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'End of the world' vs. 'end of the month': Macron walks tightrope amid fuel tax protests

Ian Langsdon/Pool via Reuters | French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on ecological transition at the Élysée Palace in Paris on November 27, 2018.

Emmanuel Macron’s highly anticipated speech on transitioning his country’s energy mix was always going to be a delicate balancing act. But in striking a conciliatory tone, the French president hardly appears to have enchanted anyone.

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The French leader is walking a tightrope between keeping his showy pledge to “Make Our Planet Great Again”, making good on his country’s Paris Climate Agreement leadership, and calming the self-styled “yellow vests”, an amorphous movement that argues that Macron’s eco-minded fuel-tax hikes punish working-class consumers outside urban centres first and foremost.

On Tuesday in an hour-long speech short on detail but long on expressions of compassion, Macron returned again and again to the grievances expressed on roundabouts across the country, telling the “yellow vest” protesters (or the peaceful ones, at least): “I have heard your anger.” The French president declined to back down on the disputed fuel-tax hikes, but vowed to adapt a tax that, he conceded, is “a bit blind” to market price fluctuations in order to limit the impact on heavy drivers with little choice.

The yellow vest movement is into its 11th day of sometimes fiery protests. Two people have died in accidents during that span, with hundreds more injured. Violent and destructive clashes between police and demonstrators clad in high-visibility vests disfigured Paris’s storied Champs Élysées at the weekend. Police deployed clouds of teargas as barricades were set alight and luxury shopfronts smashed – an inauspicious start to the lucrative Christmas shopping season on the famed avenue.

‘End of the world’ vs. ‘End of the month’

“What I want to make French people understand – notably those who say ‘we hear the president, the government, they talk about the end of the world and we are talking about the end of the month’ – is that we are going to treat both, that we must treat both,” Macron said during Tuesday’s televised address from the Élysée Palace.

The transition to more environmentally friendly resources has to happen, he said, not least for France’s own sovereignty in the face of fossil fuel providers like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But, Macron said, “This transition should not happen at any cost.”

The 40-year-old centrist acknowledged that solutions made available to attenuate home and vehicle energy costs and upgrades are “not concrete enough, not tangible enough, not simple enough”, and as a result aren’t used by the people most in need.

He pledged to put €7 to €8 billion towards supporting renewable energies every year, up from the current €5 billion budget.

Macron also invited “representatives of the yellow vests” to propose solutions themselves during local consultations on the transition to cleaner energy over the next three months.

Nuclear 'pragmatism'

Another closely watched element of this address – meant to set out a working framework for French energy policy for years to come – were decisions on the country’s reliance on nuclear power and its ageing stable of nuclear reactors. France has 58 reactors, second only to the US worldwide. The sector represents 220,000 jobs in France.

Macron announced that France would reduce the share of nuclear in its power production from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2035 – not 2025, the initial target that Macron stressed was unrealistic. He said 14 of the reactors would be closed by 2035, including four to six before 2030, in an apparent compromise between the targets favoured by the French environment and economy ministers respectively. Only two reactors are slated for previously announced shutdowns during Macron’s current term of office. He left any decision on whether France would seek to build new, next-generation EPR reactors until at least 2021.

Fessenheim, France's oldest nuclear reactor site, slated for closure in 2020. Vincent Kessler, Reuters

Macron called his nuclear plan “a pragmatic approach… that takes into account the security of supply”, saying France shouldn’t shut down plants only to have to import power from other countries with production less clean than can be produced domestically.

And he touted nuclear’s ostensible advantages. “Nuclear allows us to benefit from energy that is pared of carbon emissions and is low cost,” Macron said. The president forbade EDF, the French electrical utility, from shutting any nuclear sites outright, saying his responsibility was to reduce, not end, France’s reliance on nuclear. Economic and social consequences for locals in the vicinity of the reactors poised to close should be limited, he said.

'Total submission'

Reaction to Macron’s hotly awaited speech came fast and, largely, furious. Political rivals and environmental figures alike piled on. Leftists slammed Macron’s lack of focus on salaries and buying power, while conservatives accused the president of playing for time with disingenuous consultation. Many, meanwhile, blasted his plan to keep France hooked on nuclear power.

“The closure of the nuclear plants postponed for a month of Sundays, lies about the supposed advantages of that dangerous energy, stubbornness over the industrial and financial catastrophe that is the EPR reactor. Macron proves his total submission to the nuclear lobby,” far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon charged after the speech.

On the far-right, Marine Le Pen for her part responded, “To those asking how to balance their budgets three days from now, Macron replies see you in three months”. The National Rally leader said the “absolute emptiness in terms of solutions [is] striking”.

Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure slammed Macron for ignoring a swathe of Yellow Vest grievances: “It isn’t just the issue of fuels, but the problem of purchasing power. And on that point, the president stayed mute, absolutely mute.”

“Macron continues with the policy of grand speech and tiny steps,” Yannick Jadot, from the green Europe Ecologie – Les Verts party, tweeted after the speech. “He is closing us into bankrupt nuclear. One doesn’t extinguish anger with beautiful words without acts of social justice. One doesn’t prepare the future with energy from the old world.”

Greenpeace similarly slammed Macron’s persistence on nuclear power. “Macron told us he wanted to change the method, but it is the substance that needs changing. France persists in presenting nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, when actually it is neither clean, nor inexpensive, and does in no way guarantee our energy independence,” Greenpeace France chief Jean-François Julliard said in a statement. “We wanted historic and structuring measures to fight climate change. The response is not equal to the emergency.”

What was notably scarce in the immediate critiques of Macron’s address were the usual charges levied against him – particularly by the demonstrators in yellow – that Macron acts like a “president of the rich” alone and decrees policy from on high, king-like. The lambasted leader may take these omissions as a small victory.

It remains to be seen how the yellow vests themselves will react to Macron’s purported empathy for their cause. After the president’s speech, the Élysée Palace announced that Macron invited his environment minister to meet with members of the yellow vest movement later Tuesday. Will the invitation to pitch solutions during a three-month consultation placate the protesters? Or is the yellow vest movement, the leadership of which is disputed and its sundry demands multifarious, bound to be unsatisfied with the drawn-out process?

“There are going to be consultations, with what? With whom? Yellow vests who are elected by who? I didn’t vote for them, I don’t know them,” Amaury, a 46-year-old jobseeker building a protest base camp in the middle of a Breton roundabout, told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday. “I didn’t even listen to Macron. I don’t want to hear him. I don’t trust him anymore. He need only come here, out in the field.”faure-greenpeace

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