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Macron’s nuclear populism exposes the abject failure of our energy policy

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Ben Marlow's article for the Telegraph dated 15.01.22 begins with these words: The French President's move to cap energy price rises underlines Whitehall's indecision over how to protect households

With France’s presidential elections just around the corner, and its government facing mounting public pressure over the rising cost of living, Presidential Emmanuel Macron has decided he cannot afford to stand back any longer. It’s tempting to say he’s gone for the nuclear option to prevent a mounting energy crisis from spiralling out of control and harming his chances of being re-elected, but with France’s nuclear capabilities seemingly in disarray that might seem like the wrong turn of phrase.

Safety fears have forced the closure of five reactors in the last month alone - two at EDF’s Civaux plant in western France, another two at Chooz on the Belgium border, and now a fifth at Penly north-east of Dieppe, all of which are suffering the same problems with corrosion.

That leaves as many as 18 out of 56 out of service, a worrying proportion for a company that derives 70pc of its electricity output from nuclear plants. Yet without its nuclear fleet, France would be in a far worse place than it is today. In the spiralling energy crisis, it has been the country’s secret weapon, handing it a self-sufficiency that France’s European cousins, and indeed the UK, can only dream of. While we have been forced to import increasingly expensive gas from Europe and other parts of the world, France’s nuclear-powered domestic supply has meant its energy has remained cheaper, allowing it to ride out the shock for much longer.

But with wholesale prices remaining stubbornly high, European gas storage waning, and a third of France's plants offline, Macron has panicked as April’s election draws closer.

A plan to cap power price rises at 4pc will be implemented with state-backed supplier EDF forced to shoulder the bulk of the burden. It will be forced to ramp up the amount it sells to rivals at a price of €46.20 euros per megawatt hour, way below EDF’s cost of production costs and market rates of more than €100. This is unabashed, naked populism from France’s leader, after his management of the pandemic dented his popularity at home, but that hardly matters. With support for centre-right rival Valerie Pecresse surging in recent weeks, what matters most to Macron is protecting his lead in the polls and that means shielding French voters from price spikes. Without the emergency measures, finance minister Bruno Le Maire said bills would surge by 35pc and what the President really fears is a repeat of the protests over 2018’s unpopular fuel tax on diesel cars, which escalated into the Gilets Jaunes protests that crippled the French economy. Macron’s ability to intervene to insulate households from further gas price rises once again exposes the abject failure of the UK to build any sort of resilience into the energy system and make it less reliant on imports. Britain’s inability to act is the legacy of more than a decade of failed energy policy under successive governments.

Even now, six months into the crisis, with prices four times higher than they were a year ago, and an eye-watering spike to household energy bills hurtling down the track when the price cap is raised again, there has been little beyond the odd empty platitude from ministers in terms of a response.

Rather than being deterred by the country’s crumbling fleet, Macron is buoyed by the energy security that France’s nuclear capabilities have delivered. Government officials have signalled he could give the go-ahead for at least six large reactors in the coming months. Critics will point to the fallout from Macron’s controversial move. The financial hit to EDF from the new Government scheme will be around €8bn, and analysts warned it may have to raise fresh capital. There are fears too that the move could constrain its ability to finance renewable energy projects as well as build a new generation of nuclear reactors. With the French state owning 80pc of EDF and its shares crashing by a quarter after the scheme was unveiled, the raid hurts taxpayers and investors too.

But that hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. In the battle to prevent French households from hurting further, EDF is the sacrificial lamb and with the state fully behind it, the company will find ways to repair its battered finances. Meanwhile, Macron can claim he was the architect of a landmark initiative that rescued millions of French households from the prospect of a punishing rise in bills during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. True, such intervention is not without its pitfalls, but at least he’s acted decisively, which is more than can said of those in Whitehall.

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Macron’s nuclear populism exposes the abject failure of our energy policy - by Ben Marlow
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