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POLITICS

Deadlock in talks over riots on French Caribbean islands

France's minister for overseas territories left the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe on Monday night at an impasse over ways to end more than a week of violent protests sparked by Covid-19 restrictions.

Sebastien Lecornu talks to media in Guadeloupe.
Sebastien Lecornu talks to media in Guadeloupe. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Before departing for more talks in neighbouring Martinique, Sebastien Lecornu told reporters that the Guadeloupe negotiations had been deadlocked over the “obvious and indispensable” demand that the various unions condemn the violence.

Discussions were not possible so long as the unions “do not want to condemn assassination attempts” against security forces, he said.

Unrest in the former colonial outpost began with a protest over compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for health workers, but quickly ballooned into a broader revolt over living conditions, and spread to next door Martinique.

Both islands are now under curfew.

In the French overseas territories, each of which has close to 400,000 inhabitants, residents complain of greater poverty, higher costs for basic goods and poorer public services than on the mainland.

Lecornu said his talks with four union representatives in Guadeloupe were limited to the receipt of a list of demands.

Maite Hubert-M’Toumo, secretary general of Guadeloupe’s main trade union UGTG, said the requests include a suspension of the vaccine mandate for health professionals, no convictions for protesters over the violence and improvement of living conditions for Guadeloupean families.

Lecornu, who laid responsibility for some of the issues at the feet of local elected officials, said he expects to make better headway in Martinique where the “republican prerequisite” for negotiations has already been met.

The explosion of unrest on the islands has put the fate of overseas territories on the agenda of the campaign heading into 2022 elections, with President Emmanuel Macron’s opponents accusing him of neglecting the former colonial outposts.

Ahead of his visit, Lecornu had floated the possibility of giving Guadeloupe, the more troubled of the two territories, more autonomy.

His proposal drew fire from the opposition, with centre-right presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand accusing the government of being ready to let France “be broken up” and far-right leader Marine Le Pen accusing Lecornu of trying to “buy off” hardline pro-independence groups.

Lecornu’s remarks also received a lukewarm response from lawmakers in Guadeloupe, who said the immediate priority was tackling high levels of youth unemployment and other social problems.

On his arrival in Guadeloupe on Sunday, Lecornu vowed to stand firm on the obligation for health workers and first responders to be vaccinated against Covid by December 31st or face suspension without pay. But he insisted he was open to dialogue on other issues.

The vaccine mandate for health workers, which was enforced in September on the mainland, has met with greater resistance in Guadeloupe and Martinique, where vaccine hesitancy is high.

Protesters barricaded roads with burning tyres or taxis and hurled petrol bombs at the security forces in some of the worst unrest in the islands in years.

In Martinique, several businesses were looted and five police officers were injured by gunfire.

Calm had been largely restored by the weekend, however, with only minor skirmishes reported.

France lost most of its overseas possessions around 60 years ago, when its African colonies declared independence, a few years after French territories in Southeast Asia.

READ ALSO ‘Confetti of an empire’ – France’s overseas territories

But Paris still retains control over 12 territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Caribbean, that are home to a total of 2.6 million people.

While some, like Guadeloupe and Martinique, have the same status as regions on the mainland, others, such as French Polynesia, have already been granted autonomy.

The Pacific islands of New Caledonia are to vote next month in the third of three independence referendums.

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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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