop but as a knitting shop. A case of the wool being pulled over our eyes?

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