Why Do Cars Get the Cold Shoulder in French Luxury?

It has often struck me as strange that the much-vaunted French luxury industry, a growing and sizeable part of the French economy, doesn’t include automobiles, especially passenger vehicles. Given their penchant for design, their understanding of exclusivity and luxury and their engineering prowess especially in aviation and high-speed rail, it is rather strange that they have left cars out of what they consider luxury.

Or have they? Surely the powerful and wealthy in France drive luxury automobiles. Perhaps, they are German, British or Italian brands that they drive, since their own French carmakers don’t really produce much by way of luxury sedans. There are a few models of Citroen that probably feature in the premium sedan segment, but one wouldn’t really count any of them as luxury cars.

When I tried to read more about French luxury cars online, there was hardly anything I could find besides Wikipedia. I would definitely like to read more about it elsewhere if and when possible, because there does seem to be so much more to it. But for now, based on what I read online, it appears that the French did indeed have a thriving automobile industry in the late 19th century, leading up to World War I and even through the 1920s, in a less dominant fashion. It was after World War II that the French automobile industry lost its cachet, since the French economy was terribly battered and took longer to recover than the British and German economies did.

According to Wikipedia, the French automobile industry in its heyday boasted of cars that were revolutionary in design and engineering for the time. There were cars such as the Panhard Levassor, Delahaye, Delage, Berliet, Hotchkiss Artois, Salmson and the Citroen, besides Renault and Peugeot. The French were also avid car race enthusiasts and had the kinds of cars that were well-powered and dashing in style. In recent decades, the French don’t compete in car racing much and their Formula 1 racing is limited to Monaco on the French Riviera, which is more associated with wealth and glamour than serious Formula 1 racing. The other French car races and rallies, though, are more associated with endurance tests such as Le Mans and the Paris-Dakar rally, the latter also enjoying a stronger association with motorbikes than with cars.

Clockwise from top left: Panhard Levassor (1891), Berliet (1903), Delage (1937), Citroen 2CV, Hotchkiss Artois (1949) and Delahaye (1939); Images from Wikimedia Commons

The main reason cited for the decline of French luxury automobiles besides the economic one is French government policy.  One would like to read more in detail about even these years of French dominance in automobiles and their subsequent decline, and from authoritative and genuine sources. From what little I had a chance to read online, the French automotive industry went through a serious and sweeping set of state-led changes in composition and structure at the end of World War II, under what is known as the Pons Plan in reference to Paul-Marie Pons, the government official who created new policies and oversaw the restructuring of the industry. The new policies seemed to be based on availability and prices of steel and aluminium at the end of the War and the industry was whittled down to a few large players of car and truck makers who could compete effectively in the domestic market. This was followed by a taxation policy in the 1950s that levied a punitive tax on large cars, and that I suppose was the last nail in the coffin of the French luxury car.

It is also striking that the French government has taken such a large interest in directing the automobile industry, ever since. Even today, the French government has a significant stake in carmakers; 15% in Renault and 12% in PSA, the makers of Peugeot and Citroen. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the French government announced a huge relief package for its auto industry, which is strange, considering that France would have already had a job protection scheme in place as did most of Europe. Besides, the auto industry, and manufacturing more generally, hardly needed relief during the pandemic. It was service industries that were and are still down in the dumps.

From what the news reports seem to suggest, it appears that the French government was trying to engineer a shift to cleaner cars (electric cars, for example), rather than merely offer Renault economic relief. Indeed, even recent news reports that I read talked of Macron’s strong emphasis on electric cars as a way to combat climate change and meet the Paris Accord commitments, and he would like France to be the hub of electric car production in Europe.

Unfortunately, so does every other car manufacturing country. And when Macron says that France has great car brands such as Renault, Peugeot and Citroen, I would say that they aren’t yet great global car brands. And by trying to make French car companies bring back more production to France, he might be hurting these brands even more. Because they are mass car brands, they can be produced anywhere and the French auto industry was frankly one of the last to globalize. Electric or new car technologies too can be produced and replicated anywhere; look at where all Tesla is planning to produce its vehicles. It has five giga factories across the world, two of which (Berlin and Austin, Texas) are yet to start production, and several other factories producing batteries and components for its vehicles.

If the French automobile industry has suffered due to ill-conceived government policies, what about French consumers and their attitudes towards cars? One will need to read and research this subject much more, but based on my casual observations during my trips to France, I can say that they don’t seem to have a distinctive motoring culture anymore. They seem to have lost their fascination with cars and perhaps even with road travel. One can tell how much people care about cars and driving in any city or country, from just the way the cars look and how they are driven. In Paris, I have mostly seen them dusty, dirty and uncared for, as they are parked all along roadsides. The French drive quite fast and rashly too on city streets and one has to be careful crossing them, even when traffic lights are green for pedestrians. Nothing can shock a visitor from India, though, given our scant regard for traffic rules and road etiquette. I found French attitude to cars quite different from the British and the German, but perhaps more akin to Italians. That said, Italians have been at the forefront of automotive engineering and design and dominate the global luxury car industry, especially the sports and supercar segments.

I also proffer some reasons for this change in French attitudes towards luxury cars, uncorroborated as they might be at the moment. Some of them might even be just questions that I am raising. While the French luxury car died as a result of economic disaster and government policy, it perhaps didn’t experience a revival in later years because the French public transport system had become excellent in the meantime. Their urban rapid transit metro system as well as the long-distance high-speed rail networks are superb and run most efficiently. The TGV, especially, is a source of great French pride.

Second, the disappearance of the French aristocracy probably meant that the luxury car had less of a role in people’s lives. And as a consequence, could the affluent French have adopted other luxury goods as status symbols, considering France has many of them to offer? I am not entirely convinced of this possibility yet, because many of the well-off French, like their British counterparts, even today have a country home to escape to when the city gets a bit too much for them. And surely, a luxury car is the best way to get around.

Third, is it possible that thanks to government policy of decades, French society as a whole has been sensitized to an attitude that is anti-ostentation, careful not to offend the ordinary middle-class folk, at least in motoring? It appears that even a slight fuel price increase can spark protests and rioting across France for months on end.

The country boasts of so many luxury goods and brands, known and loved in France as well as across the world, that it seems a pity that the luxury sedan gets singled out for the cold shoulder. So, what can the French do to revive the luxury car and make it a source of pride for everyone?

First of all, the country needs to acknowledge that it has lost decades of design, technology and craftsmanship skills required to build luxury vehicles and therefore, needs to rebuild them again from scratch. There has to be a serious and concerted effort to encourage luxury sedan production, along with a shift to new technologies, such as electric, autonomous and connected mobility. This means incentivizing luxury electric and connected cars, including a favourable tax and import duty regime.

If the French truly want to bring back more automobile manufacturing to France, the best way to achieve it is through the development of luxury motor cars. Luxury goods are always rooted in local knowledge, skills, capabilities, expertise and raw materials. They cannot be transferred or replicated easily in other parts of the world; indeed, their production shouldn’t be taken mass or taken elsewhere, and that is their greatest attraction.

Next, the French government should ideally stay out of the car production business, and leave it to private enterprise to innovate, design and produce the state-of-the-art luxury sedan for the electric and digital age. Perhaps the rest of the French luxury industry has thrived and built iconic brands precisely because there was no government participation or intervention, save for creating a conducive business climate.

Third, the government needs to create an automotive hub for the French auto industry, the kind that Turin is, for the Italian auto industry. From what I read online, the French auto industry is concentrated in Northern France, around the Amiens and Lille area, better known as Hauts-de-France. Its advantage is said to be its proximity and better connectivity to Britain, Germany and the Benelux countries. Many multinational car manufacturers are already based here, according to NordFranceInvest.com and it would therefore make sense to build on its strengths.

What is required is building new automotive design capabilities and institutions for automotive engineering in the region, as well as developing supply chains with leading manufacturers of luxury auto components especially for interiors such as audio equipment, lighting, seats, leather upholstery, timber, craftsmen, etc. There ought to be a new Formula 1 race venue in the region that also acts as a testing ground for all new designs and technologies. This would also revive the interest in Formula 1 racing in France.

Reinventing the French luxury sedan for the electric and digital age will also help overcome many of the concerns that the government might have about fuelling discontent among the working class and the middle-class folk. For one thing, it is electric and new-age, encouraging responsible behaviour from the wealthy, unlike the gas-guzzling luxury cars of yore. Second, it will help revive old skills and expertise as well as add new ones, helping to create many more jobs in the auto industry. And because it is a luxury car that we are talking about, the handcrafted component will be significant and that should allay fears of automation taking over more jobs. And finally, it will be a product of local expertise and skill that every French person ought to be proud of. Just the way they are of all the exquisite French luxury brands that are bought the world over, every single day.

If France has to bring back the luxury car, let it be the electric luxury car for the tech driven age. It will not be just another electric car, nor will it be yet another luxury car. It will be an electric car, the way only the French could have created it, in France. That ought to be its distinctive aspect.

The last time the French pulled off anything this fantastic, it took to the skies in the form of the Concorde.  

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