The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France threw money at its energy crisis, but people are still angry

People chat near a fire as employees gather Wednesday in front of the ExxonMobil site near Le Havre, France, to demand better wages. (Lou Benoist/AFP/Getty Images)
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NEUILLY-SUR-MARNE, France — Few countries have taken bolder steps than France to shield their citizens from the impact of Europe’s energy crisis. But as Helene Bakker walked along an endless line of honking cars waiting for fuel at an overwhelmed gas station this past week, she couldn’t help but wonder: Is it going to be enough?

Drivers were shouting at each other as they inched toward a handwritten sign warning that there was “no more gasoline” at the station. Police officers carrying rifles struggled to calm tensions in the Neuilly-sur-Marne suburb just a 20-minute train ride from central Paris. Tires screeched as officers chased drivers who tried to cut in line.

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“This isn’t a rich neighborhood,” said Bakker, 59. “The context is quite explosive. It could well lead to something bigger.”

The fuel shortages in France last week were prompted by striking refinery workers demanding higher salaries, partly because oil and gas companies are making major profits from Europe’s surging energy prices. But the fuel shortages have become a powerful catalyst for a much broader sentiment: This is going to be a tough winter — but only for those who can’t afford it.

“Rich people will always be able to get by,” said a retiree in her late 60s who spoke on the condition that she be identified only as Madame Chauvette. “But it hits the middle and the working class.”

She had hoped to get some gasoline for her daughter’s car and carry it back in a small gas can, but she left the station empty-handed, passing an electronic price sign that had gone dark. French TV reported that 30 percent of all gas stations had run out of some grade of gasoline or diesel by Sunday.

Standing nearby was an Uber Eats driver who last had been able to refuel his car four days earlier. He hasn’t been able to accept any deliveries since last weekend, he said.

Some have started drawing comparisons between the discontent now and the yellow vest movement in 2018, which began over proposed increases in fuel taxes but soon widened to broader concerns over social inequality. The violent turn of those protests in 2019 stymied President Emmanuel Macron’s agenda at the time.

With those protests firmly in mind, natural gas prices were capped at fall 2021 levels and energy price rises limited to 4 percent. Gasoline prices have also been heavily subsidized. Inflation, as a result, has remained lower in France than in many other countries.

While the French caps will gradually increase next year, they are expected to be lower than in most European nations struggling with rising energy costs.

France — a country where social discontent is often expressed early and loudly — is particularly sensitive to any cost-of-living increases in the wake of Macron’s far-ranging efforts to liberalize the economy over the past five years, steamrolling critics who raised concerns over the social impact.

But France still offers a key warning to other countries in Europe: Its extensive price caps benefit most those who least need them, further exacerbating inequalities rather than tackling them.

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The French caps apply to all households in largely the same way. But “you need to have a limit on that, so that households who use a lot of energy don’t benefit to the same extent” unless they have a good reason for their overconsumption, said Ray Galvin, an environmental scientist.

Even though residents of poorer districts cut back on energy consumption to save costs long before this crisis, inflation and rising gas prices will continue to hit those areas the hardest. In contrast, the crisis may only marginally touch the wealthier parts of the French capital region, on the boulevards near the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées, even though residents there tend to consume over five times more heating, electricity and gas per capita than residents of poorer neighborhoods.

Outside France, some countries or cities are trying to tackle this imbalance by implementing measures targeting the wealthy. Spain is introducing a temporary solidarity wealth tax for rich people. In Austria, the mayor of the exclusive Kitzbühel ski resort has wanted to go even further, proposing to cut rich homeowners’ energy supply if they do not listen to warnings and keep heating their Ferrari garages or illuminating the facades of their villas. Germany is expected to cap natural gas prices only up to a certain consumption threshold this winter, which would provide incentives for wealthier people to conserve, too.

Aiming to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent over the next two years, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne has appealed for restraint and to turn down the heating.

But for many, the main takeaway of her “energy sobriety” plan were the photos that accompanied the campaign: Borne donning a zipped-up down jacket as she sat in the sumptuous rooms of her residence and Macron in a turtleneck sweater at the Élysée Palace.

The campaign met mockery online. But in many poorer neighborhoods, it has exacerbated existential fears about the coming winter.

As the Parisian elite celebrated a flash Fashion Week this month, French mayors turned down temperatures in schools, closed swimming pools and reduced museum operating hours.

To avoid blackouts, France’s public broadcaster has begun airing weather report-style bulletins on the nation’s energy consumption. In rural areas, where the sentiment of government neglect has been particularly pronounced, medical associations are warning that ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors are running out of fuel.

In Neuilly-sur-Marne, residents and officials worry that Macron’s business-friendly government is failing to understand the extent of the social problem that lies ahead.

The town’s war memorial is framed by French flags and the national motto “liberty, equality, fraternity.” But with a poverty rate of about 20 percent, many of its 36,000 residents live a world away from its namesake on the other side of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine, where sprawling mansions line the boulevards.

Neuilly-sur-Marne’s mayor, Zartoshte Bakhtiari, has already lowered the temperatures in classrooms — even though he acknowledges that it will make learning more difficult — and has slashed plans for the decorative Christmas lights some residents looked forward to for months.

But it probably won’t be enough. The town faces a sixfold increase in energy spending over the coming months because the price caps the French government has imposed for citizens don’t apply to many municipalities.

“Even if we switched off all the lights,” he said, it would make up for only about one-tenth of the rise in spending.

Bakhtiari has launched a petition, urging the government to help. “Towns that have fewer resources — or that have residents who rely more on public services — they’ll be hit hard,” he told The Post.

Local residents like Bakker also worried about inequalities. The combined effect of inflation and the poor insulation of many houses here will turn flats into “thermal sieves,” she said.

To provide short-term relief, the French government is handing out up to $195 to vulnerable households. But critics view those payments as insufficient to make up for the impact of inflation that has hit communities like Neuilly-sur-Marne hard.

“We’re dealing with an unprecedented energy crisis, one that we haven’t seen in France since the oil shock of 1973,” said Sébastien Jumel, a far-left member of the French parliament. “And while, in a way, war measures would be needed, we’re offered a teaspoon.”

The issue dominated a major left-wing rally in Paris on Sunday.

Some 58 percent of French people say they are “dissatisfied” with the state of their country, and a third are “very angry,” according to a recent survey. Purchasing power was cited three times more as the main concern of the French than immigration and delinquency.

This rally may also be an attempt to prevent those sentiments from boiling over into a more violent and less structured movement, like the yellow vests. If people’s anger “is expressed in a disorganized manner and not backed by demands and solutions, it can be destabilizing for the entire Republic,” Jumel said.