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ENERGY

Schools, trains and hospitals: How France will handle possible electricity blackouts this winter

The French government has sent out detailed information regarding the possibility of power outages this winter as the country continues to grapple with securing energy supplies in the absence of Russian gas.

Schools, trains and hospitals: How France will handle possible electricity blackouts this winter
High voltage power lines at sunset in Wiwersheim, eastern France. (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP)

The French government has sent out the detailed information to local authorities for use in the event of power outages – something that the government still says is unlikely to happen.

French government officials have already clarified that any power cuts would occur when the energy grid is overly strained, in the event of the combination of unusually cold weather, ongoing problems at French nuclear plants and the failure to buy in extra power supplies from European neighbours.

“We are not saying that there are going to be power cuts, but that it is not impossible,” Olivier Véran, the government spokesperson clarified to RMC on Thursday.

If power outages are likely, information will be available on the Ecowatt website and app, which can be accessed now. Three days in advance, you will be able to see if you are in a “red” zone (meaning energy is highly strained), and one day prior, at 3pm, you will be informed as to whether your département is to be affected by a power outage the next day. Later, at 5pm you will be able to enter your personal address to see if you will be personally impacted.

“The idea is for no one to be surprised”, a government source told regional newspaper Nice Matin.

It should be noted that Corsica is not at risk of blackouts because it is not on the same electrical grid as mainland France.

READ MORE: ‘Ecowatt’: How you should use France’s new energy forecasting website?

These power outages would not occur across the entire country – instead they would affect small segments of the grid, such as individual towns or localities.

Additionally, these power outages would only take place either in the morning (between the hours of 8am and 1pm) or in the evening between the hours of 6pm and 8pm and would not affect crucial buildings such as hospitals. 

Local authorities have now been tasked with preparing an emergency response solutions in the event of a power cut in their area.

A source told the regional newspaper that local authorities will be required to present “load-shedding (power outage) plans that would reduce consumption in the areas concerned by up to 38 percent.”

According to reporting by Nice Matin, France’s inter ministerial crisis unit is working with the assumption that six to ten load shedding operations (power cuts) will be necessary over the winter period, and that these two-hour operations could affect up to six million people at a time.

The documents also provided further detail regarding how people will be impacted during such an event, which is outlined below:

Cancelled trains

If a power outage occurs, trains will likely be cancelled in the affected area to prevent passengers from finding themselves stuck in the middle of a track with the signalling system cut off. Local authorities will be left to decide how to handle city public transport such as Metro systems.

Schools

The French government said it was working alongside the Ministry of Education to develop plans to close schools in the mornings if the area is to be impacted by rolling blackouts. Leaving schools open during power outages could have negative ramifications, considering a lack of heating, alarm systems and lighting. Schools would be open again in the afternoons, as power cuts are not set to take place between 1pm and 6pm. 

Emergency locations

The French government has said that these rolling blackouts could impact up to 60 percent of the French population. However, sensitive sites, such as hospitals, police stations, gendarmeries, and fire stations will not have their power turned off, according to reporting by BFMTV.

Some industrial sites have also been placed on the priority lists to not be impacted by blackouts.

For emergencies, people are still recommended to call the number 112.

READ MORE: Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Severity

Power cuts will reportedly not impact an entire region or départment, but instead will be concentrated to smaller areas. 

Up to 40 percent of people in France will not be impacted by power outages due to the fact that they might be connected to a “priority line.”

Additionally, in terms of who will be affected – it will never be the same area twice in a row and none of the more-than 3,800 high-risk patients who depend on at-home medical equipment will be impacted.

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PROTESTS

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.

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