France hands €3 billion to the railways (then backtracks)

A debate rages in the Assemblée Nationale

Since the legislative elections in 2022, France has been in a pretty odd situation. Although he was reelected in the run-off against Marine Le Pen, president Emmanuel Macron doesn’t have a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, the lower chamber of the French Republic. If they rally together, the main opposition forces, the Socialist Party (Left), France Unbowed (radical Left), the Greens, the Republicans (Right) and the National Rally (extreme Right), can get legislation through. And that’s exactly what they did when voting through an amendment allocating €3 billion to the railway sector during the assessment of the 2023 budget, going against the opinion of the president. On the initiative of Gérard Leseul, the Socialist MP for Seine-Maritime's 5th constituency, this sum was based on figures from se Réseau Action Climat, the Coalition 4F and the collective ‘Oui au Train de Nuit’, recommending that €1.5 billion for freight railway, €0.5 billion for the regeneration of the infrastructure network, €0.7 billion for the regeneration of small lines, €0.2 billion for reducing reliance on major railway hubs and €0.15 billion for the development of night trains.

‘Unfortunately, our network and infrastructure are aging, and we need to accelerate government action if we want to reach the level of railway usage we want to see,’ Gérard Leseul told us in an interview. He pointed out that his amendment didn’t go against government policy in the area, but in fact intended to reinforce it. He added: ‘We must redouble our efforts to boost the railways. Our trains are an average of 27 years old, compared with 17 for the Germans and even less in Switzerland. To re-energise the sector, we’ll need to revamp the infrastructure, reopen night train routes, stop over-prioritising the TGV and boost secondary rail networks, and increase freight transport to reduce the carbon emissions during the movement of goods.’ And one further suggestion from Leseul: ‘If you look over at our German neighbours, it’s interesting to see they’ve managed to keep their railway sector better maintained by taxing the road industry.’

As you know, here at Midnight Trains, we don’t get caught up in politics. The only point we are militant about is that the world needs to reduce its carbon emissions and that the rail industry should be prioritised to achieve that. However, this battle between the majority and the opposition speaks volumes of the status of the sector in French political life. Proposed by the Socialists and its allies, the amendment wasn’t much to the liking of the government and the presidential majority. Thus, Christophe Béchu, accused the opposition MPs of having supported the initiative ‘without considering the needs of regions’. As for Clément Beaune, the Transport Minister, he ridiculed it: ‘It’s magic, it’s free, it’s Halloween, it’s the taxpayer who will pay’. Afterwards, he defended the ‘railway priorities’ of his government and mentioned its support for night trains and the freight sector.

For their part, the Socialists defended their amendment by pointing to the investment of €100 billion over 15 years demanded by Jean-Pierre Farandou, the boss of SNCF, and supported by 15 regional leaders. The latter in fact argued for this sum being doled out over a decade, €10 billion per year, as part of a New Railway Deal. The aim of the latter is to ensure that France maintains its status as a leader in the railway sector. Belgium, Italy and Germany, after all, are already planning huge investments in their own sectors. Which, in an open market, will clearly have an effect on the European market as a whole.

But when it really comes down to it, this vote over the €3 billion amendment doesn’t have much concrete significance. Elisabeth Borne, the French prime minister, in fact announced a few days later that she was going to use article 49-3, which allows for the passage of law without submitting to MP’s votes, for this part of the 2023 budget. Having already used it three times during the presentation of the package of financial measures earlier in the year. Although perfectly constitutional, this way of going about things provoked anger among much of the opposition (and many French citizens too). But it did allow the president to skip this extra support for the railways, along with €12 billion for low-carbon retrofitting. Which, just a few days before the start of COP27 (which has since got under way), wasn’t exactly a great ecological look.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we aim to avoid taking political sides. And generally speaking, we are very much for the development of more modern, more environmentally-friendly, more respectful and more geographically and socially-inclusive railways. Clearly, this can only happen with huge financial investment, along with time and a political will that transcends party politics. So let’s hope that those who are responsible for pursuing the cause in the political sphere take up the baton and fight for the investment it deserves. It certainly shouldn’t be considered part of politics pure and simple: we need action now and can’t afford for developments to stall as a result of endless political squabbling.

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