09 Jun 2023, 12:51

Q&A – French torn between energy price fears and climate threat a year before EU vote

One year from now, French citizens will go to the polls to have their say in the makeup of the European Parliament, together with citizens from across the EU. Energy and climate policy could play a decisive role in the elections, as high energy bills are likely to stay whilst the war in Ukraine rages on, and environmental activists are taking the streets to push the government toward rapid decarbonisation. For the French, fears of high bills on the one hand and scorching heatwaves on the other will influence their choice. Commentators expect the European elections to look much like a national political debate ahead of the next presidential election in France. Polls suggest that the current government could again land behind right-wing nationalists as in the 2019 European vote.

Note: This Q&A is part of a series from several countries highlighting the role and relevance of the 2024 European elections in shaping climate and energy policy across the 27-member bloc. More will be published in the coming days.

1. Which European climate and energy policy debates are important in France’s national conversation?

France is leaning on nuclear energy as part of its strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While this is in line with the view in a number of countries in the EU and worldwide, it puts France at odds with neighbouring states like Germany. France, which has been relying on nuclear power to produce low-carbon electricity, hopes to build six new reactors by 2050 to the tune of 50 billion euros. The French parliament just approved a bill to speed up construction, yet after a series of shutdowns for maintenance work and corrosion probes that sent the country’s nuclear output to a 33-year low in 2022, there are questions over whether EDF, which will soon be fully owned by the state, can implement such plans.

At the EU level, France has been holding up renewable legislation as it seeks a bigger role for nuclear energy. The French government also founded a new European initiative which is looking to strengthen cooperation between nations with nuclear assets. The alliance could reach up to 150 gigawatts (GW) of capacity by 2050, up from 100 GW today. A push from the European Commission, which proposed the Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA) earlier this year in response to the United States’ climate package, would be welcomed by countries relying on nuclear power like France. Under the proposal, Europe’s executive arm did not consider the whole of existing nuclear technologies, but for example small modular reactors.

This year, Greenpeace said that France was dependent on Russian enriched uranium to run its nuclear plants, a claim which France’s energy ministry denied, but this is not the only instance where French reliance on Moscow has been the subject of contention. France was the biggest importer of Russian LNG in 2022, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). Market observers have also warned that regasification infrastructure being built in Europe and forecast LNG demand will leave France at risk of stranded assets, in addition to locking in further emissions.

At a time when climate experts are calling for the abandonment of all new oil and gas projects to meet climate targets, environmental groups have begun targeting French banks over their financing of fossil fuel projects, starting with BNP Paribas. Amongst oil and gas giants, TotalEnergies is the prime target for activist anger: climate activists and scientists gathered at its annual general meeting (AGM) late May to call on the French multinational to shift away from fossil fuels, but ended up being tear gassed by riot police.

France is investing further in renewable energies, but the country is lagging behind its neighbours. Barometer EurObserv’ER showed that, while the share of wind and solar were growing,  the government still had to pay 500 million euros for failing to meet its 2020 targets. Its newly released plan to potentially adapt to a 4-degree-Celsius warming path following a series of heatwaves, wildfires and floods could spur faster action to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG). France’s recent ban on short-haul domestic flights was not convincing; it remains to be seen whether its new sectorial roadmaps will. The government just set out roadmaps for the decarbonisation of carbon-intensive sectors, with a focus on the electrification of the nation’s automotive fleet and the relocation of related battery production in Europe in a bid to reduce the bloc’s reliance on third-country suppliers of raw materials like China.

2. What role will climate and energy policy play in the election campaign?

A look at recent polls shows that energy and climate could be decisive issues in next year’s European elections. On the one hand, French people are concerned about climate change and the environment. On the other, economic woes especially due to high energy bills are set to remain a big issue in the country that saw the “yellow vest” protests over high energy prices and fuel taxes in 2018.

Last August, a poll by the European Investment Bank (EIB) found that, although the war in Ukraine had dramatically increased fears about French citizens’ purchasing power, climate change and environmental degradation was perceived to be one of the country’s top three challenges for 62 percent of respondents. Two thirds said that they were in favour of stricter government measures to bring about behaviour change on climate – especially the youth. Or, as the EIB vice-president put it, “the outcome of the EIB Climate Survey shows that French people are willing to help fight climate change at the individual level,” through the labelling of all food products with their climate footprint or a carbon budget system to cap the most climate-damaging consumption.

In 2022, France suffered its hottest year and lowest rainfall levels on record, and is likely to see an even more severe drought this summer. French environmental activists took the streets last year, and as protests heat up this year, they are sometimes considered as more radical than in neighbouring states. In March, French interior minister Gérald Darmanin threatened the outlawing of the movement “Les Soulèvements de la Terre” following violent clashes about large water reservoirs - so called megabasins -, describing the activist group aseco-terrorists.”

Fears over high energy prices loom large this year. In 2022, a Harris interactive poll said that eight out of 10 French people had seen their energy bill rise, with 43 percent of them having difficulty paying. A large majority of respondents said they had to adapt their behaviour to consume less energy at home, while 70 percent expect to limit other expenses in the future if they want to be able to pay their bill. More than nine out of 10 French people estimate that energy prices will continue to rise during the course of 2023.

A hill with trees in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in southern France. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.
Dry summers like here in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in southern France 2022 are increasingly likely due to climate change. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.

3. What role did climate and energy policy play in how France voted in the 2019 European elections?

Back in 2019, France’s green party gained momentum in the European elections when temperatures were hitting record highs and scorching heatwaves were linked to the death of nearly 1,500 people. Although France had previously suffered extreme weather events, those are likely to become more and more frequent and intense in a changing climate.

As such, protecting the environment and fighting against climate change motivated nearly half (46%) of French voters to vote in the European elections, according to the European Parliament’s post-electoral survey, ahead of challenges related to the economic growth (38%), the functioning of the 27-member bloc (36%), and the fight against terrorism (35%).

However, only 15 percent of respondents said that they believed the European Union could help France tackle the climate crisis.

The yellow vests, a grassroot citizens’ protest that begun in response to fuel price hikes and deteriorating economic conditions and protested every Saturday from November 2018, put forward candidates to run in the European elections which, according to media reports, pushed more voters in rural and less densely populated areas to head to the polls in 2019.

4. How important are the European Parliament elections in France?

The European elections allow French voters to express their view on their country’s political parties. In the last election, a surprise outcome saw Marine Le Pen’s far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) – formerly known as the Front National – score a first-place finish, besting President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist-liberal party Renaissance (RE)– also called “En Marche!”

Although civic duty moved most voters to cast their ballot in 2019, more than one in five said that they had voted to express their disagreement over Macron’s handling of the yellow vests protests and ability to improve things, potentially explaining the wave of nationalist sentiment that pulled the rug out from under the ruling party. In March 2019, four months after the movement started, 84 percent of French voters condemned violence during the demonstrations, according to polls by Elabe.

Overall, half of French citizens voted in 2019, in line with the EU voter turnout but much lower than for the presidential elections.

For Guillaume Tabard, journalist at Radio Classique, the 2024 elections will not be about debating Europe but “the continuation of the national political debate by other means,” as “a kind of a life-size survey” ahead of the next presidential election in France.

The parties of the French left-wing New Popular Ecological and Social Union (NUPES), which include Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV), are divided over whether to run as a common list in the European elections as their differences have resurfaced. A survey from Cluster17 showed that the unique NUPES list coalition would beat both the RN and RE with 27 percent of voting intentions. In separate lists, it would let the RN finish first.

France’s major parties have very different views on Europe: the RE has long envisioned a more muscular Europe, the RN is gaining momentum at home but in Europe, the prospect of leading a group of eurosceptics “has never seemed so remote,” wrote in Le Monde. The NUPES alliance said it seeks to put an end to the EU’s “liberal and productivist course,” despite differences between its constituting parties.

5. Who gets to vote and how does the system work?

French citizens will be invited to vote on June 9, 2024 – voting days in most EU member states, including France, are on Sundays. To be eligible to vote, people have to be at least 18 years old, registered in the municipality where they wish to vote, and registered on the electoral lists. Citizens from other EU countries need to be registered in the French municipality where they wish to vote, and registered on the additional electoral rolls. Voting is not compulsory.

French representatives are elected within a single national constituency, and the seats distributed between the lists of candidates that obtain over 5 percent of votes. Since Brexit, France has 79 seats in the European Parliament, ranking second behind Germany.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.


Sven Egenter

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