In France, the People COP26 Forgot seethe about rising energy prices

MONTARGIS, France — Only 120 kilometers separate this provincial city from Paris, but if the capital is all about a renewable energy revolution, this is about how it costs people way too much.

“We want to move too fast,” said Jean-Pierre Door, a conservative lawmaker with many angry voters. “People are pushed to the limit.”

Three years ago, Montargis became a center of the Yellow Vest social uprising, an angry protest movement against a gasoline tax hike that for more than a year was bolstered, sometimes violently, by a much wider sense of alienation felt by those in the outlying areas that France calls its ‘periphery’.

The uprising was rooted in a class divide that exposed the resentment of many working-class workers, whose livelihoods are threatened by the clean energy transition, against the metropolitan elites, especially in Paris, who can afford electric cars and cycle to work. as opposed to those in rural areas.

Door and others look at the global climate talks underway in Glasgow, where experts and officials warn that immediate action must be taken in the face of an impending environmental disaster, the economic and political divide that nearly torn France three years ago remains just below the surface .

There are plenty of people in the “periphery” who understand the need to move to clean energy and are already trying to do their part. But if the theme of COP26, as the Glasgow summit is being called, is how time is running out to save the planet, the immediate concern here is how money is running out before the end of the month.

Household gas prices have risen 12.6 percent in the past month alone, partly due to shortages related to the coronavirus. Electric cars seem ridiculously expensive to people who were encouraged not so long ago to buy fuel-efficient diesel cars. A wind turbine that will lower property values ​​is not what a retired couple just wants on the road.

“If Parisians love wind turbines so much, why not tear up the Bois de Vincennes and turn it into an attraction?” asked Magali Cannault, who lives near Montargis, referring to the vast park east of Paris.

For President Emmanuel Macron, who faces elections in April, the transition to clean energy has become a delicate topic. He has portrayed himself as a green warrior, albeit a pragmatic one, but he knows that any return to the yellow vest barricades would be disastrous for his election prospects.

Every morning, at her farm a few miles from town, Mrs. Cannault from her doorstep to a 90-foot mast recently constructed to measure wind levels for proposed turbines. “No one has ever consulted us about this.”

The only sounds she spoke on a misty, damp morning were the honking of geese and the crowing of roosters. Claude Madec-Cleï, the mayor of the nearby village of Griselles, nodded. “We are not taken into account,” he said. “President Macron seeks the Greens court.”

In fact, with the election approaching, Mr. Macron has courted almost everyone and he is desperate to prevent a return of the yellow vests.

The government has frozen gas prices for households. Next month, a $115 “energy check” will be sent to some six million people who need it most. An “inflation fee” of the same amount will also be sent to approximately 38 million people earning less than $2,310 per month. Petrol inflation was a major driver of these measures.

Sophie Tissier, who staged a Yellow Vest protest in Paris in 2019, said a heavy police response made it “very difficult to restart the movement”, despite what she called “a serious social crisis and unbridled anger”. . She added that inequalities in France were so extreme that “it prevents us from making an ecological transition.”

The president praises the realism of his energy proposals. These combine the development of new nuclear energy with small reactors with the adoption of wind energy and other renewable energy sources.

To his left, the Green movement wants nuclear power, which accounts for 67.1 percent of France’s electricity needs, to be phased out, a move so massive that conservatives deride him as a harbinger of “a return to the candlelight era.”

To Macron’s right, Marine Le Pen is in favor of dismantling the country’s more than 9,000 wind turbines, which account for 7.9 percent of French electricity production.

In the middle, millions of French people, torn between concern for the planet and their immediate needs, struggle to adapt.

Christine Gobet drives her small diesel car about 90 miles a day from the Montargis area to work at an Amazon warehouse on the outskirts of Orleans, where she prepares packages and earns about $1,600 a month.

Sitting at the wheel outside a garage where her diesel engine had just been replaced for about $3,000, she mocked the idea of ​​switching to an electric car.

“For people like me, electric is just out of the question,” she said. “Everything is going up, there is even talk of more expensive baguettes! We were pushed on diesel and told it was less polluting. Now we are being told the opposite.”

At the beginning of the Yellow Vest movement, she joined demonstrations in Montargis. It wasn’t just financial pressures that drove her. It was a feeling that “we are not being listened to, that it is those elites who decide and that we only bear the consequences.”

She dropped out of the movement when things got violent. At a roundabout on the outskirts of Montargis, known for its shape as the ‘peanut roundabout’, traffic was blocked for two months and stores were sold out.

Today she feels that little has changed. In Paris, she said, “they have everything.” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and a socialist candidate for the presidency, wants “no more cars in the city and no time for people from the provinces to work there”.

Working-class people like Ms Gobet, who was mentioned in a recent 100-part series called “Fragments of France” in the newspaper Le Monde, is calling in Glasgow to stop using fossil fuels and the closure of nuclear power plants seems a long way off. of their daily lives.

At the age of 58, she illustrates a generation gap. The youth of the world led by Greta Thunberg stands on one side, convinced that no priority can be more urgent than saving the planet. On the other hand, there are older people who, as Mr Door put it, “don’t want the last 20 years of their lives ruined by environmental measures that push up energy prices and the value of the home they put their money into.”

The area around Montargis has attracted many retirees who want to be close to Paris without paying Parisian prices, as well as many immigrants living on the outskirts of the city.

Gilles Fauvin, a taxi driver with a diesel Peugeot, was standing by the same garage as Mrs Gobet. He said the bulk of his business is taking clients with medical needs to hospitals in Orleans and Paris. The combination of plans to ban diesel cars from the capital by 2024 and pressures to switch to expensive electric cars could ruin it. “Diesel works for me,” he said.

But diesel cars naturally produce different pollutants. The question for Yoann Fauvin, the garage owner and the taxi driver’s cousin, is whether electric cars are really better.

“You have to mine the metals for the batteries in China or Chile, you have to transport them with all the carbon costs of that, you have to recycle the batteries,” he said.

For him, a classic green 1977 Citroën 2CV was overhauled and a diesel Citroën DS4 repaired. “This company lives off diesel,” he said. “Energy transformation is laughed at here. It’s wealthy people who are switching to electric cars, the people who don’t understand what’s happening here.”

Magalie Pasquet, a housewife who heads a local wind energy association called Aire 45, said her opposition to about 75 new turbines planned for the area has nothing to do with denouncing environmental concerns.

She recycles. She is careful about traveling. She composts. She wears two sweaters instead of turning up the heat. She finds the environmental idealism of the young people inspiring. But the world, she thinks, has put the cart before the horse.

“Why destroy a landscape that draws people to this area when the real energy problem is overconsumption?” she asked. “The locals are not consulted, and even mayors are powerless to stop these ugly turbines.”

A friend, Philippe Jacob, a professor of management and marketing who was also involved in the anti-turbine movement, said the yellow vest movement stemmed from rising gasoline prices, declining purchasing power, deteriorating public services and widespread dissatisfaction with top-down decision-making. .

“The same is true today, and the situation is very dangerous,” he said. “People have invested their savings here, and no one listens when they say that planned turbines and biogas plants are destroying the region.”

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