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Letter from France: A government on a narrow and difficult path

Alan Kirman writes to us about Gaza, French politics, climate change, and the Paris métro

Well, this was going to be a Letter with some reflections on what has been going on in France with due acknowledgement of the impact of what was happening elsewhere in the world, in particular all the consequences of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. If anything has emerged from these Letters in the past, however, it is the confirmation of the belief that “everything affects everything else” which could be the slogan for a complex system view of the world.

There has been a remarkable shift in public opinion in France on what has to be done about the Gaza crisis, with support for a ceasefire and sympathy for Palestinians increasing strongly. No doubt the sheer intensity of the retaliation, and reports from UNICEF echoed by many NGOs saying that, in just two months, more children have died in Gaza than in all conflicts worldwide in the entirety of 2022, have contributed to this.

In responding to this new crisis, the French government is on a narrow and difficult path. Divisions over the appropriate reaction to these events have emerged within groups who previously shared some sort of political identity and had recently been voting together. The fragile arrangement that has been sustaining Macron’s government has been seriously strained. But now the government has taken a clear line and dispelled the impression that it was hesitant. The danger is that the coalition that has supported it breaks up.

The situation is rapidly evolving and this is neither the time nor the place to speculate on the outcome. Yet, France is faced with other problems which will not disappear because of the Middle East crisis. The “elephant in the room” is, of course, climate change.

Climate change

France has tried to play a leading role in adapting to climate change and an important part of this is a transition to a much less energy-hungry economy. Indeed, like a number of countries polled in 2023, people voted for climate change as the most important threat that they were facing. The climate problem was only very recently overtaken by people’s concern about the impact of inflation on their salaries, and this was due in part to energy price movements which have been strongly affected by measures taken to limit climate change.

The various measures introduced by the government to induce people to consume less energy, from the switch to electric vehicles, to the increased use of bicycles, to subsidies for improving the insulation of houses, have all been relatively effective. New measures to subsidise “retrofitting” existing cars with electric motors are being proposed. Moreover, despite some demonstrations against the inflationary effect of the price of energy, they have not created great upheavals.

This, it has to be said, is in large part due to various caps and controls put in place by the government. For example, the price of nuclear-generated electricity in France has been fixed at the end of the current arrangement between the government and EDF, which is state-owned. In January last year, the French government – in an attempt to limit the rise in people’s energy bills – decided to increase the amount of electricity that had to be sold below the market prices of the current mechanism.

The new arrangements show that the government is determined to avoid another “gilets jaunes” movement with widespread demonstrations. EDF made a large loss due to its obligation to buy electricity on the high priced international market and then sell it below the market price. It has sued the government for compensation. The new arrangement has provisions to oblige EDF to return a part of any excess profits it may make on electricity sales to consumers, again diminishing the cost of electricity to the final user. All of this has to be approved by parliament and the European Council, but shows that we are far from the unregulated markets as a result of EU directives once feared by some, and that would have been welcomed by others. Many French consumers will breathe a sigh of relief, although those of a greener disposition will be dismayed at the reinforcement of the nuclear sector.

At the time of writing, climate change has come back to the fore with the extensive flooding in the north of France, particularly in the Pas de Calais. According to estimates published by the Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (CCR), the cost of the damage could amount to 550 million euros. This sum will be covered under the public-private “cat-nat” scheme, as a state of natural disaster has been declared for more than 200 municipalities. Insurers will foot the bill, but with at least 50% reimbursed by the government through the public reinsurance scheme.

At the time of writing, climate change has come back to the fore with the extensive flooding in the north of France, particularly in the Pas de Calais. According to estimates published by the Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (CCR), the cost of the damage could amount to 550 million euros. This sum will be covered under the public-private “cat-nat” scheme, as a state of natural disaster has been declared for more than 200 municipalities. Insurers will foot the bill, but with at least 50% reimbursed by the government through the public reinsurance scheme.

Paradoxically, climate change has also contributed to a shortage of water in certain parts of France. The Pyrénées-Orientales is a good example: for the past year, its inhabitants have been subjected to a serious water crisis. In fact, tap water has been cut off in this department, last spring, and in a thousand communes during the drought of 2022.

There are several causes, including climate variability, as it is known in climatology, with naturally wetter or drier years. Withdrawals for human activities are also significant. In France, there are shallow aquifers that are heavily overexploited. These aquifers feed the rivers; their contribution diminishes and this reduces the flow. This is the case, for example, in the whole area around the Marais Poitevin, the Vendée, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres, etc. After the drought of 1976, there was a major development of infrastructure to pump water from the aquifers to irrigate crops, to an extent that undermined the sustainability of this activity. This is why solutions such as mega-basins are being considered, despite protests about their undesirable ecological effects.

In France, as a recent report from a CNRS laboratory on the global situation of water tables shows, climate change is already affecting the water cycle. For example, it is contributing to droughts that last longer. In the worst-case scenario, which cannot be ruled out, we will regularly experience droughts lasting several years. This is what happened in 2021-22: the drought lasted two winters and one summer. Another effect is the change in atmospheric circulation which has been modified by global warming.

On a more hopeful note

But are there more positive things going on? What has been described as the largest civil engineering project in Europe is emerging and will, hopefully, radically change the transport situation around Paris.

As a recent Forbes article indicates, the new métro, formally known as the Grand Paris Express (GPE), will more than double the access to rapid and frequent public transport for the areas encircling Paris, with over 120 miles of new tracks, four new underground lines, and 68 new stations. Once finished, the project should lower carbon emissions, which is partly why Harvard University awarded the scheme the 2023 Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design, recognizing projects that transform cities and lives in “unanticipated and extraordinary ways”.

In fact, as you can imagine, this giant project has met with opposition for a variety of reasons. And the mention of “unanticipated and extraordinary ways” brings me back to my opening remarks on complex systems, and the fact that actions taken within such systems are characterized by their unexpected consequences.

Whilst the basic goals of this giant project – to increase the access by public transport to areas currently poorly served, and to link the areas where workers live to those where they work – are laudable, some have argued that this is not enough, and that the system should be reshaped to diminish the total amount of travel necessary. Nevertheless, some “green” objections have been effectively countered. Bringing the new métro into service will reduce emissions by at least fourteen million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2050. This reduction will be three to five times greater than the emissions generated by the construction and operation of the métro.

The latest IPSOS poll shows that the French are in a more sombre and pessimistic mood than last year. With the tragic events that have been unfolding at the global level and their repercussions on the whole socio-economic system, I cannot hold out much hope for a Bonne Année, but you never know – and you can always come to Paris for the 2024 Olympic Games.

Alan Kirman, 10 December 2023

References

Costantini, M., Colin, J., and Decharme, B. (2023). Projected climate-driven changes of water table depth in the world’s major groundwater basins. Earth’s Future, 11, e2022EF003068.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferleighparker/2023/11/22/the-new-paris-mtro-is-coming-and-its-a-very-big-deal/