BY JEAN-MICHEL NORMAND on NOVEMBER 9TH, 2014
For an increasing number of French drivers, car ownership is now seen as a burden and a vehicle as merely a service.
If you stop at Porte Maillot, on the inner ring road of Paris, late on a Friday afternoon you will see dozens of cars pausing to pick up complete strangers and their luggage, then setting off to some weekend destination.
The huge roundabout, one of the capital’s main hubs for co-voiturage, or carpooling, is a good indication of how people’s attitude to cars has changed. The car is still an essential form of private transport, but its social value now finds an outlet in collective use. Carpooling, which is more economical, flexible and sociable than travelling alone, is one of the more visible aspects of a profound change also reflected in the growth of car-sharing (short-term rental) and peer-to-peer sharing.
Car-sharing services such as BlaBlaCar (10 million members in 13 European countries) or Autolib’ (170,000 subscribers in Paris) have become popular for a growing number of people, particularly the young and urban. The trend raises many questions about the shifting status and dented image of an object that made such a deep mark on the 20th century.
Leading brands acknowledge the crisis in the perception of motor vehicles in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. Fortunately for them, consumers in Russia, China, India and Brazil, among others, see things differently.
In western Europe there is plenty to suggest that interest in cars is cooling. Predictably the economic crisis has had an impact, but the experts report that the market overreacted to the downturn. “Car sales in the European Union, between 2007 and 2013, fell by almost 25%. Though the economic climate is expected to improve, we do not expect to see a return to pre-crisis volumes,” says Michel Costes, head of specialist consultants Inovev. Substantial investment in public transport has also contributed to a gradual decline in household spending on new cars.
One revealing sign is that, despite the price of cars having dropped in relation to average wages, most consumers think that replacing their vehicle is “beyond their means”. “The French have opted to spend more on other items such as homes and their upkeep, entertainment and information technology. Car ownership currently accounts for about 14% of average spending and is seen by a growing number of households as a burden,” says Rémi Cornubert, a specialist on automobile trends at analysts Oliver Wyman.
“The French love their cars,” President Pompidou asserted in the early 1970s, but these days few people would endorse such a claim. “The utilitarian component of the purchase is uppermost,” says Guillaume Paoli, head of dealers Aramis Auto. “Costs carry more weight with consumers than image or prestige. Nor does it make much difference if it’s new or second-hand. Even switching from one make to another is no longer an issue. There is every indication the car is no longer an emblematic object.”
The cause of greatest concern for manufacturers is the ageing customer base and the generation gap it reveals. In France the average age at which people buy their first new car is close to 55. Meanwhile the under-30s account for less than 10% of customers. A typical carpooler is 33. These figures not only indicate the difference in buying power between generations, but reflect the dwindling interest in cars, a consumer good which the French – to an even greater extent than the German, Spanish, Italian or British neighbours – tend to view as suspect.
In a country with a long record of higher-than-average road casualties there are many reasons for such misgivings, motor vehicles being associated with pollution, congested cities and fatalities. The economic crisis seems to have exacerbated this malaise. The French still shun those who make too much show of their wealth and flashy cars may well be seen as ostentatious and somehow arrogant.
“With [French philosophers] Baudrillard and Bourdieu, France started questioning the consumer society some time ago,” says sociologist Eric Fouquier, head of the market research firm Théma. “In the 2000s this critical sensibility really began to impact on purchasing patterns, accentuating the possible misgivings prompted by cars, easily perceived as a clumsy assertion of social status.”
Car culture in France is dogged by this sensitivity to social inequality. Manufacturers have made their mark with popular, but non-conformist models that place the emphasis on practical qualities – the Citroën 2CVand Renault 4, 16 and Espace. The only exception to this tradition was the high-tech, yet middle-class Citroën DS. Rooted in a pragmatic, democratic approach to motor vehicles, this tradition has resulted in considerable variety but has done little to fetishise cars. In the land of luxury goods and high fashion, cars have been set apart. French car manufacturers ceased producing top-of-the-range models and sports cars as long ago as the 1950s. Compared with elsewhere in Europe, rich French people buy comparatively few Mercedes, Audis, BMWs or Jaguars – and not just to pay less tax.
However 86% of all French households still own a car. “There is a widening gap between those who are losing interest in cars, and those still drawn to objects they see as offering scope for differentiation. What is more, this split transcends other social distinctions,” Cornubert asserts.
But not all customers are “estranged drivers”; some are still prepared to pay more for extra features to personalise their car. In some cases this means they have to join carpool schemes, driving their own vehicle to cover the cost of the loan or just its upkeep. The industry will, nevertheless, have to come to terms with consumers who are solely concerned with a vehicle’s functional value.
“Just as in many other sectors, the car industry is shifting from manufacturing a product to delivering a service,” Costes explains. By entering into partnerships with car-share operators, manufacturers such as Renault, PSA, Daimler and BMW have already committed themselves to this. But the industry is also focusing much of its attention on the arrival, circa 2018-20, of driverless cars.
The large manufacturers see this technological leap as a way of updating the image of the car, particularly with the younger generation. But it may fuel a wholesale shift to car-sharing. After all, what is the point in owning a car you don’t even drive?
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde
FIND THE ORIGINAL AT: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/09/france-car-ownership-sales-downturn