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Strikes For Members

Fact-check: Are French unions really cutting the electricity in protest at pension reform?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Fact-check: Are French unions really cutting the electricity in protest at pension reform?
An airplane flies past a high voltage electric power line pylon in southern France (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

Striking energy sector workers in France have threatened power cuts in May at events such as the Cannes Film Festival and the French Open - here's a look at what is going on, who is behind it and whether these actions will continue.

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Even though pension reform, bringing the retirement age up from 62 to 64, has been signed into law in France, many across the country have continued to protest against the controversial reform.

After French president Emmanuel Macron called for “100 days of appeasement and unity” after pushing the reform through, the CGT union representing energy sector workers responded by calling for their own “100 days of anger”. 

As well as strikes, the hardline union has threatened to shut off the power to important cultural and sporting events during the month of May in France, including the Cannes Film Festival and the French Open.

This is not the first time that such threats have been made, and in fact several towns had their power cut off during the months of pension reform protest from January.

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Electricity blackouts

Over the months of pension protests, striking workers have managed to cut the power in Alsace, Hérault, and at the Montpellier airport - all locations in close proximity to visits by Macron.

One of the power cuts, which the CGT union claimed responsibility for, reportedly turned off the electricity in a local secondary school (collège) the president visited in Herault. However, the cut also affected a nearby hospital, causing it to lose power for a short period of time. In response, the Cap Santé hospital group has filed a complaint. 

Most of the recorded power cuts targeted a single town or city area and lasted for a couple of hours - the actions have been mostly performed by individual branches of unions representing energy workers and are not part of the overall strategy of the main union federations.

The first reported cuts were on January 19th, the first say of strike against pension reform and hit the towns of Massy (located in Essone) and Chaumont (located in Haute-Marne).

Claude Martin, the head of the FNME-CGT union said that the power cuts were meant to primarily affect companies and to "send a message that we have our hands on the [electrical] network".

Since then, targeted power cuts by strikers have impacted many other parts of France, such as Nice, Marseille, Pas-de-Calais and Hauts-de-France. 

The area surrounding the Stade de France and what will be the Athlete's village for the Paris 2024 Olympics was impacted by power cuts on March 9th, along with the surrounding area. About three hundred strikers were reportedly present for the action, with some setting off smoke bombs to shield the identities of others who cut the power.

Another well-publicised power cut was focused on the hometown of France's Labour Minister, Olivier Dussopt, who has spearheaded much of the pension reform campaign. On Tuesday, March 7th, energy sector strikers reportedly targeted the town of Annonay in Ardèche, causing over 2,000 homes to be without power for several hours.

On the same day, in Pas-de-Calais in northern France some commercial areas, as well as the 5,000 inhabitants of Boulogne-sur-Mer were blacked out. In Périgueux in south-west France the CGT Energies 24 union claimed responsibility for a  "targeted" 30-minute cut that impacted more than 1,400 people. 

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The blackouts have made the headlines for obvious reasons, but in truth their impact has been limited - most affecting  a few hundred people at a time, and not lasting more than a couple of hours.

What next?

The CGT says that actions will continue throughout May - and they will increasingly be targeted at major cultural and sporting events.

"In May, do what you please! The Cannes Film Festival, the Monaco Grand Prix, the French Open, the Avignon Festival could be in the dark! We won't give up!" the union wrote in their statement.

The film festival begins on May 16th, with the French Open starting on May 22nd. 

At the end of April a rugby match in the French town of Agen, which plays in the second-tier Pro D2 league, was temporarily halted when power was cut at the stadium. The CGT claimed credit for the blackout, which lasted around 30 minutes. 

Is this legal?

Politicians including the French Environment Minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher have called these actions "illegal and dangerous" while prime minister Elisabeth Borne has urged the grid operator Enedis to file criminal complaints.

In response, Enedis told Le Figaro that if it was able to verify acts of malice, then they would report those responsible to authorities who could move forward with prosecuting them. 

However, the legality of shutting off the power during a strike is a little more complicated. Legal expert Camille Mabi told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that any action falling outside the "precise definition of the right to strike" can be considered illegal. 

Outside of strike periods, if an energy employee were to cut the power, then they could be subject to disciplinary action by their employer. However, during strike periods, there is a broader legal framework to protect employees and trade unions.

As employees cannot be sanctioned for exercising their right to strike, the employer would need to justify that gross misconduct or negligence has occurred. 

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What about the 'Robin Hood' actions? 

In January, several union leaders called for 'Robin Hood style actions' - such as giving free electricity to hospitals and other public centres, reducing the electricity bills for some small business owners and bakeries, and restoring access to electricity or gas for certain households. 

According to Europe 1, such actions took place in cities like Nice, Lille and Paris during the month of January, but it is not clear how many establishments or people were directly impacted, while unions themselves have also been quite vague about what exactly they have done or intend to do.

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