In France, the people’s COP26 has forgotten the soaring energy prices

MONTARGIS, France – Only 75 miles separate this provincial city from Paris, but if the capital is all about a renewable energy revolution, we’re talking here about how it’s costing people way too much.

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

Three years ago, Montargis became a center of the Yellow Vests social uprising, an angry protest movement against an increase in gasoline taxes that has been backed, sometimes violently, for more than a year by sentiment much wider alienation felt by the inhabitants of the peripheral areas. that France calls its “periphery”.

The uprising was rooted in a class divide that exposed the resentment of many working class people, whose livelihoods are threatened by the transition to clean energy, against metropolitan elites, especially in Paris, who may be allow electric cars and can cycle to work, unlike those in the countryside.

Now that Mr Door and others are watching the ongoing global climate talks in Glasgow, where experts and officials warn immediate action must be taken in the face of a looming environmental catastrophe, the economic and political disconnect that has almost tore up France three years ago. stays just below the surface.

There are a lot of people on the “outskirts” who understand the need to switch to clean energy and are already trying to do their part. But if the theme of COP26, as the Glasgow summit is called, is how time is running out to save the planet, the immediate concern here is how the money runs out before the end of the month.

Domestic gas prices rose 12.6% in the last month alone, in part due to shortages linked to the coronavirus. Electric cars seem fantastically expensive to people who were encouraged not so long ago to buy fuel efficient diesel cars. A wind turbine that will reduce property values ​​isn’t what a retired couple wants just down the road.

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

For President Emmanuel Macron, faced with an election in April, the transition to clean energy has become a delicate subject. He presented himself as a green warrior, admittedly pragmatic, but knows that any return to the barricades of the yellow vests would be disastrous for his electoral prospects.

Every morning, at her farm a few miles outside of town, Ms. Cannault looks from her front door at a 390-foot mast recently built to assess the wind levels for the proposed wind turbines. “No one has ever consulted us about this.”

The only sounds as she spoke on a misty, damp morning were the horn of geese and roosters crowing. Claude Madec-Cleï, mayor of the neighboring village of Griselles, nodded. “We are not considered,” he said. “President Macron is courting the Greens. “

In fact, with the elections approaching, Mr. Macron is courting just about everyone and is desperate to avoid a return of the yellow vests.

The government has frozen domestic gas prices. An “energy check” worth $ 115 will be sent next month to some six million people deemed most in need. An “inflation allowance” of the same amount will also be sent to approximately 38 million people earning less than $ 2,310 per month. One of the main drivers of these measures was gasoline inflation.

Sophie Tissier, who organized a demonstration of yellow vests in Paris in 2019, said that a strong police response made it “very difficult to resume the movement”, despite what she called “a serious social crisis and galloping anger “. She added that the inequalities were so extreme in France that “it prevents us from making an ecological transition”.

The president praises the realism of his energy proposals. These combine the development of new small-reactor nuclear power with the adoption of wind power and other renewables.

On its left, the green movement wants nuclear power, which represents 67.1% of France’s electricity needs, to be phased out, an adjustment so huge that it is ridiculed by the conservatives as heralding a “return to the age of candles ”.

To the right of Mr. Macron, Marine Le Pen is in favor of the dismantling of the more than 9,000 wind turbines in the country, which represent 7.9% of French electricity production.

In the middle, millions of French people, tossed between concern for the planet and their immediate needs, are struggling to adapt.

Christine Gobet drives her small diesel car about 150 km per day from the Montargis area to her job at an Amazon warehouse on the outskirts of Orleans, where she prepares packages and earns about $ 1,600 per month.

Sitting at the wheel in front of a garage where her diesel engine had just been replaced at a cost of around $ 3,000, she scoffed at the idea of ​​switching to an electric car.

“For people like me, electricity is just out of the question,” she said. “Everything is going up, we are even talking about more expensive baguettes! We were driven to diesel, we were told it was less polluting. Now we are told the opposite.

At the start of the Yellow Vest movement, she joined the demonstrations in Montargis. It was not just the financial pressure that pushed her. It was the feeling that “we are not being listened to, that it is these elites from above who decide and that we are simply suffering the consequences”.

She gave up the movement when it became violent. At a roundabout on the edge of Montargis, nicknamed the “peanut roundabout” because of its shape, traffic was blocked for two months, and stores were out of stock.

Today she feels that not much has changed. In Paris, she says, “they have everything”. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and socialist candidate for the presidency, does not want “any more cars in town and does not have time for people from the provinces who go there to work”.

For working class people like Ms. Gobet, who was mentioned in a recent 100-episode series titled “Fragments of France” in Le Monde newspaper, the calls in Glasgow to stop using fossil fuels and the shutdown of nuclear power plants seem extremely remote from their daily lives.

At 58, she illustrates a generational chasm. The youth of the world led by Greta Thunberg is on one side, convinced that no priority can be more urgent than saving the planet. On the other hand, there are the elderly who, as Mr Door said, “do not want the last 20 years of their life to be wasted by environmental measures that drive up energy prices and the value of the house in which they invest ”.

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

Gilles Fauvin, taxi driver with a Peugeot diesel, was in the same garage as Ms. Gobet. He said most of his business was 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 pressure to switch to expensive electric cars could ruin it. “Diesel works for me,” he said.

But of course, diesel cars produce several pollutants. The question for Yoann Fauvin, the owner of the garage and cousin of the taxi driver, 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.

In front of him a classic green Citroën 2CV from 1977, was being reconditioned and a Citroën DS4 diesel under repair. “This business lives on diesel,” he said. “Here, we make fun of the transformation of energy. It’s the rich people who switch to electric cars, the people who don’t understand what’s going on here.

Magalie Pasquet, a housewife who heads a local anti-wind energy association called Aire 45, said her opposition to about 75 new turbines planned in the area had nothing to do with dismissing environmental concerns.

She recycles. She pays attention to movement. She composts. She wears two sweaters rather than turning up the heat. She finds the environmental idealism of young people inspiring. But the world, she believes, has put the cart before the horse.

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

A friend, Philippe Jacob, professor of management and marketing also involved in the movement against the turbines, said that the movement of yellow vests was born from the rise in gasoline prices, from the decline in purchasing power, deterioration of public services and widespread dissatisfaction with top-down decision-making. .

“It’s the same today, and the situation is very dangerous,” he said. “People have invested their savings here, and no one is listening when they say the planned turbines and biogas plants will mean the region will be ruined.”


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