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French motorway company makes U-turn on péage bills

French motorway company Vinci Autoroutes will no longer demand that drivers pay back the “free” péage passages they received during gilets jaunes protests, after a government backlash.

Vinci Autoroutes, which manages the country’s motorways and péages, had previously announced that it would be sending follow-up bills in the post to all drivers who had been allowed to pass through péage booths without paying.

The company said that it would not impose extra fines - as would normally the case for drivers who manage to get past a péage without paying - but said that it needed to recuperate some of the money lost to pay for damage inflicted by protesters to péage booths, road signs and other “vandalism”.

It also said that “thousands of people spontaneously called our customer service department to settle up” even before the company announced its plans.

But a public backlash, including criticism from the government, has now forced the company to perform a U-turn on the controversial decision.

Benjamin Griveaux, secretary of State for the Prime Minister, said: “I find this very incongruous. This is not a good way to behave in this current period.”

Minister for transport Elisabeth Borne said that she found it difficult to “believe that the non-payment at the péage was done voluntarily by drivers...legally, Vinci cannot allow itself to send bills to drivers”.

In a statement, Vinci Autoroutes said: “This procedure was without doubt not well-explained, and was therefore misunderstood, and provoked a great deal of negative reactions. [As a consequence we will] renounce our demands.”

The company has estimated that the protests - including fires, vandalism and breakages - caused “several dozen million euros” worth of damage across 250 Vinci sites, including péage booths, road signs, road markings, intervention vehicles, and barriers.

But ecology minister François de Rugy appeared to defend Vinci.

He said: “Whether the repairs are paid for by insurance, by the State or by Vinci Autoroutes, in all cases the public will be penalised by these repeated attacks on public property.

“It will no doubt be the State that will have to pay a large part of the bills, and that is going to be an extra spend simply to repair the damage or shore up financial losses. Or, it will have repercussions in one way or another on the motorway [toll] costs, which is a shame.”

Some protesters are still on-site at several Vinci-owned péage booths, the company said, and it warned the public to be alert.

It said: “We [advise] great caution when approaching the péages and access to motorways, where numerous pedestrians are present.”

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