France’s new digital timbre rouge: Will my letter be seen by staff?

The priority mail stamp is to be replaced by a scan-and-send process from January 1, prompting fears that postal workers will be able to read private letters

A close up image of a timbre rouge stamp from 2000
The timbre rouge has a long history in France, such as this one from the year 2000, but it will no longer be in use from January 1.
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France’s post office La Poste has been forced to defend its new 24-hour priority letter process, over fears that postal workers will be able to read confidential documents when the system launches on January 1.

The traditional ‘timbre rouge’ (red stamp) urgent priority mail stamp is set to be replaced with a hybrid scan-and-print system from January 1, 2023.

This is how it will work:

  • Instead of using a timbre rouge to send an urgent letter, people will need to buy the e-Lettre service online on the La Poste website at €1.49 per letter
  • They will then need to scan the letter to digitise it
  • The contents of the letter will then be printed and put in an envelope at the closest post office to the final destination, to speed up delivery.

The eight million people in France who do not yet have internet at home – or cannot use it – will be able to go to a La Poste office directly with their paper letter and have it scanned there.

Anyone who cannot get to the post office – because of a disability, for example – will be able to order a pick-up directly from their home.

The new system has sparked fears that the contents of any scanned letters may be read by workers.

La Poste has sought to reassure customers, saying that it has put security measures in place throughout the process. Letters are scanned “in front of the client”, it said, and printed in “secure spaces that are locked and only accessible by trained staff”.

It added that the printing and folding into an envelope would be done by machines and not by workers. Once printed, the contents of the letter will be deleted from the servers at the post office.

However, the contents will be archived digitally for a year, so that the sender has proof it was sent in case of a claim. This is done “according to the GDPR [data] rules, and data centres are secure and based in France”, La Poste said. It also said that only 4% of post is still sent by timbre rouge.

In theory, all La Poste workers – of which there are 20,000 – are able to scan letters. If in a post office, the scanning will be done via a secure tablet or smartphone, using La Poste’s Smarteo app.

In total, the new system means:

  • Timbre rouge 24-hour priority letter - Replaced by the digital scanning system
  • Lettre verte (three days) - No change. 80% of post is sent this way

For secure post that must still be sent physically (such as a cheque or signed papers), which would usually require a timbre rouge, La Poste has launched a new stamp: La Lettre service. This will cost €2.95.

  • Lettre Service Plus (two days) - Turquoise stamp. Introduced for fast and secure sending of physical documents.

Read more: How to send parcels from home via La Poste

Controversy and criticism

The new system has attracted criticism, especially from postal workers.

In September, the Sud PTT union gathered 28,000 signatures for its petition against the end of the timbre rouge.

It said that it feared that the new system would lead to redundancies, and cause deeper divisions in society between those who have access to digital tools, and those who do not.

Philippe Dorge, deputy director of La Poste and manager of the Services-Courrier-Colis branch, told FranceInfo today (December 30) that the new system was necessary to change with the times.

He said: “If we do not change things, it will be the end of the postal service.” He added that the timbre rouge represents “200 million items per year, dropping by 15-20% per year”, compared to “one billion, 200 million” lettre verte items per day.

He said: “In any case, in three or four years, the timbre rouge would have disappeared. Digital has taken over for most urgent sending.”

Mr Dorge added that maintaining a physical timbre rouge service would also lead to a “worsening carbon footprint”. He said: “The means are becoming completely disproportionate, because, to send this post, we have three daily planes and 300 daily road links.”

He said that the changing system “responds to the evolution of our client usage”. “We’re doing this so that there is still a postal service in 2030, and we want to guarantee and streamline the future of post.

“Postal workers will still deliver letters, newspapers, and parcels, [a field] which is developing strongly due to the e-commerce boom.”

Mr Dorge also answered questions about the confidentiality of the new system.

He said that confidentiality would be “total”, and said: “Scanned messages will not remain on our machines or on our postal workers’ devices. We print in secure premises and the letter is put in envelopes immediately [by machine].”

The new system comes after La Poste announced another new digital stamp system earlier this year. People will be able to buy postage online and write a unique code on their letter by hand, if they are not able to print or buy physical stamps.

This option is set to become available “over the course of 2023”.

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