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POLITICS

Macron seeks allies as new French parliament opens

France's lower house of parliament reopens Tuesday after an election upset for President Emmanuel Macron whose centrist allies are little closer to building a stable majority, putting Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne's job potentially on the line.

Macron seeks allies as new French parliament opens
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne (L) attend a ceremony (Photo by GONZALO FUENTES / POOL / AFP)

After this month’s ballot brought surges for the far right and hard left, opposition forces have made clear that they will not be lured into a lasting arrangement to support Macron’s government which is 37 seats short of a majority.

Borne and other senior Macron backers have been trying to win over individual right-wing and moderate left parliamentarians to bolster their ranks, with one MP telling AFP that “the phones are running hot.”

But Olivier Marleix, head of the conservative Republicans group seen as most compatible with Macron, said that “we have much better things to do today than selling ourselves piecemeal”.

“It’s about making progress for the French people,” he told Europe 1 radio on Monday.

But he added that his MPs would “do everything we can to reach an agreement with the government” on an upcoming draft law to boost households’ purchasing power in the face of food and energy inflation.

“It’s not in the interest of parties who have just been elected” to make a long-term deal to support the government, said Marc Lazar, a professor at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

First woman speaker

The first days of the new National Assembly will be taken up with elections for the speaker and other senior parliamentary officials and committee chiefs.

Pro-Macron candidate Yael Braun-Pivet is expected to be the first woman in French history to claim the speaker’s chair in a series of votes Tuesday.

The same day, parties with at least 15 members will be able to form official groups, which enjoy more influence and speaking time.

One key question is whether Thursday’s vote to head the Finance Committee — with its extensive powers to scrutinise government spending — will be won by an MP from the far-right National Rally (RN).

Led by Macron’s defeated presidential opponent Marine Le Pen, the RN would usually have a claim on the post as the largest single opposition party.

It could face a stiff challenge if the NUPES left alliance encompassing Greens, Communists, Socialists and the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) can agree on a joint candidate.

Confidence vote?

Next week could see exchanges heat up in the chamber, as government chief Borne delivers a speech setting out her policy priorities.

It is not yet clear whether Borne will call the traditional vote of confidence following her appearance — which is not strictly required under France’s Fifth Republic constitution.

Macron told AFP at the weekend that he had “decided to confirm (his) confidence in Elisabeth Borne” and asked her to continue talks to find either allies for the government in parliament or at least backing for crucial confidence and budget votes.

Macron has ruled out both tax increases and higher public borrowing in any compromise deals with other parties.

After the president promised a “new government of action… in the first few days of July” once he returns from this week’s G7 and NATO meetings in Germany and Belgium, some observers see the compressed calendar as ambitious.

“In all other European countries, when they’re in talks to form a government, it can take months” rather than the days Macron has allowed, political scientist Lazar said.

Even as the government projects business almost as usual, hard-left LFI especially has vowed to try to prevent key proposals like a flagship reform to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65.

Party deputy chief Adrien Quatennens said Sunday there was “no possible agreement” with Macron, saying cooperation would “make no sense”.

“We haven’t heard (Macron) move or back down one iota on pension reform” or other controversial policies, he added.

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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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