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Power points: What I learned driving 1,777km through France in an electric car

France is a land of many inventions including the cinema, cricket (a disputed claim admittedly) and the electric car, writes John Lichfield.

Power points: What I learned driving 1,777km through France in an electric car
The French government offers big subsidies to people who buy electric cars. Photo: AFP

Unfortunately, the French invented the electric car a century and a half too early.

In late 19th century, many French cars were electric-powered. They operated on giant batteries which could not be recharged. In the first decade of the 20th century, they were run off the road by the Model-T Ford and by cheap, untaxed petrol.

The second French coming of the electric car, post circa-2014, has been slow – despite government subsidies of €6,000 a car, raised to €7,000 from June.

Sales have jumped in the last two years. There are now reckoned to be over 80,000 private, electric cars on French roads – about 2 percent of the national fleet.

This month, I did my bit for the revolution. I drove a Renault Zoe for 1,777 kilometres from Normandy to the Atlantic Coast to Occitanie and back to Normandy.

 

The experience was, by turns, wonderful and frustrating.

Wonderful because we limited ourselves almost entirely to two-lane roads, rediscovering the vastness of France and its endless variety and beauty, often unknown or forgotten.

Wonderful, also, because the secondary road network in France has been so improved and is so well-maintained (whatever the Gilets Jaunes may say). Some of us recall the crumbling and dangerous N and D roads of the 1970s and 1980s.

Almost all of the roads that we travelled – many of them D-roads – were well-surfaced and had expensively remodelled junctions. France has become, overnight it seems, a land of one million roundabouts.

But what of electric travel in France in 2020? Is it a viable alternative to petrol or diesel?

Is it cheaper? How easy is it to find and use the public recharging points?

This is where the frustrations start.

Much depends on what kind of electric car you use. There are now 43 models available for sale in France, ranging from the expensive to the very expensive.

A Renault Zoe on the production line at Flins-sur-Seine in Yvelines. Photo: AFP

A top of the range Tesla costs €90,000; a bottom of the range Zoe costs €32,000 if you buy, rather than lease, the battery. This is between two and three times more than the equivalent petrol or diesel cars.

The government and regional subsidies help but they apply in full only to the cheaper models.

The cheapest Tesla gives you 500 kilometres of travel before you need to stop and recharge. My 2019 Zoe gives, in theory, 300km (actually it can be less, or more, depending on the ambient temperature, average speed and steepness of the terrain). The new version 2020 Zoe gives 395km.

I’ve had my Zoe for just over a year. It is intended as a city or local rural run-about. In that role, it is excellent.

It’s not a car for long-distances, unless you decide, as we did, to re-create the experience of “motoring” through France in the 1960s.

As soon as you travel at over 90kph, battery power melts alarmingly. Ditto when you go up steep hills but at least your battery recharges when you come down the other side.

Teslas, as I understand it, can travel at full autoroute speed without losing too much range. Other, cheaper (but not cheap) electric cars are more like the Zoe.

What about recharging when far from home? This is, in theory, simple. There are over 28,000 charging points in France. Most small towns and many large villages have them.

A charging point in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Photo: AFP

The problem is that they are operated by local or regional networks – or in the case of the super-fast ones, national or international networks. The prices vary. So do the connecting cables. So do the charging speeds.

Some order and common-sense has been brought to this jumble in the last year or so by badges or cards which give access to most (not all) of the charging bornes. I have joined Chargemap. Other cards are available.

In our Travels with Zoe, the cost of recharges at public bornes ranged from €10.26 to zero. The expensive one was in Perigueux in Dordogne. The free one was at a supermarket south of Limoges.

Free is good but we earned it by spending two hours of our Sunday in an empty supermarket carpark.

Lengths of re-charging time vary with the power of the borne. With our Zoe, a complete recharge at the most common points varied from four hours to two hours. At home it takes 12 hours. The new fast points claim to be able to recharge half a Tesla battery in half an hour.

Finding the bornes is, in theory, easy. There are several apps which list and locate them. In practise, they can be hard to spot. Once found, they are occasionally out of order or closed. In one town we visited, two charging stations were out of action and one had the wrong kind of connection.

For 1,777 km, I spent €26.54 on electricity. Of this €24.44 went on public charging points. The rest – €2.10 – is the estimated cost of three charges on house mains. By my estimate, a similar trip would cost €180 to €220 in petrol or diesel, depending on the size of the car. My estimated saving in autoroute tolls was €90.

On the other hand, the need to recharge for long periods meant that we spent three nights in hotels that we might otherwise have avoided. Cost: €300.

 

Conclusion one: The Zoe is not a car for speeding through France – and does not claim to be. It is a wonderful little car for care-free wandering carelessly La France Profonde (care-free but range-anxious).

For comparison, someone sent me an example of an 832 km Tesla journey in France which took ten hours with two recharges and cost €25.

Conclusion two: Buying an electric car – any electric car – is expensive and probably a bad idea. Their re-sale value is likely to be small as subsequent models improve.

Consider leasing instead. I did not buy my Zoe, I leased it – and its battery – for three years. I reckon that the saving in diesel alone has paid for the lease.

Conclusion three:  This time around, electric cars are here to stay. 

Member comments

  1. Try doing the same journey in February with the lights, wipers and heater on, then come back and write about it.

  2. I had a Tesla S for years. Good car. Rubbish service. Buy one (example) in Villeneuve Loubet and the closest service is Aix en Provence. Firmware is inconsistent. Communications with the company useless. Thought about a MINI cooper electric but range is too short. You really need to own your parking so you can control where you plug in. Maybe in 5 years someone will come along with great range and service?

  3. How about being able to swap for a generic fully charged battery (subsidized by the government), adding 200km range, without having to get out of the vehicle, in less than 30 seconds?

  4. Chez moist. Tesla tried a system similar to A Better Way, using a proprietary battery. Same with NIO. The systems also required the driver to exit the vehicle and a person to run the exchange. JasperEVTech.com requires neither. The secret is to use a generic battery.

  5. Chez moi. Tesla tried a system similar to A Better Way, using a proprietary battery. Same with NIO. The systems also required the driver to exit the vehicle and a person to run the exchange. JasperEVTech.com requires neither. The secret is to use a generic battery.

  6. Chez Moi. I am hopeful that a French auto maker will see the light. Maybe RENAULT. Then they can save the Flins plant and jobs.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the government’s continued silence over his impending extradition to the US is indefensible, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

I have no personal fondness for Julian Assange. I cannot forgive him for not condemning the torrent of abuse and slander suffered by the two Swedish women who, in 2010, accused him of sexual assault. His treatment of them has been shameful. Assange has continued to protest his innocence and has not expressed any regret for what happened

But that was then and this is now. At stake is something much bigger than the fate of one man and two women. And the Swedish government bears a clear share of responsibility for the outcome. 

Sweden’s prosecutors dropped the sexual assault investigation against Assange in 2017. For more than three years, he has been held in a maximum security prison in London while he has fought extradition to the United States on espionage charges. In April, a British court finally approved the extradition and referred the matter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. 

Today (June 17), Patel gave the green light for extradition; Assange has 14 days to appeal. 

Extradition would be a colossal blow against media freedom. Journalists would fear to investigate US military and surveillance operations around the world. Assange himself faces a lifetime in jail for publishing classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including evidence of war crimes

Many Swedish free speech organisations recognise this. “The information obtained thanks to Julian Assange and Wikileaks is of great public interest. In a democracy, whistleblowers must be protected, not taken to court to become pawns in a political game,” says the Swedish Journalists’ Association. A large number of press freedom and human right organisations have echoed these words, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship, to name but a few.

“Should Assange be extradited to the US, it could have serious consequences for investigative journalism,” says the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders. “Through the indictment of Assange, the US is also sending a signal to all journalists who want to examine the actions of the US military and security services abroad, or US arms deals for that matter. This also applies to Swedish journalists.”

Last month, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on Patel not to extradite Assange, saying it would have “a chilling effect on media freedom”.  Anna Ardin, one of the women who brought the original accusations of sexual assault, describes the accusations against Assange for espionage as “helt galet” (completely crazy). 

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the continued silence from Rosenbad, the seat of government offices in Stockholm, is indefensible. 

For the seven years in which Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he said consistently and repeatedly that he was prepared to face justice in Sweden, but feared extradition to the United States and therefore required a guarantee that this would not happen. His treatment in the UK is proof that his fears were justified. 

As early as September 2012, The Local quoted Amnesty International on this matter: “If the Swedish authorities are able to confirm publicly that Assange will not eventually find himself on a plane to the USA if he submits himself to the authority of the Swedish courts then this will … it will break the current impasse and second it will mean the women who have levelled accusations of sexual assault are not denied justice.”

And yet, throughout, Sweden’s Ministry of Justice kept quiet. Instead, the Swedish Prosecution Authority stated repeatedly: “Every extradition case is to be judged on its own individual merits. For that reason the Swedish government cannot provide a guarantee in advance that Julian Assange would not be subject to further extradition to the USA.”

In 2016, a United Nations panel decided that Sweden had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It called on the Swedish authorities to end Assange’s “deprivation of liberty”, respect his freedom of movement and offer him compensation. Again, the government itself remained silent, although Sweden’s director-general for legal affairs said that it disagreed with the panel.

Freedom of speech is one of the four “fundamental laws” that make up the Swedish constitution. There can be no excuse now for Morgan Johansson, Justice Minister, not to speak out in defence of Assange’s role as a whistleblower and journalist. 

Imagine if Assange had revealed Russian war crimes in Ukraine and was being held in Moscow’s high security prison? Every Western leader would be up in arms. 

Assange’s wife Stella Moris has Swedish citizenship. Her life, and that of their two children, will be destroyed if her husband, their father, is sent to rot in a US jail.

At this point in time, when Sweden’s independence in global affairs is in doubt owing to pressure from Turkey over its application to join Nato, it is even more vital for the government to break its silence and help bring the persecution of Julian Assange to an end. 

David Crouch covered Julian Assange’s campaign in the Swedish courts for The Guardian newspaper and is among 1900 journalists to have signed a statement in his defence. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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