French bakers protest over surging power prices

Dressed in aprons and brandishing baguettes, hundreds of bakers demonstrated in the streets of Paris on Monday to warn that the country's beloved bread and croissant makers were under threat from surging electricity and raw material costs.

French bakers protest over surging power prices
A man during a march organised by the collective for the survival of bakers and crafts artisans against the rising energy costs in Paris on January 23, 2023. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

“We feel like there’s a huge injustice,” said Sylvie Leduc from the rural Dordogne region who had travelled to the capital for the protest. “We know how to run a business, that’s not a problem, but we’re faced with increases that are just impossible to pass on to customers.”

The protest was yet another sign of the anger and incomprehension felt by many French people over the sudden price hikes linked to the war in Ukraine, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic that hit global supply chains.

Bakers were already struggling with higher butter and flour costs, while the price of eggs has also spiked because of a national bird flu outbreak that has hit many French farms.

The final straw for many of the country’s 35,000 bakeries has been the annual renewal of their electricity contracts, with suppliers suddenly asking for astronomical monthly payments in 2023.

READ MORE: Boulangeries across France face closure as energy bills skyrocket

Leduc’s husband Jean-Philippe said their power bill had increased six-fold in January, meaning they could hang on for only a few more months before being forced to close — unless financial help arrived. 

“Thirty years of being a baker and it’s going to finish like this? I could never have imagined it,” he said, shaking his head. “We don’t want hand-outs, we just want to be able to live from our work.” 

For the French, their local bakery is about more than simple food shopping: they serve as a symbol of the national way of life, while providing a focal point for many communities.

“The day starts with a baguette!” former presidential candidate Jean Lassalle, an ardent defender of traditional rural French communities, told AFP at the rally.

“These people are the ones who get up the earliest in France and they’ve had enough.”

‘Bakeries in Danger’

Given the emotional attachment to French bread, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has sought to highlight the help on offer for small business owners.

Macron welcomed bakers to the presidential palace on January 6, telling them: “I’m on your side”.

He outlined various government schemes which could help bring down electricity bills by 40 percent for eligible businesses.

But many of those demonstrating said the different systems put in place were either too complicated, too slow to deliver help, or  available for only the smallest bakeries with less than 12 employees, for example.

Some carried banners reading “Bakeries in Danger”, while one man pushed a wooden coffin on wheels with a skeleton inside dressed in a baker’s apron and trousers.

Many said they had always accepted the long hours, lack of sleep and gruelling physical labour out of the love for the profession, but felt compelled to hit the streets now.

“I’ve never seen bakers protest before,” said Joelle Reimel, 56, who said her monthly power bill for her bakery 50 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of Paris had increased from €2,500 a month to €14,000.

“We don’t have time to demonstrate normally. We’re up at 2am and go to bed at 8 in the evening.”

Pension protests

The protest came after one of the biggest demonstrations in decades last Thursday when more than a million people protested against an unpopular pension reform that will raise the age of retirement to 64 for most people.

Macron’s opponents have sought to pin the blame for electricity rises on him and European Union rules which mean power prices across the bloc are linked to the price of gas, even if the electricity is generated from other sources.

Anti-immigration and eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen has assailed the “refusal of Emmanuel Macron to break from the absurd European rules on the electricity market.”

Macron has acknowledged that European electricity pricing rules are “flawed” and has promised to reform them.

For Lionel Bonnamy, the fate of France’s bakeries is also about the country’s economic model, which has long sought to protect small shopkeepers and artisans — what he called the “economic fabric” of the country.

“If we carry on this way, everything will look the same, uniform, big business,” said the award-winning baker from Paris.

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France to end ‘regulated tariff’ options for gas in June

Households who benefit from regulated tariff gas plans will have to switch to a market plan before the end of June, according to France's ministry of economy.

France to end 'regulated tariff' options for gas in June

Some 2.4 million households in France will have to change their gas plans before June 30th, as part of France’s Energy and Climate Act.

The change will impact those who benefit from a tarif réglementé (TRV) – or regulated tariff – for their gas plan. Essentially, this is a gas supply contract that has a regulated rate set once a year by the French government, based on a recommendation from the energy regulation commission.

The premise is that as the TRV price goes up, so does the bill, and vice versa. If you are unsure as to whether you have a TRV plan and you have not received a letter, you can also consult your gas bill or contact your supplier to verify. 

These types of plans are only offered by ‘traditional’ suppliers, such as Engie and about 20 other local distribution companies in France. If you have a gas plan like this, then you should receive a letter from your supplier informing you that you will need to change your plan to a market offer.

France’s ministry of economy said that households and coproprietés (buildings divided into separately owned apartments), do not have to worry about having to cancel the contract yourself, as it will be done automatically. Additionally there will not be any gas cuts or the need to change your metre (compteur). You will, however, be advised to pick a new plan. If you do not do so, you will be automatically switched onto the generic plan offered by your gas supplier. 

READ MORE: PROPERTY: What you need to know about ‘copropriété’ fees in France

Those who benefit from regulated rates for electricity, such as the EDF ‘Blue Rate’, do not have to worry about changing their plans – this only applies to gas.

Does this impact the gas price shield in place in France?

This is not related to the existing freeze on gas price rises in France, which was capped to 15 percent at the beginning of 2023. 

However, France’s minister of economy did say in April that the price freeze for gas will be done away with sometime “this year” but did not offer any precise dates. 

Gas prices in France were frozen in 2021, initially as an aid with the rising cost of living – in the spring of 2022 the freeze was extended and electricity prices were also frozen, in order to protect French households from the spiralling energy prices seen across Europe after Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

Domestic gas and electricity price rises were capped at four percent throughout 2022, and then allowed to rise by a maximum of 15 percent at the start of 2023.

How do I decide on a new plan?

The French government has created a website to compare plans in your area – you can find it HERE. Simply put in your postal code, as well as some information regarding your typical gas consumption or monthly bill, to find recommended results for your area. 

You should choose your new offer before the deadline of June 30th, according to the French ministry of economy. 

Keep in mind, if you choose a new plan that does not suit you, you can still cancel the plan free of charge. To set up the new plan, you will need the reference number attached to your last gas bill.

Why is this change happening?

However, France is doing away with regulated tariffs in order bring French law in line with European law. Both small and large businesses have already switched away from regulated tariffs, and now the rule will apply to individuals and co-proprietés.