Energy shortages in France worry people as winter approaches

NEUILLY-SUR-MARNE, France — Few countries have taken bolder steps than France to protect their citizens from the impact of Europe’s energy crisis. But as Helene Bakker walked past an endless line of honking cars waiting for fuel at an overwhelmed gas station this week, she couldn’t help but wonder: Is this going to be enough?

Drivers shouted at each other as they drove towards a handwritten sign warning that there was ‘out of petrol’ at the station. Police armed with rifles struggled to ease tensions in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Marne, just 20 minutes by train from central Paris. Tires squealed as officers chased drivers trying to queue.

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“It’s not a wealthy neighborhood,” Bakker, 59, said. “The context is quite explosive. It could well lead to something bigger.

Fuel shortages in France this week were sparked by striking refinery workers demanding higher wages, in part because oil and gas companies are reaping large profits from soaring energy prices in Europe. But fuel shortages have become a powerful catalyst for a much broader sentiment: Winter is going to be tough, but only for those who can’t afford it.

“The rich will always be able to get away with it,” said a retiree in her 60s who spoke on the condition that she be identified only as Madame Chauvette. “But it hits the middle class and the working class.”

She had hoped to get gas for her daughter’s car and bring it back in a small gas can, but left the station empty-handed, passing an electronic price board that had turned black. French television reported that 28% of all service stations are out of petrol or diesel.

Nearby was an Uber Eats driver who had last been able to fill up his car four days ago. He hasn’t been able to accept any deliveries since the weekend, he said.

Some have begun to draw comparisons between the current discontent and the yellow vest movement in 2018, which began with proposed increases in fuel taxes but quickly widened to broader concerns about social inequality. The violent turn of these protests in 2019 thwarted President Emmanuel Macron’s agenda at the time.

With these protests firmly in mind, natural gas prices were capped at fall 2021 levels and energy price increases limited to 4%. Gasoline prices were also heavily subsidized. Inflation thus remained lower in France than in many other countries.

While France’s caps will gradually increase next year, they are still expected to be lower than those in most European countries struggling with rising energy costs.

France – a country where social discontent often comes out early and loudly – is particularly sensitive to any rise in the cost of living following Macron’s far-reaching efforts to liberalize the economy over the past five years. accelerating criticism that has raised concerns about the social impact.

But France still offers a key warning to other countries in Europe: its extended price caps benefit those who need them least the most, further exacerbating inequality rather than combating it.

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French ceilings apply to all households in much the same way. But “there has to be a limit on that, so that households that use a lot of energy don’t benefit to the same extent” unless they have a good reason for their overconsumption, said Ray Galvin , an environmental scientist.

Even though people in the poorest neighborhoods reduced their energy use to save costs long before this crisis, inflation and rising gas prices will continue to hit these areas the hardest. On the other hand, the crisis may only marginally affect the wealthiest neighborhoods of the French capital region, on the boulevards near the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées, even if the inhabitants tend to consume five times more heating, electricity and gas per inhabitant than inhabitants of the poorest neighborhoods.

Outside France, some countries or cities are trying to remedy this imbalance by implementing measures targeting the wealthiest. Spain is introducing a temporary solidarity tax on wealth for the rich. In Austria, the mayor of the upscale ski resort of Kitzbühel wanted to go even further by offering to cut off the power supply to wealthy owners if they do not heed warnings and continue to heat up their Ferrari garages or illuminate the facades of their villas. Germany is expected to cap natural gas prices only up to a certain consumption threshold this winter, which would also encourage wealthier people to save.

Aiming to reduce energy consumption by 10% within two years, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne has called for restraint and a reduction in heating.

But for many, the main takeaway from her “energy sobriety” plan was the photos that accompanied the campaign: Borne donning a zipped puffer jacket as she sat in the plush rooms of her residence and Macron in a turtleneck sweater at the Élysée Palace.

The campaign has been met with mockery online. But in many poor neighborhoods it has heightened existential fears about the coming winter.

As the Parisian elite celebrated a flash fashion week this month, French mayors lowered temperatures in schools, closed swimming pools and reduced the opening hours of museums.

To avoid power cuts, France’s public broadcaster has started airing weather bulletin-style bulletins about the country’s current energy consumption. In rural areas, where the government’s sense of neglect has been particularly pronounced, medical associations are warning that paramedics, nurses and doctors are running out of fuel.

In Neuilly-sur-Marne, residents and officials fear that Macron’s business-friendly government does not understand the scale of the social problem facing them.

The city’s war memorial is framed by French flags and the national motto “liberty, equality, fraternity”. But with a poverty rate of around 20%, many of its 36,000 residents live in a world far removed from its namesake on the other side of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine, where sprawling mansions line the boulevards.

The mayor of Neuilly-sur-Marne, Zartoshte Bakhtiari, has already lowered temperatures in classrooms – although he admits this will make learning more difficult – and has slashed plans for Christmas decorations that some residents waited impatiently for months.

But that probably won’t be enough. The city faces a six-fold increase in its energy expenditure over the next few months, as the price caps imposed by the French government on citizens do not apply to many municipalities.

“Even if we turn off all the lights,” he said, that would only offset about a tenth of the increased spending.

Bakhtiari started a petition, urging the government to help. “Cities that have fewer resources — or whose residents rely more on public services — will be hit hard,” he told the Post.

Local residents like Bakker also worried about inequality. The combined effect of inflation and the poor insulation of many homes here will turn apartments into “thermal sieves”, she said.

To provide short-term relief, the French government is distributing up to $195 to vulnerable households. But critics see those payments as insufficient to offset the impact of inflation which has hit communities like Neuilly-sur-Marne hard.

“We are facing an unprecedented energy crisis, a crisis that we have not seen in France since the oil shock of 1973,” said Sébastien Jumel, a far-left deputy in the French parliament. “And when, in a way, war measures would be necessary, we are offered a teaspoon.”

The question is expected to dominate a large left-wing rally due to take place in Paris on Sunday.

Some 58% of French people say they are “unhappy” with the state of their country, and a third are “very angry”, according to a recent poll. Purchasing power is three times more cited as the main concern of the French than immigration and delinquency.

This weekend’s rally may also be an attempt to prevent those feelings from turning into a more violent and less structured movement, like the yellow vests. If popular anger “expresses itself haphazardly and is not supported by demands and solutions, it can be destabilizing for the entire Republic”, Jumel said.

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