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UKRAINE

France offers lukewarm welcome to Russians fleeing Putin

While Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed in France, Russians fleeing Putin's regime "are left to their own fate" in one of the wealthiest EU countries.

France offers lukewarm welcome to Russians fleeing Putin
France has rolled out the welcome mat for refugees from Ukraine, but Russian's fleeing Putin's regime believe they are being left by the wayside (Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt / AFP)

Artyom Kotenko’s world collapsed when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Born to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, he lived in Russia for most of his life.

“I was crushed. I could not live or breathe,” the 50-year-old artist and graphic designer, who is a Russian national, told AFP in Paris.

A week after President Vladimir Putin sent troops to pro-Western Ukraine, Kotenko left behind his old life in Saint Petersburg and went to Helsinki.

From there he made his way to Paris, which he says “healed his wounds”.

“I stopped feeling like I was suffocating, like I was dying every day. I was able to breathe again,” he said in the 13th district of Paris where pro-Ukrainian graffiti adorns the streets.

But much to Kotenko’s disappointment, Paris appeared indifferent to his plight.

Kotenko, who worked at Saint Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater and the Higher School of Economics, realised
he could not get a job in France.

He wanted to draw on his extensive teaching experience to work with the children of Ukrainian refugees but found out that those jobs were reserved for EU citizens.

“This is strange. This has to change because there are a lot of people like me and there is work for us,” he said.

Political exiles
French President Emmanuel Macron has led diplomatic outreach to the Kremlin over the war in Ukraine, and Ukrainian refugees are welcomed with open arms in France.

But Russians fleeing Putin’s regime realise they are left to their own fate in one of the wealthiest EU countries.

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians have fled the country in protest over Putin’s policies and out of fear for their children’s future.

Observers point out that most of Russia’s new political exiles are liberal-leaning well-educated professionals in their prime.

Some even draw parallels with the departure of intellectual elites from Soviet Russia in 1922 in a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Philosophers’ Ships”.

Some leading Western democracies have indicated their willingness to tap into the professional knowledge and experience fleeing Russians have to offer.

German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said in early May that Berlin might simplify visa procedures and help find jobs for Russians fleeing Putin’s regime.

“We want them to be aware that we could really use them,” he told reporters.

US officials are also considering ways to lure highly educated anti-Kremlin Russians.

The French interior ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Support them’
Many political emigres say France should do the same.

“If people seek an opportunity to move here, you need to support them,” said Daniel Kashnitsky, a 41-year-old Muscovite, pointing to France’s notorious bureaucratic hurdles.

He, his wife and their four children – two of them adopted – applied for asylum in France in April and met AFP in the 18th district of Paris. After a long day at the prefecture the children were exhausted.

“We have nowhere to live,” said Kashnitsky’s 38-year-old wife Natalya. “It’s stressful.”

The family arrived in Paris more than a month after the war in Ukraine broke out. A public health specialist who previously lived in Sweden, Lithuania and Israel, Kashnitsky said he did not want to leave his “beloved” Moscow.

The war changed everything. First, Kashnitsky staged an anti-war protest in central Moscow and spent a night in jail. He also gave interviews to Swedish media. Then he realised it was time to leave.

“It was important to me to take the kids out,” Kashnitsky told AFP, adding that his eldest son was turning 18 in May and could be drafted.

When they arrived in Paris, they had nowhere to go, and airport officials took them to a centre for Ukrainian refugees.

Kashnitsky said they could not stay at the centre. They eventually found a budget hotel outside Paris for which they paid themselves.

Two weeks after arriving in France the family received temporary housing in the southern town of Ales. The future is uncertain but Kashnitsky is optimistic. “I am hoping to be able to start working as soon as possible.”

 ‘Catastrophic situation’
After the start of the Ukraine war French university lecturer Antoine Nicolle helped create an association to help Russians fleeing the regime.

“We’ve created an association because we saw that nothing was being done for Russians,” he told AFP.

He said they wanted to set up a fund to raise money for the emigres but due to Western sanctions they could not open a bank account “because of the word ‘Russian’,” in its name.

“This is messed up,” he said.

After more than a month in Paris, Kotenko left for Seville where he legalised his relationship with his Spanish boyfriend and hopes to put down roots.

Stressing that Ukrainians need to receive all the support they can get, Kotenko said anti-Kremlin Russians should not be forgotten, too.

“More and more people like me will appear here and they need to be given a chance to gain a foothold, work officially, to be issued humanitarian visas,” he said.

“The situation is catastrophic and something needs to be done about it. Otherwise these Russians will simply settle here as illegal immigrants.”

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ENERGY

Energy shortages: What’s the problem with France’s nuclear industry?

As Europe prepares to face a winter without Russian gas, France should be in a better position than most thanks to its large domestic nuclear industry - but a series of problems with French nuclear plants has led to a power shortage.

Energy shortages: What's the problem with France's nuclear industry?

France usually produces around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear, and is at most times a net exporter of electricity. It does import gas – in 2021, 17 percent of France’s gas came from Russia – but overall the country is one of the more self-sufficient in Europe when it comes to energy.

That should in theory mean that it is in a good position to get through the winter without Russian gas, since Russian supplier Gazprom appears to have turned off pipeline supplies to Europe, apparently in retaliation for EE sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine in February.

France has managed to almost entirely fill its gas reserves, and also arrange gas supply deals with other countries, but a series of problems with the country’s nuclear power plants mean that electricity production has dipped sharply, leaving France having to import part of its electricity.

Although the situation is not as bad as in other countries such as neighbouring Germany, the French government is working on a plan for sobriété energétique (energy sobriety) to cut the country’s energy usage by 10 percent, the amount judged necessary to avoid any kind of energy rationing this winter, even if the winter is exceptionally cold.

READ ALSO Will there be energy rationing in France this winter?

So what’s gone wrong with French nuclear?

The French electricity distributor RTE publishes real-time data showing where France’s electricity comes from – on Friday at 8am this showed 23,262 MW of power produced by nuclear, making up 55 percent of France’s total, with the rest made up by wind (19 percent) gas (12 percent) hydro (10 percent), biofuels (2 percent) and solar (1 percent). France did not export any energy that day and instead imported 2658 MW.

Energy production in France on September 9th 2022. Data: rte-France.com

One year ago – on September 9th 2021, France was not importing any power and exported 9763MW. On that day at 8am, 75 percent of electricity produced in France came from nuclear, with 42,991MW produced in total from French nuclear plants. The rest was made up of hydro (10 percent) gas (8 percent) wind (3 percent) biofuels (2 percent) and coal (2 percent)

Energy production in France on September 9th 2021. Data rte-france.com

Several factors account for the sharp fall in production;

Hot summer 

France has had an exceptionally hot summer – the second hottest on record – and this affects nuclear plants because of the cooling process.

Nuclear plants require large amounts of water to keep the reactors cool, and many French plants are build next to rivers to ensure a steady supply of water. However France’s exceptionally hot summer has led to drought conditions on many rivers, meaning that water supply has been limited and therefore the plants have had to limit their consumption.

If river water rises above a certain temperature it is also less effective for cooling, meaning that plants have to limit production.

Although the summer heatwaves have largely subsided, large parts of France are still on drought alert with normal conditions not expected to reappear until October.

Closures 

But it’s not just a case of lower production rates – many of France’s nuclear power plants are not producing anything at all right now.

Exact figures vary according to the day, but around half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors have been closed at any one time over the last few months. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: France cannot afford to keep shielding consumers from energy price rises

Some of the closures are planned short-term closures to allow routine maintenance and repairs, while others are longer closures.

Covid

The industry is still feeling some of the knock-on effects of Covid when routine maintenance was postponed or repairs cancelled during periods of lockdown or staff shortages, which means that nuclear plants have had a higher number of short-term closures this year than usual, as staff catch up with the backlog.

Cracks 

However, there is another more serious problem – cracks. Since January, 13 plants have been subject to emergency closure because of the discovery of corrosion in the cooling pipes, which takes the form of tiny cracks (known in French as micro-fissures), some so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

The majority of the cracks have been found in the emergency cooling systems for the plants, which must be ready to be used at any time to cool the reactor in an emergency situation. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the plants are unusable, but it requires urgent and non-planned maintenance to repair any areas showing signs of corrosion and production cannot restart until this work is done since, for obvious reasons, nuclear plants have very tight safety standards.

The majority of the cracks have been found at France’s older plants and although it is a known issue in the nuclear industry, French experts are concerned that in some plants it has happened earlier than anticipated.

Edf has launched a full inspection of all its plants, and the French government and Edf say that all plants where corrosion has been discovered will be back operating at full capacity by February.

So what is the French government doing about this?

Short-term solution

The short-term solution is obviously to fix the cracks, and Edf says this will be done, and the maintenance backlog caught up, by February, hopefully in time for the coldest part of the year.

The second step is to reduce energy use by 10 percent this winter – to cope with both reduced electricity supply and the shortage of Russian gas. The government says that this will ensure no need for any type of energy rationing, even if it is an exceptionally cold winter. The plan will also form the part of a longer-term strategy to cut energy use by 30 percent by 2030, in order to tackle climate change. 

Long-term solution

The question of how France produces its power has been a contentious political issue for some time, with both Emmanuel Macron and his predecessor François Hollance trying to step back from nuclear power.

The country’s coal-fired power stations have all been closed, the last once earlier this year, although there is now the option to re-start it if necessary this winter.

Macron in 2018 announced plans to close several of the country’s older nuclear power stations too, with the aim of increasing renewables such as wind, solar and hydro energy.

However France has lagged behind other European countries in its renewables sector, with the first ever offshore wind farm only opening in 2022, decades after other European countries, and onshore wind farms become a political issue in the 2022 election campaign as far-right leader Marine Le Pen vowed to block new development and tear down existing ones, if she was elected.

Since 2018, Macron seems to have rowed back on his aim of cutting nuclear production, several times speaking in support of France’s nuclear energy both for environmental reasons and reasons of “energy sovereignty”. 

A new nuclear plant at Flamanville – commissioned by Hollande – is due to open in 2023, more than 10 years after its scheduled opening date. 

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