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POLITICS

Meet the woman aiming to become France’s first municipal councillor with Down Syndrome

When the mayor of Arras, a town in northern France, asked her to stand as a candidate in upcoming municipal elections, Eleonore Laloux, who has Down Syndrome, did not hesitate.

Meet the woman aiming to become France's first municipal councillor with Down Syndrome
Eleonore Laloux with her election campaign literature. Photo: AFP

“I would like Arras to change, for there to be improvements… mainly with regard to cleanliness and respect, but also accessibility” for disabled people, the 34-year-old administrative agent and activist told AFP.

“I am ready to make this change happen,” Laloux said at her apartment in the city centre, its walls dotted with photos of her posing with TV personalities.

If her campaign succeeds, she will become the country's first serving municipal councillor with Down Syndrome.

READ ALSO What you need to know about France's (very complicated) municipal elections

Laloux, who lives alone, is fond of fashion and movies, and loves strumming her electric guitar.

She speaks with some difficulty but moves around with seeming ease. Big rings adorn her well-manicured hands, and trendy, multicoloured glasses frame her face.

For years, Laloux has fought for people with Down Syndrome and other disabilities to be able to live happier and more productive lives as fully integrated members of society.

“If I were to see Emmanuel Macron, I would tell him: 'I have something to say to you – I would like us to talk a bit more about people with disabilities and above all about their inclusion',” she said of the French president.

This month, Sophie Cluzel, deputy minister in charge of disabilities, urged political parties “to make place for disabled people” on their candidates' lists for local elections starting March 15.

Laloux is standing for the centrist “Arras pour Vous” (Arras for You) party of Mayor Frederic Leturque, who said “her courage and her perspective” would make a big difference to how the town is run.

“She will be a councillor like no other, but she will be a councillor in her own right,” he wrote on Facebook recently.

'I know what I want' 

“I am neither on the right nor the left, I am in the centre,” Laloux told AFP of her political leanings.

Her priorities are not ideological as much as personal: Laloux says she wants to “make perspectives change” about disabled people, and “improve accessibility” for them.

“This is a project close to my heart,” the candidate told AFP of her foray into the cutthroat world of electoral politics.

“The mayor trusts me because he knows I am a determined young woman who loves life. I know what I want, I have a crazy temperament but I am happy that Frederic accepts me as I am,” she said

Laloux already has an impressive resume, having worked for 14 years as an administrative agent at a private hospital.

On top of her day job, she is involved with the Down Up association in her home town, as well as the “Amis d'Eleonore” (The Friends of Eleonore) collective created by her parents, dedicated to helping people with mental disabilities.

In 2014, she published a book entitled “Triso et allors!” (Down Syndrome and So What!) about the obstacles she has had to overcome.

Laloux has fought long and hard to live a “normal” life, refusing to be defined by her disabilities.

She went to a regular school, and left her parents' home eight years ago to live on her own.

“I do a bit of cooking, I check my emails… I like to feel resourceful,” she said.

In her free time she likes putting on a DVD or listening to Bob Dylan, Blur and Radiohead.

'Born different' 

“We have always wanted for Eleonore, who was born different, to be able to live like anyone else,” her father Emmanuel Laloux, 66, told AFP.

“When you view a person through the prism of their inabilities… they will behave like a disabled person. But if you view them for their abilities, they can grow,” he said.

Emmanuel Laloux said he backed his daughter's political ambitions on the proviso that her colleagues “truly take into account her needs in terms of intellectual accessibility”.

Leturque said special provisions would be made for Laloux, who he said would be “accompanied” in her duties by Sylvie Noclercq, Arras' councillor for health and disability issues.

Macron hosted a national conference on disabilities this month, announcing that 15,000 assistants would be hired in the next two years to help disabled children go to school.

According to government statistics, some 2.7 million people – out of a French population of almost 67 million – suffer a disability that results in some form of physical limitation.

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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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