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15th Aug 2022

France's Royal blames staff for controversial vote on emissions

  • Royal, third from left, arrived almost an hour late (Photo: European Parliament)

French environment and energy minister Segolene Royal has accused her staff of acting against her wishes by consenting to a rise in the level of pollutants permissible for cars in Europe.

Royal appeared Thursday (24 November) as a witness in front of the European Parliament's inquiry into the Dieselgate scandal.

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She criticised a decision made in Brussels on 28 October 2015, to allow cars to emit 2.1 times the EU nitrogen oxide limits from 2017 to 2020.

“The European Commission through the technical committee took a very bad decision,” said Royal.

Officials from her ministry were present at that committee meeting, and voted in favour. Only the Dutch delegation opposed.

Moreover, France had even delayed the process preceding the vote, and together with Italy and Spain had watered down the proposal, Dutch Liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy said, citing confidential minutes from the committee.

“The French civil servants were not under my instructions,” said Royal. “That's why I've restored order in matters and procedures. I believe this [type of decision] should be taken at ministerial level.”

Royal said the subordinates who had supported the proposal were acting on outdated instructions.

“Since I arrived the instructions are different. French environmental policy has changed since my arrival,” she said.

However, Royal had been minister since April 2014, 18 months before the committee meeting in question. When Gerbrandy reminded her of how long she had been minister, Royal deflected the question.

“It's not true. It's completely untrue. In 2014, the Volkswagen scandal hadn't happened. It broke out in September 2015.” But discussions on the new on-road test had been ongoing for several years before 2014.

She also said she had hoped the European Parliament would have voted against the decision – which it did not.

Late arrival

Royal annoyed the MEPs by showing up almost an hour late, a novelty in the inquiry committee's existence, despite other witnesses having come from Japan and the United States.

German MEP Jens Gieseke noted that it takes only takes an hour and 50 minutes by high-speed train from Paris to Strasbourg.

As a result of her tardiness, MEPs had less time to follow-up on questions she deflected or appeared not to understand.

Instead, she took time to promote France as being “at the vanguard” of improving air quality and creating incentives to move to clean transport.

She boasted about a €10,000 support scheme for buyers of an electric vehicle, claiming that “no other country in Europe” gives such high incentives. Ireland also has a scheme offering up to €10,000.

Where is the favourable article?

Royal also rebuffed an article by the Financial Times that claimed a report bearing her name omitted details embarrassing French carmaker Renault.

“What the FT is alleging is wrong,” she said, adding that she had invited the author of the article to attend a meeting of the committee which had written the report.

“He wrote another article, that was very favourable to the committee,” Royal said.

However, the FT did not issue a correction for the original article, and no “favourable” article can be found on the newspaper's website. There was a follow-up article which said the committee's independent members criticised the body for being too timid.

Royal 'could not imagine' Dieselgate

Royal also repeated an attitude also conveyed by other witnesses, that while it was known that there was a gap between emissions measured in laboratories and those in the real world, she did not think car companies would cheat with software known as defeat devices.

“I have to admit I could not even imagine there would be defeat devices in cars from such a well-known brand,” she said, while defeat devices had been illegal since the late 1990s and EU governments were tasked to prevent their use.

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