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POLITICS

La rentrée 2020: The big challenges facing Macron and the French government

Generally in France the summer sees politicians taking a holiday before returning refreshed and revitalised in September with an ambitious and/or controversial programme of new laws and reforms. This year, however, is looking a little different.

La rentrée 2020: The big challenges facing Macron and the French government
There are one or two challenges for the French government this autumn. Photo: AFP

Emmanuel Macron returned to Paris late on Sunday to face la rentrée, the time when French schools start their new year, people return to work after summer holidays and the French parliament begins sitting again.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, holidays have been a little truncated this year, but Macron managed a few weeks at Brégançon – the holiday villa on the Riviera that all French presidents are entitled to use – although he did host some meetings down there including one with German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Macron greeting Angela Merkel at his holiday home on the French Riviera. Photo: AFP

Before heading off on his holidays, Macron held a dinner for his ministers at the Elysée where he reportedly told them: “La rentrée will be difficult, so please take a step back and rest.

“We are entering a complicated moment here. The coming weeks, and the autumn, will be very difficult.

“The health crisis is not behind us and socially it will be very tough.”

In contrast to September 2019, when Macron bounced back to work with a long list of things he wanted to push through, this year he really only has two things to focus on – but they're both biggies.

Covid-19

This is going to be topping most governments' agenda in the coming weeks, how to cope with the ongoing health crisis and prepare for the feared 'second wave' that some predict will hit in the autumn.

France's Defence Council meets on Tuesday and will be looking at some of the tricky issues around the pandemic.

Lockdown – with confirmed cases in France still rising rapidly – although death and hospitalisation rates for the moment remaining stable – the Council will need to look at preventative measures.

READ ALSO How serious is France's spike in Covid-19 cases?

A full nationwide lockdown has been ruled out by Macron himself, in an interview he gave to Paris Match from his holiday home.

However, authorities have long said that local lockdowns could be used if the health situation requires it and with six mainland départements now designated 'red zones' this could be under discussion.

READ ALSO What does it mean if my département is a 'red zone'?

Schools – French schools return on September 1st with a revised health protocol in place. However this has already been tweaked once after concerns from teaching unions so it's likely the Council will also be looking carefully at the protocol.

Macron has always been clear that he wants as little disruption to the school year as possible, regarding it as a major equality issue, but if September and October sees a rash of outbreaks in schools, the education minister has said the government could close down certain establishments. A chaotic return to school would see the government heavily criticised.

Second wave – this is the issue that will be preoccupying politicians around the globe – is their country headed for a 'second wave' of infections and will it be as bad, or worse, than the first? There is no settled consensus among the scientific community about a second wave, some experts say the virus will come back stronger and more deadly in the autumn, others say the virus could gradually weaken with time.

When French journalists asked the head of France's advisory Scientific Council Jean-François Delfraissy on Monday of which theory he supported, he simply said: “I don't know.”

France has in recent days reported a very big increase in reported cases from around 500 a day two weeks ago to nearly 5,000 on Sunday. Part of this has come from increased testing, but that cannot alone account for the increase in case numbers.

However the number of people in hospital with the virus continues to slowly but steadily decline and the death rate has not so far seen a spike. 

Delfraissy said on Monday that he believes France is still in the first wave.  

Masks – New rules have already been introduced around mask-wearing in the workplace, which come into force on September 1st, but the Council may also examine the national mask-wearing rules. At present the rule only makes masks mandatory in enclosed public spaces, but local authorities in around 400 communes have gone further and brought in rules around wearing masks in the street.

Quarantine – this probably isn't the top of the agenda but it's still important for anyone planning a trip between France and the UK. According to Europe Minister Clement Beaune, the Defence Council will also decide on what, if any, restrictions to impose on people arriving from the UK, in response to the UK's decision to quarantine people arriving from France.

France's strict lockdown brought the virus under control, but had huge knock-on effects on the economy. France: AFP

The economy

And linked to the pandemic and ensuing lockdown is the forthcoming economic storm.

France is predicted to be on course for its worst recession since 1945, and although experts believe that the UK and Spain will be hit harder, that will be precious little consolation for Macron, who has built a large part of his reputation on his economic reforms and job-creation measures.

The government has been working on a €100 billion rescue plan which it hopes will kickstart the French economy again and which will be released at the beginning of September.

Among the issues to be examined are the bailouts for specific sectors such as the tourism industry and the ongoing furlough schemes and grants for self-employed people who are not able to resume their work fully.

Good news

There is a little glimmer of good news for Macron through, which is that in contrast to last year he's facing a lot less in the way of protests and opposition.

When the French government returned to work in September 2019 it faced strikes in schools and hospitals and fury from unions over proposed changes to pension rules (which eventually lead to almost two months of transport strikes in December and January) along with the much-diminished but still present 'yellow vest' protests.

Although when he looks at his task list for 2020, Macron might even be getting a bit nostalgic for the good old days when thousands of people gathered every Saturday to demand his resignation.

 

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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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