Carmakers criticise French plan for health warning on adverts


The car industry has turned on France’s plan to force manufacturers to attach the equivalent of a public health warning to their advertising, claiming it reflects the jaundiced view of politicians in Paris where other means of transport are readily available.

The measures, which comes into effect in March, will require carmakers to pick from a menu of disclaimers that includes “for short journeys, walk or take a bike when possible”, “consider carpooling” and “take public transport for your daily journeys”.

The requirements are part of a broader climate-change law passed by the French parliament last year that banned short-haul domestic flights of under two and a half hours if the journey can be done by train, and imposed a blanket restriction on adverts for SUV cars from 2028.

“It’s a real paradox to have a government that is so anti-cars in a country with three national carmakers,” said Louis-Carl Vignon, managing director of Ford in France, where the US carmaker competes with domestic groups Renault and the Peugeot and Citroën brands that are now part of Stellantis. Vignon said the measures reflected a “social fracture” between politicians in power and those who live outside of Paris.

“In Paris, there are alternative modes of transport, but what do you do when you live in Creuse?” he asked, referring to a particularly rural and sparsely populated department in central France.

Pierre Chasseray, a spokesman for a consumer association called “40 million auto users”, branded the law “ridiculous” and a way of “permanently pointing the finger at drivers”, when many outside big cities relied on cars for school runs and commuting to work.

“I don’t think it’s going to stop anyone from taking their car,” he said.

Carmakers already have to include information and warnings on vehicle financing, and will from this year add in details on the CO2 emissions of a given model. Advertising experts say the additional requirements from March have no real equivalent in other countries.

Drivers and politicians in France have a recent history of clashes. President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to introduce a fuel tax in 2018, later scrapped, sparked widespread street protests that morphed into the “gilets jaunes” anti-government demonstrations.

Although the movement later included a broader series of gripes, the so-called “yellow vests” took their name from the high-visibility jackets drivers have to keep in their cars. The backlash brought to the fore a perceived disconnection between city dwellers and rural residents that is simmering on as a campaign theme in the 2022 presidential election.

Gilets Jaunes protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration against rising oil prices and living costs in Bordeaux in 2018 © Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images

Grumblings over the new warning are more muted, but the measures are burdensome for carmakers, which will have to include more caveats in their adverts than any other type of company, according to Magali Jalade of the ARPP, a self-regulating body made up of advertising and media groups which helps define industry standards in France.

“The [new] mentions could have been smaller. There’s a punitive aspect to it,” Jalade said, pointing out that on a print advert the disclaimers would run into several paragraphs.

Luca de Meo, Renault chief executive, told the Financial Times that the company was looking into whether it was possible to negotiate over the size of the new warnings and others now taking up “almost half a page”. He added however that it was a local issue not causing day-to-day headaches for the group and its top managers.

François Roudier of auto manufacturers lobby PFA said that some consensus had been found over the wording of the prompts. But the industry had been broadly sceptical about their merits from the start, he said, including their use in ads for electric vehicles which pollute less than traditional combustion-engine models.

“Buying a car is not like buying a hamburger,” he said, adding that consumers thought long and hard about their purchases given the cost involved.

Matthieu Orphelin, a Green party parliamentarian, said the advertising disclaimers were friendly and added up to a “little measure” that did not go as far as the tougher stance on car adverts that he had pushed for. The warnings on CO2 emissions were useful tools for consumers, especially those more likely to need to buy a car, he added.

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