The French words you need to understand France’s cost of living crisis

Households in France, as elsewhere around the world, are feeling the economic squeeze right now as prices rise, but wages don’t. The Local has put together a vocabulary list to help you understand the cost of living crisis:

The French words you need to understand France's cost of living crisis
(Photo: Miguel Medina / AFP)

Despite the efforts of the French government to keep a lid on certain costs – notably by capping fuel prices and energy bills, there’s no denying that weekly spending is taking a hit.

Here are a few of the phrases that you’ll hear bandied about at the moment, from pouvoir d’achat to anti-gaspi…

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

Pouvoir d’achat – pronounced poo-vwah dasha – purchasing power. What you can buy with the hard-earned money in your bank account, and how far your monthly income goes. Used to call for government action on the cost of living, and rail against any efforts seen as “not going far enough”.

Coût de la vie – pronounced coo de la vee – cost of living. Self explanatory, really. 

Crise énergétique – pronounced creez enner-jhet-eek – energy crisis. French consumers have, so far, been pretty well protected from high prices on the international energy market caused by the war in Ukraine. Current protections are set to end next year.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Bouclier tarifaire – pronounced boo-klee-ay tari-fair – tarif shield. What’s protecting consumers in France from all those energy price rises. A super image concocted by a clever government speech writer.

READ ALSO 10 ways EU countries plan to cut your energy bills and avoid blackouts this winter

Chèque énergie – pronounced sheck ener-jhee – energy cheque. A payment made by the government to some 12million households in France to help offset at least part of the rising cost of energy.

Les factures – pronounced lay fac-ture – bills. As in electricity, gas.

Augmentations des prix – pronounced org-men-tas-eon day pree – price increases. You might see this phrase when French media discuss the rising cost of food, energy and much more. Some synonyms for this phrase that you might also see in the French press are ‘grimpe‘ – which means to climb, ‘hausse‘ which means increase or rise, or ‘flambée‘ which means an ‘explosion in prices.’

Les plus modestes – pronounced ley ploo mod-est – the least well-off [households in France], who are most likely to find it hardest to cope with unfettered rising prices. You may also see the phrase ‘les classes moyennes‘ in conversations about low to medium income families.

Foyers – pronounced foy-ey – a family home.

Fournisseurs – pronounced four-nee-sirs – these are ‘suppliers’ or ‘providers.’ In the context of the cost of living crisis, you will likely see people talking about energy providers, such as EDF, the mostly state-owned utility company.

Sobriété énergétique – pronounced so-brie-ett-ay enner-jhet-eek – energy sobriety. Despite the bouclier and the energy cheque, businesses and individuals have been warned to ease up on their energy use as France seeks to cut consumption by 10 percent.

READ ALSO ‘Slower lifts’: What ski resorts in France will do to save energy this winter

This is known as energy sobriety, careful, abstemious living, involving simple measures such as turning the lights off and the thermostat down.

READ ALSO Heating homes: What are the rules on fires and log burners in France?

All French local authorities are required to produce as the government works on a nationwide strategy for sobriété enérgetique.

READ ALSO Paris to scale back monument lighting to cut energy use

Anti-gaspillage (or anti-gaspi) – pronounced anti gaspy-arj  – anti-waste. A long-time environmental concern that has financial implications and is being reused in the current economic situation to reference how much food is bought then wasted. You may have seen the big anti-gaspi signs at supermarkets in sections where produce close to its use-by date is sold-off at a discount.

READ ALSO How France’s new anti-waste laws will affect you

Renoncer – pronounced re-non-say – to give up, or cut out. As in people giving up going on vacation to save money.

Paiement fractionné – pronounced pay-mon frac-sion-ay – split payments, or payment in instalments for goods and services.

Dépenses automatiques – pronounced day-ponce auto-mat-eek – “automatic” expenses. Baked-in monthly or weekly expenses that every household has to consider, and cannot easily reduce, such as rent, water and energy … and more modern “necessities” including internet and mobile phone subscriptions.

Geste – pronounced jhest – literally translates as gesture or action. But it stands for something more concrete than the symbolic “gesture” in the English language. It’s a behaviour, or habit – an action – that can be adopted to cut costs, or save energy.

READ ALSO French Word of the Day: Geste

Épicerie Solidaire – pronounced eh-pee-seree solid-air – Solidarity shop. Not a food bank, but qualifying households can buy food and drink at about 10 percent of their retail price. There’s a limit on how much you can spend, and only households in acute straitened times can use them.

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French bakers protest over surging power prices

Dressed in aprons and brandishing baguettes, hundreds of bakers demonstrated in the streets of Paris on Monday to warn that the country's beloved bread and croissant makers were under threat from surging electricity and raw material costs.

French bakers protest over surging power prices

“We feel like there’s a huge injustice,” said Sylvie Leduc from the rural Dordogne region who had travelled to the capital for the protest. “We know how to run a business, that’s not a problem, but we’re faced with increases that are just impossible to pass on to customers.”

The protest was yet another sign of the anger and incomprehension felt by many French people over the sudden price hikes linked to the war in Ukraine, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic that hit global supply chains.

Bakers were already struggling with higher butter and flour costs, while the price of eggs has also spiked because of a national bird flu outbreak that has hit many French farms.

The final straw for many of the country’s 35,000 bakeries has been the annual renewal of their electricity contracts, with suppliers suddenly asking for astronomical monthly payments in 2023.

READ MORE: Boulangeries across France face closure as energy bills skyrocket

Leduc’s husband Jean-Philippe said their power bill had increased six-fold in January, meaning they could hang on for only a few more months before being forced to close — unless financial help arrived. 

“Thirty years of being a baker and it’s going to finish like this? I could never have imagined it,” he said, shaking his head. “We don’t want hand-outs, we just want to be able to live from our work.” 

For the French, their local bakery is about more than simple food shopping: they serve as a symbol of the national way of life, while providing a focal point for many communities.

“The day starts with a baguette!” former presidential candidate Jean Lassalle, an ardent defender of traditional rural French communities, told AFP at the rally.

“These people are the ones who get up the earliest in France and they’ve had enough.”

‘Bakeries in Danger’

Given the emotional attachment to French bread, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has sought to highlight the help on offer for small business owners.

Macron welcomed bakers to the presidential palace on January 6, telling them: “I’m on your side”.

He outlined various government schemes which could help bring down electricity bills by 40 percent for eligible businesses.

But many of those demonstrating said the different systems put in place were either too complicated, too slow to deliver help, or  available for only the smallest bakeries with less than 12 employees, for example.

Some carried banners reading “Bakeries in Danger”, while one man pushed a wooden coffin on wheels with a skeleton inside dressed in a baker’s apron and trousers.

Many said they had always accepted the long hours, lack of sleep and gruelling physical labour out of the love for the profession, but felt compelled to hit the streets now.

“I’ve never seen bakers protest before,” said Joelle Reimel, 56, who said her monthly power bill for her bakery 50 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of Paris had increased from €2,500 a month to €14,000.

“We don’t have time to demonstrate normally. We’re up at 2am and go to bed at 8 in the evening.”

Pension protests

The protest came after one of the biggest demonstrations in decades last Thursday when more than a million people protested against an unpopular pension reform that will raise the age of retirement to 64 for most people.

Macron’s opponents have sought to pin the blame for electricity rises on him and European Union rules which mean power prices across the bloc are linked to the price of gas, even if the electricity is generated from other sources.

Anti-immigration and eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen has assailed the “refusal of Emmanuel Macron to break from the absurd European rules on the electricity market.”

Macron has acknowledged that European electricity pricing rules are “flawed” and has promised to reform them.

For Lionel Bonnamy, the fate of France’s bakeries is also about the country’s economic model, which has long sought to protect small shopkeepers and artisans — what he called the “economic fabric” of the country.

“If we carry on this way, everything will look the same, uniform, big business,” said the award-winning baker from Paris.