Au revoir timbre rouge! Next day delivery goes digital in France

Au revoir: The timbre rouge is set to be retired in France
Au revoir: The timbre rouge is set to be retired in France   -   Copyright  Valentine Chapuis
By Tim Gallagher

A row in France is brewing over retirement but it’s not what you think.

On 1 January 2023 the iconic ‘timbre rouge’ - or red stamp - clocked off for good and the policy to abolish it has stirred up controversy in the republic.

The timbre rouge has long guaranteed next day delivery with La Poste but will now disappear due to increased running costs and the fact that fewer people are using the French postal service to send mails.

Instead of receiving an icon of French public life, a new digital ‘e-lettre rouge’ will be available at the cost of €1.49. Anyone wanting to send a simple letter will now be invited to write directly on the La Poste website for their document to then be printed and delivered the next day. 

Three day delivery will still be available using the ‘timbre verts’ - green stamps - while a special new “Lettre turquoise services plus” provides two-day trackable delivery.

The changes take place against a backdrop of shifting figures for La Poste. Since 2008 the number of timbre rouge postal items has reduced fourteen-fold while the service eyes the lucrative uptake in parcel delivery available due to e-commerce.

Usage of the timbre rouge has been reducing by 15 - 20 per year according to La Poste CEO Phillipe Dorge.

What has been the reaction to the loss of the timbre rouge in France?

The move has provoked some controversy in France where some people have accused La Poste of abandoning its users who are not internet savvy; often pensioners and those on low incomes.

Estimates of the numbers of French people suffering with “illectronism” - either an inability to use the internet or lack of connection at home - range from 6.8 million to 13 million. A large proportion in a country of 67 million.

“What a shame! Way to further exclude all those who are not internet literate,” wrote journalist Marion Mourgue on Twitter.

“On the user side, the 'e-letter' has no interest for all those who use free e-mails: it is expensive and slows down the transfer!” added president and founder of UPR François Asselineau,

“It is impractical for the 8 million people (mainly elderly or poor) without computer equipment at home.”

There have also been concerns raised over confidentiality and whether or not postal workers will be able to read the contents of letters which are to be digitally archived for a year after sending.

Valentine Chapuis/AFP
The stamps were retired on 1 January 2023Valentine Chapuis/AFP

This, coupled with the threat of job cuts, has troubled postal unions. By September last year a petition against the abolishment of the timbre rouge launched by the PTT had garnered 28,000 signatures.

“It is a fatal blow to public service. Even if the mail drops, the red stamp is something on which many users and also many professionals rely,” Nicolas Galepides of the PTT, said on French broadcaster RMC.

For their part La Poste has assured the unions, politicians and the French public that letters will be printed in secure spaces and enveloped by machines, while archived material is protected by the EU’s stringent GDPR laws.

They add that help will be offered in-store to the elderly and other digitally challenged French citizens wanting to use the urgent service. Those unable to attend at the post office can order a pick up from their home.

What’s happening in the rest of Europe?

Shifting patterns in postal use have caused plans for reconfiguration across some of Europe’s oldest mail systems.

In the UK the famous red post boxes of the Royal Mail have filled up less as email has grown increasingly popular. During the festive period postal workers joined in on the already proliferate industrial action in the country over changes to their terms and conditions in response to changing customer and delivery profiles.

Meanwhile since March 2022 citizens in Denmark have been able to receive their official post from public authorities via a digital mail service mit.dk.