John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

Chirac's greatest achievement: saving 9,000 lives
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The Independent Online

Something strange is happening on the roads of France. French motorists are no longer killing themselves, and one another, as zealously as they used to.

If the present startling trend continues, French roads will be safer than British roads within the next five years. This is quite a U-turn. Only four years ago, your chances of dying in a road accident doubled once you crossed the Channel.

What has happened? What draconian new law has been introduced to make French drivers come to their senses? Have French drivers given up their habit of driving one centimetre behind the car in front? Of overtaking on the inside? Of breaking red lights? Of ignoring pedestrian crossings?

No, French drivers are just as discourteous and undisciplined, in spirit, as ever they were. They still break the rules whenever they think that they can get away with it. The difference is that they cannot hope, systematically, to avoid punishment, as they used to.

Four years ago, the French government took the extraordinary step - for France - of deciding to enforce its road safety laws properly for the first time. Until 2002, road deaths in France were running at about 7,700 a year. Last year, there were just over 5,000 deaths. This year France looks certain to reduce its death toll sharply for the fourth year in succession. July and August, usually months of mayhem, were remarkably accident-free. Britain, with an almost identical population, has been stuck at 3,200 road deaths for years.

If you do a simple sum of addition and subtraction, you find that 8,851 lives have been saved in France in just over three and a half years.

Almost all of the credit should go to one man: Jacques Chirac. After his re-election in May 2002, the President made road safety one of the pet issues of his second term. M. Chirac ordered his government to order the police out on to the roads. He authorised the widespread use of radar speed traps. He abolished the tradition - which he had previously indulged and defended himself - of allowing local politicians to intervene to quash or faire sauter (blow up) traffic summonses.

Mr Chirac, whose term ends next May, is likely to go down as one of the most ineffectual leaders France has ever had. His 12 years have been a time of drift, suspicion and social unrest. Few heads of state, however, can claim that they have been directly responsible for saving the lives of 8,851 of their fellow citizens (a number which expands by about five people each day).

Speeding used to be rarely punished in France. I drove up and down the A13 between Paris and Normandy for four years and rarely saw a policeman or a gendarme. Speed traps were unknown and regarded as somehow unFrench.

Now forests of purple poles carrying radar speed cameras have sprouted all over France, and not just on motorways. The A13 is infested with them. Where speed restrictions were hardly enforced, they are now enforced to the letter. You are allowed only one kilometre over the limit before you receive a little white envelope from the Trésor Public (Treasury).

There was public fury as the envelopes began to drop on doormats all over France. Some politicians claimed that they generated the anti-establishment mood which defeated the proposed European Union constitution last year.

As a frequent, and frequently terrified, user of French roads, I found the new officiousness reassuring. I did not complain when I received a fine for going at the breakneck speed of 138kph (85mph) in a 130kph area.

Another little white envelope dropped on our doormat the other day. My wife, a careful and disciplined driver to the point of tedium, had been caught speeding. She failed to curb her speed in time when the speed limit plunged from 110kph to 70kph as she entered a tunnel on the edge of Paris. She was clocked at 76kph. We owed the French Treasury another €45 (£30).

How petty. How unjust. How effective.