Fact-check: Are French unions cutting electricity to towns during strikes?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected] • 15 Mar, 2023 Updated Wed 15 Mar 2023 16:21 CEST
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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 been hitting the headlines for cutting the power to certain towns - here's a look at what is going on, who is behind it and whether these actions will continue.


Across France, workers have been walking out in protest against proposed pension reform - which would include raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. 

Employees in France's energy sector have also staged strikes - but some have taken more drastic measures, including cutting off the electricity in certain areas.

Some striking workers have threatened to target the neighbourhoods and towns of politicians in favour of the pension reform, while others said they would engage in 'Robin des bois' (robin hood) actions to restore free electricity to public places like hospitals or daycare centres. 

What has happened?

The power cuts have made headlines for obvious reasons, but in truth the actions have been relatively limited.


Most of the recorded power cuts have targeted a single town or city area and have lasted for a couple of hours - the actions are 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. 


During the week of March 12th, power cuts have continued.

In Nice, striking workers with the CGT union temporarily cut power to the préfecture of Alpes-Maritimes and Cannes-Mandelieu airport. Both actions took place for about one hour. 

Finally, on March 15th, during the eighth day of mass demos and walkouts, power cuts hit the French Riviera, targeting the Fort of Brégançon, the official holiday residence of the French Presiden. Meanwhile, union representatives in Corsica claimed that they had temporarily shut off the power to 1,900 customers.

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. 


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.

Can we expect more power cuts?

During an interview with BFMTV on March 9th, Fabrice Coudour, the head of the CGT Energy union, said he hoped to bring power cuts "up a notch". 

Coudour emphasised that the energy union had voted in favour of rolling strikes, and that the objective would be to "bring France to a standstill" in protest against pension reform.

The pension reform bill is currently into the final two weeks of its parliamentary journey before a legislative deadline of March 26th.

As such, more localised power cuts are quite likely at least until the end of the month.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember



Genevieve Mansfield 2023/03/15 16:21

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