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France faces carbon challenge

President Macron will survive the yellow-vests protests, but his energy policy may not

Even when protests evolve into wider and more complex movements, they tend to be remembered for their initial demands. May 1968 was about sexual liberation, right? If the same goes for the yellow-vests protests, they will go down in history as an uprising against climate-change mitigation and as a turning point for French energy policy.

To understand why the protests will have long-lasting impacts on French energy policy we have to look back to the 2017 elections when Emmanuel Macron was an unlikely presidential contender. By setting his energy programme in line with the 2015 "Loi de Transition Energétique pour la Croissance Verte" (Energy Transition Law for Green Growth), he appeared more progressive than his competitors on the right, while rejecting radical shifts, such as a phasing-out of nuclear energy, advocated by the left. This "green realism" helped him rally centre-left voters and ultimately reach the Élysée Palace.

During the first year of his term, Macron tried to deliver on his promises. He chose a popular activist as energy and ecology minister, announced a ban on internal combustion engines and hydrocarbon extraction in France starting in 2040 and increased the carbon tax by almost 50pc, with the aim of tripling it in five years. At the time, these decisions faced scant opposition, but early in 2018, when the government decided to reduce the speed limit on main roads from 90km/h (56m/h) to 80km/h, some motorists expressed frustration.

The anger grew as rising oil prices made fuel more expensive. The carbon tax became an obvious scapegoat, even though its role was actually marginal. An online petition protesting against high fuel prices launched in September soon attracted 1mn signatures, leading to street protests and continuing unrest.

Rifts in government

These protests occurred at a critical moment for French energy strategy. By law, France has to publish an energy roadmap (the "Programmation Pluriannuelle de l'Energie" or PPE) every five years. A public debate on that topic was held during the first half of 2018. It was largely ignored outside the energy community, but exposed rifts inside the government, especially on the schedule to shut down older nuclear plants. Delays started to pile up and the stand-off finally led in late August to the resignation of the energy minister.

After three more months of speculation, Macron finally decided to unveil the roadmap himself — at a press conference on 27 November, amid growing demonstrations. In an effort to appease protesters, he unveiled only a few broad elements of the roadmap, while postponing most decisions on detailed issues, pending a three-month-long public debate.

His gesture fell short of the mark. One week later, the government was forced to make concessions on energy prices: the increase of the carbon tax was suspended and natural gas and electricity prices were frozen. The official announcement of the new energy policy, an area where a credible long-term vision is key, turned into a messy retreat.

Two months later, no text has been published — not even a draft version of the PPE, which was initially expected in June. As the government now has very little political capital to spend on energy and climate issues, further postponements can be expected. France seems unlikely to adopt a new energy policy before at least the beginning of 2020. Sensitive issues, including coal-plant closures, nuclear-reactor construction and decommissioning, and decisions on carbon prices will probably be put off until the next election in 2022. These delays will be costly, putting France on course to miss its climate targets. At the same time, the whole issue of renewing sources of electricity generation is already on a tight schedule.

On a global scale, the yellow-vests protests can be seen as a cautionary tale. In recent years, raising the carbon price was seen as a silver bullet to remove the dangerous effects of greenhouse-gas emissions. Governments, international organisations, industry and NGOs were of one mind on this. The situation in France shows that the bullet is not all it was cracked up to be.

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