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PARIS (Reuters) - Automaker Renault, frustrated by the speed at which electric car chargers are being installed across France, is to fund some of the missing infrastructure itself.
A century after French tiremaker Michelin issued road signs to help early motorists find their way, Renault and Japanese affiliate Nissan are preparing to hand out charging stations for installation in public spaces.
"It is not our job to install chargers, but somebody has to kickstart the market," Thierry Koskas, head of Renault's electric vehicle program, told Reuters. "This cannot be a long-term policy."
The allied carmakers, both headed by chief executive Carlos Ghosn, will give away close to 1,000 fast chargers costing around 5,000 euros ($6,300) each, mostly in France.
The freebies will go to car parks, supermarkets and other high-visibility public spaces under private ownership.
Among major European countries, the infrastructure delays are worst in Renault's domestic market - France has spent only 5 percent of a 50 million euro fund earmarked for public charging networks, the company recently disclosed.
"France is not really on track to meet the objectives," Renault product planning chief Philippe Klein said. "So obviously it is up to us to stimulate the rollout."
Among major auto companies and groupings, Renault-Nissan has staked the most on electric cars, investing 4 billion euros in their development and production.
France, a vocal supporter of the technology and Renault's biggest shareholder with a 15 percent stake, aims to build 75,000 charging spots by 2015. Yet many of Europe's 15,000 public chargers are concentrated in Germany and the Netherlands, with fewer than 2,000 installed in France.
Concerns are mounting over the country's readiness for the launch of flagship Renault Zoe launch later this year, a key test of Ghosn's belief that electric car sales will rise steadily to claim 10 percent of the global auto market by 2020.
Unlike Renault's existing Fluence and Kangoo battery cars, adapted from conventional models with government and company fleets in mind, the new subcompact is designed from scratch as an electric car and pitched squarely at individual consumers.
"Initial uptake of electric cars has been slow," said Tim Urquhart, a London-based IHS Automotive analyst who believes their shaky debut partly reflects the limited choice available.
"The relatively small numbers are explainable but still not comfortable viewing for Nissan and Renault," Urquhart said. "High prices and low levels of infrastructure pose a big stumbling block."
Electric models, which carry a 5,000 euro subsidy, accounted for 0.24 percent of French registrations in the first quarter. Western Europe recorded 11,000 deliveries last year, less than 0.1 percent of the region's auto market.
Nissan, 43.4 percent-owned by Renault, has seen its battery-powered Leaf wilt after less than a year of sales, with volumes dropping sharply after filling advance orders from early adopters.
Renault-Nissan's infrastructure push echoes past efforts by Michelin and other companies forced to venture beyond their core competencies to stimulate demand for innovative products.
"Drivers were always getting lost in the early 1900s because maps were not exactly accurate," said Francois Roudier of France's CCFA car industry association. "So Michelin ran this whole campaign for better road signage and directions."
In 1910, the company issued 30,000 road signs to local authorities. Earlier in that decade, it introduced maps and guides that spawned the globally venerated restaurant reviews and points system of Michelin stars.
"Now the automakers are having to step in because the public sector is moving too slowly," Roudier said. "As people begin to use the chargers they provide, town halls will come under pressure to buy more and provide a proper network."
As part of its initiative, Renault has signed a deal with family-owned retailer E. Leclerc to equip 500 of its French hypermarkets with chargers by 2015.
Other automakers, such as General Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Toyota, are more bullish about plug-in hybrids that combine a combustion engine with an electric powertrain and battery.
They too stand to benefit from a broader charging network.
Cars 21, a high-level group of European public officials and industry executives, last week called for action to accelerate the availability of public charging, far more critical for battery cars than for hybrids which can fill up at the pump when the battery runs out.
"Most customers will recharge at home or at work almost all the time," Koskas said. "But they still want the reassurance that they are covered when they break with that routine."
($1 = 0.7993 euro)
Editing by Dan Lalor