OPINION: France cannot afford to keep shielding consumers from energy price rises

The Ukraine war has combined with Covid delays and long-term problems with France's ageing nuclear power plants to create a perfect storm for French energy supplies this winter, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: France cannot afford to keep shielding consumers from energy price rises
France's President Emmanuel Macron addresses media following a conference with Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the energy crisis. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

The lights will stay on in France this winter. Probably.

President Emmanuel Macron’s message to the French people on Monday was as much a warning as it was a guarantee.

“We are at war”, he said. Russia is halting its gas supplies to Europe as a “weapon of war” to try to undermine European solidarity with Ukraine.

As a result, he said, there will be huge problems with French, and European, energy supplies this winter but there is no reason (yet) to panic.

We can avoid power cuts and electricity and gas rationing if the nation reduces its power consumption by 10 percent, he said. A government plan for energy “sobriety” will be announced in the next few days.

READ ALSO Will there be energy rationing in France this winter?

All state buildings will be ordered to take part, he said. Households will be urged – but not yet forced – to make savings, such as turning the heating down to 19C.

Macron also warned, without quite saying so, that state-subsidised French electricity and gas bills – currently the envy of Europe – will explode next year. How big that explosion will be is unclear.

The finance ministry is still doing its sums for 2023, trying to balance real threats to public finances with – France being France – possible threats to public order.

Placing a 4 percent cap on electricity bills has already cost the state almost €20bn since February, if you include the enforced losses of the largely state-owned electricity company EDF. The total bill to the state so far, including the freeze on gas prices and subsidies on petrol and diesel, is over €32bn – around 1.3 percent of the country’s annual earnings or GDP.

READ ALSO How to cut your household energy use by 10%

The “real” increase in wholesale electricity prices in France this year is more like 50 to 70 percent.  Such subsidies cannot continue indefinitely, Macron warned (just as it appears that the new UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is considering standing on her head and copying the French).

I listened to Macron’s one hour press conference with conflicting thoughts.

The President’s grasp of detail was extraordinary, as ever. But it seemed to me that he was both taking the French people into his confidence and misleading them; warning them of the problems to come while softening the harsh realities.

Just how bad is the energy crisis which France faces this winter? Can it really be solved by turning the central heating dial down to 19C?

Is the crisis all Vladimir Putin’s fault, as Macron implied? Why should the closing of the Nordstream One gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and other EU countries threaten a shortage of electricity as well as gas?

To answer the last question first…. France’s electricity shortage is only partly caused by the Ukraine war. The shortage of gas does affect the production and above all the wholesale price of electricity in what is a fiendishly complicated (and according to Macron dysfunctional) European electricity market.

But France is normally a net exporter of electricity. It could have benefited from the huge jump in wholesale electricity prices this year. It has in fact been importing electricity from neighbouring countries, including Britain.

More than 80 percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power stations and more than half of France’s nuclear reactors –  25 out of 56 – are currently closed down. Partly, this is because of routine maintenance; partly, it is because of delayed maintenance because of the Covid lockdowns.

 But there is also another, more disturbing problem. No less than 13 French reactors have suffered emergency closures since January after inspectors discovered corrosion and tiny cracks in their cooling pipes.

In theory, all should be operating again by February. Until then, France’s electricity supplies are fragile.

After speaking to the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a video summit yesterday, President Macron announced that France and Germany would be “swapping” surplus energy this winter.

France would sell some of its gas stocks to Germany (which is much more dependant than France on Russian gas). Germany would sell more of its electricity to France (including the energy from the polluting, coal-powered stations which French politicians have until recently liked to mock).

Macron angrily rejected suggestions that the failings in France’s much-vaunted fleet of nuclear power  stations were, somehow, his fault. He blamed bad luck and poor maintenance by EDF.

Right wing politicians blame Macron’s predecessor François Hollande for backing away from nuclear power in 2007-12 and Macron for being too slow to decide to resume a nuclear-building programme.

In truth, no new power stations ordered by Macron at the beginning of his first term could have been operational this summer. A new generation pressurised-water reactor under construction at Flamanville in Normandy has been serially delayed by design faults. It was supposed to open in 2012 but will finally open next year.

In sum, the Covid pandemic and an ageing nuclear power fleet have combined with the Ukraine war to create a serious energy problem in France. The situation has been worsened by the heat and drought this summer which has limited the river water available to cool power stations.

Thus far, French families and most French businesses have been shielded from these difficulties by the 4 percent ceiling on electricity bills. As Macron warned on Monday, that protection will be weakened next year. State subsidies would continue, he said, but would mostly take the form of help to the lower paid. In other words, bills for many households and businesses will increase hugely.

The Ukraine war has worsened this problem; it has also served to disguise some of the causes. President Macron was right to say yesterday that France and Europe are “at war”. He is right to call – as he did last month – for French people to be ready to make “sacrifices” to continue their support for Ukraine.

But French power cuts this winter, if they happen, will not be wholly, or even largely, the fault of Vladimir Putin.

Member comments

  1. Great article.
    Another added problem is the low HE production caused by low water levels in rivers.
    I hope the coming winter won’t be too cold but windy so that wind turbines keep producing electricity.

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EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

As Iranian women burn their hijabs in protest at the country's repressive laws you might have heard people contrasting this to the French 'hijab ban' - but is the Muslim headscarf actually banned in France?

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

What are the rules? Does France have a hijab ban?

No, France does not have a ban on hijabs in public spaces. However, the rules differ when it comes to headscarves and full-face coverings and this can be confusing because both the full-face veil and the Muslim headscarf are often referred to a voile in French.

In 2010, the country brought in a complete ban on clothing that includes full-face coverings – including the burka and niqab. These cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

The hijab or headscarf, however, is completely legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets and it’s common to see women wearing them, especially in certain areas of the big cities like Paris.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no restriction on women’s freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.

In line with France’s laws on laïcité (secularism) it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion – including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, including schools and universities (with the exception of visitors).

Public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers are also barred from wearing any overt symbol of their religion while they are at work.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. While the law also banned crucifixes and kippas, “it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim headscarves,” explained The Local’s columnist, John Lichfield.

Burkinis are also subject to certain rules. They are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict regulations regarding dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps), but they are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

READ MORE: Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

This became a source of controversy during the summer of 2022, when Grenoble challenged the ban on the full-body swimsuit by relaxing its rules on the swimwear permitted in public pools.

In response to the challenge, France’s highest administrative court voted to uphold the countrywide ban in June. 

What about in athletics?

Some federations, such as the French Football Federation, have banned players from wearing the hijab, along with other “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

Other sports, such as handball and rugby, have a more open position.

Are there plans to change these rules? 

Currently, there are no government plans to reverse the ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab or to allow the symbols of religion in public buildings, like schools.

There have been attempts to change the current legal framework on the headscarf, however.

In 2021, Senators proposed an to the government’s “anti-separatism bill” that would ban girls under 18 wearing a hijab in public. Several other amendments also targeted Muslim women – such as banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips – however these were all defeated in the Assemblée nationale and therefore did not become law.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Are the rules followed?

The rules around the niqab are generally followed and it has become quite rare in France.

However sociologist Agnès De Féo, believes that in the years following its ban, the full-face covering became more popular, rather than less.

She wrote that “the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object. Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.”

As of 2020, however, fewer women wore the niqab and burka in France than they did in 2009.

The rules around the wearing the headscarf in public buildings are generally respected, but it’s not uncommon for rules around any form of Muslim dress to be over-zealously interpreted – sometimes by accident, sometimes with a cynical political intent.

One key example was in 2019, when Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage after posting a video of himself confronting a headscarf-wearing woman who accompanied students on a field trip.

He cited “secular principles” – arguing that the headscarf’s ban in schools should also extend into school trips.

In response, the country’s Education Minister at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, clarified that that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children.”

There was also controversy at election time over candidates who appeared on posters wearing the hijab, although again this is perfectly legal and doe snot contravene secular principles.