34 numberplate34. Well, it’s just a number? Well, not quite. It’s the last two figures on car numberplates from the French département of Hérault, the region of France where I spent all my summers from 1990 until 1998 (and plenty of time subsequently). See a 34 drive past and I think of vines, warm sunshine, Béziers, St Chinian… It’s the same when I see a vehicle from the near-neighbours – 11 (Aude), 66 (Pyrénees-Occidentales) and 81 (Tarn). My school GCSE Geography project relied on these plates too – a survey of the geographic origin of 3000 cars at Sète-Marseillan Plage in 1994 was the statistical basis for a project that gave me 20/20. I still know that 13 is Bouches du Rhône, 67 and 68 are for Alsace, 38 is Grénoble, 59 and 62 are industrial cities of the north, and that you can expect bad driving from a 75, 78, 92, 93, 94 or 95.

But 2008 is going to be the last year of these plates, and – shock – the EU is being blamed for their demise. “The new anonymous numberplates, in line with EU legislation, will come into force next year” is all The Guardian’s article states. Now I’m not having that. EU Business, supposedly a site for EU experts, quotes more critical individuals, but does not explain what’s actually going on. However the French Interior Ministry’s page (in French) makes no reference at all to EU legislation.

So what is happening? Number plates in Europe are regulated by Council Regulation (EC) No 2411/98 of 3 November 1998 on the recognition in intra-Community traffic of the distinguishing sign of the Member State in which motor vehicles and their trailers are registered but this regulation only determines how the blue bar on the left of a numberplate with EU stars and a national code should be displayed. This blue bar is not even obligatory – all the Regulation states is that other Member States mush recognise other Member States’ numberplates with this bar on them.

As far as I can tell there is nothing that would – under EU law – oblige France to change its numberplates to omit the numbers that refer to the département from which a car originates. To make plates ‘EU Compliant’ all France would have to do is make sure all new plates issued had the blue bar with EU stars on it. I’m quite sure the EU says nothing about regional identification as, after all, German, Slovenian, Austrian and Romanian plates have a regional system, and I am not aware of any challenge to GO for Gorizia or the famous WOB for Wolfsburg (featuring on so many VW car ads).

So I reckon these reports are anti-EU scaremongering – this is a matter for the French government to sort out, not something for the EU. It might just be that in that state known for its centralism, numberplates that sustain a regional identity are seen as being a danger to the republican state?


  1. There is a concession however that when having the number plate made you can opt to have your department number added to the right of the plate in another little blue box similar to the one for the country of origin.

  2. I remember hearing about this story when I was in France and seem to remember being told that it was something to do with changes in the way motorists are taxed? I may be completely wrong about this but it could be a lead to follow up.

    Your comment about quashing regionalism contains a historical irony. The reason the (artificial) departmental system was invented in the first place was to suppress the emotional ties of the old historic regions or ‘pays’ (based on the ‘pays d’etat’ and the ‘pays d’election’ system under the old regime). Not that it was very successful; in my experience in 47 (Lot-et-Garonne) when someone refers to ‘le pays’ it still often means Gascony… (as in ‘mais il n’est pas du pays’).

  3. It is alphabetical (with a few exceptions and later additions). However Alsace is 2 d̩partements: 67 РRhin (Bas) and 68 РRhin (Haut). These are followed by: 69: Rh̫ne. Full list is here.

  4. Niamh Downey

    Why is Alsace 67 or 68? I thought it was alphabetical.

  5. Yes, there are plenty of interesting and pleasant things in 59 and 62 too… But most of the folks on Sète plage from those départements were from Lille, Valenciennes, Dunkerque etc.

    I agree that there’s pressure on the départements system and the régions will grow in strength.

    I forgot to mention though Рpostcodes in France will still be based on the same numbers though, so 34XXX will still be H̩rault.

  6. Very sad, and most odd – I can’t see anything in the press notice or the legislation which says this is to do with the EU, but it’s not just the Guardian – it’s been reported in Figaro and on TF1 as an EU project too. Another nail in the coffin of French geography education.




    59 and 62 have lots of green field and farmland too, I’ll have you know. Granted they’re not the Ardennes, but still. Mind you, the departements system has and will come under pressure from the tendency to require bigger units anyway, much like the regionalism campaign in the UK.

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