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POLITICS

France to create a network of ‘safe consumption sites’ for drug addicts

France's health minister Olivier Véran has announced that two new shooting galleries will be created every year, as health authorities struggle to deal with problems caused by drug addicts.

An employee prepares a users' kit at the supervised injection site in Strasbourg, one of two such facilities in France.

“We have approved funds to finance treatment and addiction centres,” Véran told France Inter radio on Wednesday. “I will provide health and social teams to wean off consumers who are currently on the street.”

As part of the project, the safe consumption rooms have been re-dubbed haltes soin/addiction – recovery/addiction centres (halte can be interpreted as a place to rest, or an order to stop), although they are also popularly referred to as salles de shoot (shooting galleries).

In a letter read out during a Fédération Addiction conference last week, Véran wrote that the goal of the new terminology was to “be done with the caricatures about ‘shooting galleries’ and concentrate on care”.

Extending the network

Véran said two new centres would be created each year at a national level. A law from 2016 authorises the creation of low-risk consumption rooms, but so far just two have been set up – one in Paris and one in Strasbourg. Those test facilities were due to run until 2022, but the government announced last week that they would be extended until 2025.

“I myself was an MP in 2015, involved in the creation of the first consumption room in Strasbourg and things are going very well,” he said.

“We therefore have proof that in our country this type of structure, providing support for withdrawal to avoid risk and unsanitary conditions and to better support the most vulnerable people, works.

In August, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced plans to create four new facilities in the capital. On September 15th, Prime Minister Jean Castex gave the green light for three of the four sites, but after discussions city hall decided to abandon the fourth site, which was due to be situated on rue Pelleport in the 20th arrondissement.

Crack smokers light their crack pipes on the docks at Stalingrad Square in Paris.

Crack smokers light their crack pipes on the docks at Stalingrad Square in Paris. Photo: JOEL SAGET / AFP.

The proposition had drawn criticism from local residents, who complained the site was too close to a school.

“We need coherent proposals for sites, meaning not 15 metres from a nursery or primary school,” Véran said on Wednesday.

Crack consumption is a long-standing problem in Paris, and users were once again evacuated from the jardins d’Eole and Stalingrad areas, towards Porte de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement on Friday.

Residents of the Pantin suburb of Paris denounced a “wall of shame” over the weekend, after authorities bricked up a tunnel under the Paris ring road to stop dispersed addicts from moving out of the capital.

How France compares to its neighbours

“France had fallen 40 years behind. The first low-risk consumption room in Geneva is more than 40 years old,” Véran told France Inter.

In fact, Europe’s first supervised drug consumption room was opened in Berne, Switzerland in 1986. In the 35 years since then, the concept has spread throughout the continent.

There are currently 78 official facilities spread across seven of the countries which report to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) – that includes the EU27 as well as third countries such as Switzerland and Norway.

In 2018, in addition to France’s two centres, there were: 31 facilities in 25 cities in the Netherlands; 24 in 15 cities in Germany; five in four cities in Denmark, 13 in seven cities in Spain; two in two cities in Norway; one in Luxembourg; and 12 in eight cities in Switzerland, mostly in German-speaking areas.

A map shows the locations of 78 safe drug consumption facilities in Europe.
Map: EMCDDA

As well as clean injection equipment and health advice, many of the centres offer access to primary healthcare and the possibility to take a shower and wash clothes.

According to the EMCDDA, “There is no evidence to suggest that the availability of safer injecting facilities increases drug use or frequency of injecting. These services facilitate rather than delay treatment entry and do not result in higher rates of local drug-related crime.”

The EU agency highlights the effectiveness of drug consumption facilities to “reach and stay in contact with highly marginalised target populations”, while the presence of facilities has also been shown to reduce behaviours such as syringe sharing that increase the risk of HIV transmission and overdose death.

While plans for drug facilities in Paris have proved controversial with residents, where centres do exist, they have been linked to a decrease in public injecting.

“In Barcelona, a fourfold reduction was reported in the number of unsafely disposed syringes being collected in the vicinity from a monthly average of over 13 000 in 2004 to around 3 000 in 2012,” the EMCDDA states.

READ ALSO French health system to offer free psychologist sessions

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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