17 May 2024, 15:00
Camille Lafrance

Dispatch from France

Photo: Mat Napo on Unsplash.

Just as France is marking the biggest drop in its greenhouse gas emissions in almost a decade, the debate about the country’s future energy policy continues in full swing. This applies to almost all sectors of the economy – and the planned nuclear revival is just one part of the equation. With a 12-year delay, the new Flamanville nuclear plant has finally been authorised to start operations, while Paris continues to pursue nuclear diplomacy in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, low electricity demand has forced the temporary shutdown of some of the country’s nuclear power plants. With electricity bills in France still persistently high, energy policy has become a key issue in the campaign for the EU elections on 9 June.

***Our weekly Dispatches provide an overview of the most relevant recent and upcoming developments for the shift to climate neutrality in selected European countries, from policy and diplomacy to society and industry.

For a bird's-eye view of the country's climate-friendly transition, read the respective 'Guide to'.***

EU election focus

  • According to the EuroTrack OpinionWay - Vae Solis barometer for “Les Echos,” the far-right Rassemblement National party, led by popular newcomer Jordan Bardella, continues to lead in voting intentions (around 30%), ahead of president Emmanuel Macron's camp (~17%), and the Socialist Party (~14%).
  • On 6 May, the “Besoin d'Europe” list (president Macron’s Renaissance party, MoDem, UDI, Horizons and Parti radical) led by Valérie Hayer, the presidential majority candidate for the European elections on 9 June, unveiled its programme for Europe, including the idea to deploy the continent's “first small nuclear reactors.” It promotes massive investment to triple production by 2050. Within the next five years, a “Europe 2030 Plan” for investments should complement the European Green Deal, and will be endowed with one trillion euros in public and private funds to work in the fields of energy, transport, digital technology, health and space.
  • The Ecologists party,  formerly known as Europe Ecology – The Greens, insists on the adoption of a European Environmental Treaty and a new European social-ecological pact in its programme. The party would like to adopt a Green Deal 2.0 and gather the necessary funding to accelerate the transition, amounting to roughly 260 billion euros a year in additional European public investment by 2050. The proposal also advocates for the relocation of energy and raw material production facilities to European soil and opposes carbon capture and storage (CCS) solutions. In late April, the party’s European Parliament member (MEP) Marie Toussaint called for a coal phase-out by 2030 and a gas phase-out by 2035.
  • Finally, a widespread lack of understanding among French citizens of the EU's role is regularly singled out for criticism. The education system and media treatment of the subject are partly to blame, deciphers this article from the Francetvinfo website. “French parties also tend to ‘mix up deadlines and make the European elections of 2024 the presidential elections of 2027’, explains outgoing Socialist MEP Sylvie Guillaume. The result: 48 percent of French people are not interested in the ballot, according to a survey published on 6 May .

Stories to watch in the weeks ahead

  • After falling behind schedule and running into funding difficulties, France’s “COP régionales” (local Conferences of the Parties) have resumed their activity. The scheme aims to translate national ecological planning for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving biodiversity into local action and the results of these series of regional conferences are expected to be made public in the coming months. COP regionals sessions have been held over several months across the country to build an action plan by summer 2024 at the latest. The Ile-de-France conference in the greater Paris region was opened in April only, prompting the trade journal La Gazette des Communes to wonder whether the COP scheme was still treated as a priority. In a French Senate debate on the issue, the minister delegate for local authorities and rural affairs, Dominique Faure, said that regional COP projects have been launched in almost all parts of the country (with the exception of the overseas territories French Guiana and Mayotte) and promised that the objective of “having roadmaps by next summer, or soon after” will be adhered to.  
  • Interest in offshore wind energy is growing stronger by the day along France’s Atlantic coast. On 15 May, a new wind farm was inauguratedin Fecamp in Normandy. At the beginning of May, in Saint-Nazaire, the ministers for the economy and for energy, Bruno Le Maire and Roland Lescure, announced a 4.5-billion-euro contract with the industry and a timetable for the construction of new offshore wind farms. Overall, the government wants to accelerate the construction of 50 new offshore wind farms with a total installed capacity of 45 GW by 2050. These are expected to cover around 20 percent of the country’s electricity consumption. It also wants to halve the total average time required to appraise and build these offshore wind farms. This would mean a reduction from 12 to six years.
  • France’s minister for industry, Roland Lescure, has assured that, eventually, only a simple regulatory text will determine the country's energy policy up to 2035 instead of a law initially planned for this purpose (in accordance with the 2019 Energy-Climate Act). The first draft of the bill was drawn up in November 2023, but the government has since backtracked. In what observers have described as a political manoeuvre, the minister decided against submitting his energy strategy to parliament because several MPs were hostile to the idea of constructing new European pressurized reactors (EPRs, nuclear reactors) or harnessing wind power. This bears the risk of the government depriving itself of the political basis needed to drive forward change at the required scale. Citing this reduced regulatory ambition and the failure to codify the policies into law, the NGO Climate Action Network has accused the government of going against its own commitments and the law, and has called for a parliamentary debate.
  • France took part in the G7 Climate, Energy and Environment summit at the end of April in Italy. “France carries the voice of an ambitious climate diplomacy, in line with the commitments made by president Emmanuel Macron at COP28 on the exit from fossil fuels, starting with coal,” minister of industry Christophe Béchu said.

The latest from France – last month in recap

  • France reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 4.8 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year, from 404 to 385 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, according to first estimates of the CITEPA barometer. This was the biggest drop since 2015, and it almost doubled that of 2022 (-2.7%). The drop in emissions was significant in almost all sectors, with the energy sector making a particularly large contribution with -14.1 percent. Electricity generation led the way (-29%), “undoubtedly due to the renewed availability of nuclear power,” according to official estimates. On the other hand, the transport and land use sectors failed to meet their 2023 indicative carbon budgets due to the degradation of forest sinks in recent years.
  • On 7 May, the French nuclear safety authority authorised the commissioning of the new European pressurized reactor (EPR) at Flamanville, no less than 12 years behind schedule. The very next day, EDF began loading uranium into the reactor. The launch of France's most powerful nuclear reactor (1,600 MW) is scheduled to take place in stages. EDF plans to reach 100 percent capacity by the end of this year. Since the start of construction in 2007, the Flamanville plant has suffered from a number of construction faults that have delayed commissioning. Its construction costs have multiplied sixfold and construction time quadrupled, as Le Monde recalled in its infographics
  • Meanwhile, a reactor at the Cattenom nuclear power plant in Moselle was shut down in early May for 100 days in the face of falling electricity consumption in the country. Another reactor had already been disconnected from the power grid in April after EDF had to react to the drop in demand, officially “in order to save the fuel contained in the reactor” and “to adapt EDF's production to the supply-demand balance.” Reactors of the Tricastin plant in the lower Rhône valley and the Dampierre-en-Burly plant in the Loiret department have also recently been shut down.
  • Due to oversupply, electricity prices in France turned negative on 1 April. As a result, wind farms were disconnected from the grid. Despite the temporary dip of wholesale prices, France is one of the countries with the highest prices for electricity in the world. It came fourth in a ranking of 147 countries compiled by price comparison website Verivox, using data from GlobalPetrolPrices. In the first quarter of 2024, French consumers paid an average of 28.3 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). This rate is slightly lower than that paid by consumers in the UK and Germany, and significantly lower than Italian prices (41 ct/kWh). It is against this backdrop that parliament adopted a text on the extension of regulated electricity sales tariffs until February 2025 for small businesses, craftsmen and small farms.
  • Energy vouchers” are being sent to almost 5.6 million low-income households across France, without any prior formalities. The campaign kicked off in April, and aims to help those households pay their energy bills (electricity, gas, heat), buy heating fuel (wood, fuel oil, LPG, etc.), or carry out certain energy efficiency-related work. For many, this assistance is necessary in the context of inflation, as a reintroduction of temporarily suspended taxes on electricity has caused energy prices to soar in the last months.
  • Following its long-standing commitment to uphold productive relations with Morocco, France is renewing its offer to help finance a high-voltage line between Dakhla (in the disputed Western Sahara region) and Casablanca. Following in the footsteps of other members of the government, economy minister Le Maire reiterated the country’s commitment to the construction of this 3 GW power cable on 26 April during a Franco-Moroccan business forum in the north African country’s capital Rabat. He also proposed “cooperation in the nuclear field, with small and medium-sized reactors” (SMR). 

Camille’s picks – highlights from upcoming events and top reads

  • What if energy was everyone's business? At the end of April, TotalEnergies launched a crowdfunding campaign for a solar power plant in Normandy to cover the electricity consumption of 2,900 people. Citizens in Normandy have been invited by the French fossil fuel giant to help finance the photovoltaic project currently under construction in Esquay-sur-Seulles near Bayeux, in the Calvados region on the English Channel. This illustrates the development of a practice that places local transition projects in the hands (and pockets) of local residents, as explained in this article in the local newspaper Ouest France. At the same time, under the so-called Amep scheme, solar PV energy producers are sharing their surpluses to help low-income households and associations reduce their electricity bills. 
  • How can one find his way through the plethora of energy suppliers, and avoid being tricked into contracts by companies emerging on the market? This France Culture radio chronicle looks back at an investigation carried out by the quarterly magazine XXI into the abundance of alternative energy suppliers. We learn how a former EDF trader attempted, and succeeded, in embezzling nearly 100 million euros of public money, all legally, by speculating on rising energy prices. A television investigation by Complément d'enquête (on France 2 channel) also sheds light on this story, which is as fascinating as it is despairing for the transition.
  • Speaking of investigations, this same magazine, Complément d'enquêtes, looks back on the war of information (and fake news) surrounding the climate action debate. It is focused in particular on the summer of 2022, the hottest in France to date, during which top scientists were forced to leave social networks following harassments and threats. Fascinating and revolting this one.
  • As Europe remains divided on the issue of nuclear power, Euronews presents an interesting overview of the positions taken by various EU countries. In this patchwork, Paris, Europe's leader in the field, is unsurprisingly among the signatories to the Nuclear Energy Europe Alliance’s declaration, which calls on regulators to “fully unleash” the potential of nuclear power and “put in place the financing conditions” needed to extend the life of existing reactors. It is also considering legislation to accelerate the construction of new reactors. A must-read at a time when the Brussels summit on the issue in March officially confirmed nuclear’s return to favour. 
  • Finally, if you want to understand why the gap in electricity prices between France and Germany is widening, read this article from the business newspaper La Tribune. In April, wholesale prices were 30 euros per MWh higher on average in Germany. The article argues that this was due in particular to the saturation of interconnections and to the technical limits of border exchanges between the member states - but also to the period of electricity overproduction in France (with its renewable and nuclear production) and to the fact that nuclear power output is more predictable.
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