As people start to run out of options and patience, France is scrambling to find alternative energy sources ahead of what appears to be a dark and cold winter.
Europe continues to confront a severe energy crisis largely due to tensions between the EU and Russia over the ongoing war in Ukraine. It has created differing models of a growing energy crisis, not only for the continent but also for each individual EU country, impacting each to differing extents.
The fact that this is affecting countries differently is causing some to shift their stance and approach in an effort to satiate their domestic needs. France, a country historically prone to social mass mobilisation, is feeling the local pressure and as such growing increasingly averse to the general stance of EU leadership.
While the French government has taken vast measures to shield the population from inflation, including capping electricity costs for the year, the people are growing increasingly frustrated and even channelling their anger into general strikes.
The conflict in Ukraine was an opportunity for the EU to heavily sanction Russia, and while this was a widely praised move, the manner in which Moscow responded was not necessarily anticipated. Through drastically limiting energy supplies to the European continent, distributed through the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines to Germany and subsequently to other EU states, the EU is now feeling the brunt of this decision.
Over the summer, not only did Russia limit imports into the EU, but the 27-nation bloc also limited Moscow’s ability to export; while the Nord Stream 1 pipeline was operational at the time, it is imperative to note that Germany, too, delayed and denied an operating permit for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In response, in June supplies were reduced from 170 cubic metres to 40.
Following this, Russia cut off gas supplies to the continent in July for a period of ten days citing maintenance needs. When it reopened, the supply dropped, again, by half down 20 cubic metres per day. In late August citing operational problems, the pipeline shut down completely.
Despite both the Nord Stream 1 and 2 being offline, in late September, both were attacked by unknown assailants. It is suspected that simple explosive devices were placed on the pipelines and detonated, seriously damaging the infrastructure. The pipes were also filled with gas and have caused ecological destruction as well. While separate national investigations have been conducted, no formal statements have been released and are likely to be withheld due to geopolitical concerns. This has caused a significant increase in political tension as in essence, cut the continent off from their primary source of gas.
As such, the continent is stranded relying on expensive imports and are scrambling to extract and use whatever little local resources exist. Furthermore, as each country deals with its energy issues locally, the rift in the EU widens due to competing and sometimes contradictory interests. Multiple reports cite increasing tensions between France and Germany, for example. As a result, a meeting scheduled between the two nations for this week has been postponed until January.
France is growing more insistent on EU sovereignty and has been criticising the German leadership for prioritising US interests. This rift itself is a threat towards a resolution to this crisis - the potential for a collective EU solution is now limited.
In France this month, in addition to all the international prompts to the energy crisis, the local energy sector is struggling and facing numerous barriers in its efforts to compensate for the loss of Russian supplies and the resulting general hike in prices. While the government has been attempting, through multiple measures, to protect its citizens from the inflating energy crisis prompted by the international scene, this has not been able to satisfy a large bulk of the population.
Strikes and protests
In response to inflation, as well as the drastically increased profit margin companies such as oil giants Total and Exxon are experiencing, French workers at oil refineries called a general strike demanding a ten percent wage increase in addition to profit share in the form of a bonus.
The strikes have split into other sectors with teachers, front-line health workers and public transport employees following suit. This has caused disruptions throughout the country this past month, ranging from a very dramatic limit in petrol supply that caused endless queues (the kind I have only ever seen at Lebanese petrol stations during one of the biggest recessions in history), to schools not being able to heat classrooms until December.
Farmers have even warned of a breakdown in the food supply chain due to the dramatically increasing costs incurred. This is particularly affecting smaller farms which are not able to claim government aid.
Despite efforts to localise energy supplies, only 26 of the 56 French nuclear reactors are online as a result of pipe corrosion and poor maintenance throughout the years. The workers at the reactors also have joined the national strikes and as such this has delayed progress in finding alternative energy sources.
The culmination of these industrial warnings foreshadows a potential multi-sector collapse. In the French instance, this threat is two-fold due to the rising domestic political pressure and subsequent social action that ensues. The government is still slow to act despite growing national unrest.
The strikes were accompanied by protests, as people took to the streets en masse to demand the government do more to address the increasing cost of living. A protester says, “We are fighting for decent salaries, the government should raise our wages and keep supporting Ukraine.” Though, it is growing ever more apparent that the two together are completely unsustainable; and maintaining this status quo is now arguably irresponsible towards their respective local populations.
The culmination of these issues is causing local municipalities to take cost-cutting measures, including turning off street lights at 11 PM in some villages and towns. Other measures include lowering heating in schools and public swimming pools, most on their own initiative due to a lack of alternatives.
Meanwhile, on the national platform, the French government– including the President and Prime Minister, and Minister for Finance – have been promoting what they call “energy sobriety”. This has included declaring that their office heating would be limited and stopping the use of dryers for their laundry.
They have been photographed wearing warm clothing such as gloves, turtlenecks and duffer coats during meetings as well. In essence, they attempt to prompt the population into personally shouldering energy-saving methods. This has been met with heavy criticism and often mockery by the public with many calling it ‘paternalistic,’ and generally out of touch.
The presumption that individual households should bear the burden of a geopolitical decision such as sanctioning the continent's primary energy supplier is not realistic and has clearly proved problematic.
Thus far, negotiations with workers' unions have only resulted in failure, and the strikes are gaining popular momentum as other industries begin to feel the pressures of energy costs.
Governments in Europe are paying two-fold, one to finance Ukraine’s defence and humanitarian needs and second to compensate local citizens for the losses incurred from these decisions. Continuing to tend to both notions is not possible and is a sure approach to irreparable economic and social damage. Quick and intelligent, collective, decisions must be made on how to prevent a cold, and potentially violent, winter.
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