Drivers seethe as France lowers speed limit

An employee of the Interdepartmental Directions of Roads sets an 80 kmph speed limit sign up on the national road RN2 in Grenade, south-western France. (AFP)

The Nationale 7 holds a cherished place in France's popular culture as the Vacation Highway, leading generations of families south toward summer holidays on the Riviera before multi-lane motorways became the norm.

So when officials chose three stretches of the road back in 2015 to test lowering the speed limit to 80 km (50 miles) per hour from 90, they surely knew they would rankle motorists.

Three years later some drivers have swung behind the change, but many others are still fuming.

"Yesterday I was going at 80 and it felt like I was going to fall asleep," said Gerard Laguette, a local business owner in Croze-Hermitage, referring to the lower limit while driving on a 20-kilometre run to Valence in southeast France.

Such complaints -- and opinion polls showing 74% of respondents against the move -- haven't stopped President Emmanuel Macron from pushing ahead with a countrywide rollout of the lower speed limits starting Sunday.

Officials say it's the only way to reverse an alarming rise in road deaths, which reached 3,684 last year.

The 80 kmph limit on 4,00,000 km of two-lane roads with no separating guardrail -- often lined with trees in many parts of the country -- aims to save 400 lives a year while also reducing auto emissions by 30%.

But critics deride the measure as "Paris snobbery" and the latest proof that Macron is the "president of the rich" with little regard for the concerns of ordinary voters.

The 40-year-old former investment banker has recently come under fire for blasting the "crazy amounts of dough" spent on social security, even while ordering pricey new presidential china and a private pool for his official vacation residence.

He has also raised taxes on pensions and pushed through laws making it easier for firms to fire workers while slashing taxes for high earners.

The lower speed limit is widely seen as an easy way to fill state coffers with more tickets.

The government "prefers tech-savvy city cyclists to country people driving diesels," Vincent Descoeur, an opposition Republicans lawmaker, said in parliament this month.

The government launched TV and radio campaigns to try to quell motorists' anger, saying the new limits would add only a few minutes to most trips while cutting a driver's petrol costs by 120 euros ($140) a year.

A 10-kilometre trip, for example, would take 45 seconds longer, or just two minutes more for 25 kilometres.

"The goal is not to piss people off," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Friday, reiterating that he was ready "to live with being unpopular".

He said a similar reduction on the Paris ring-road a few years ago led to an 18% drop in accidents. He also has promised that any spike in speeding fines will be allocated to caring for car crash victims.

Like France from Sunday, the maximum speed on two-lane highways is 80 kmph in Bosnia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.

The scene elsewhere

* Germany: authorised speed on two-lane highways outside urban areas is 100 kmph; on motorways, there is no limit

* Austria: 100 kmph on highways and 130 kmph on motorways

* Britain: on two-lane highways 60 mph (96.6 kmph) and 70 mph on motorways

* Ireland: 100 kmph on all national roads; 80 kmph on secondary roads and 120 kmph on motorways

* Poland: 140 kmph on motorways and 90-100 kmph on other roads

* Sweden: 70 kmph outside towns and 110-120 kmph on motorways

* Belgium: speed limit depends on the region

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Drivers seethe as France lowers speed limit

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