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Party Time Over For French Political Ecology

Politics / France Apr 05, 2014 - 02:50 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


The Once-Was Natural Party of Government

When President Hollande swept to power a long time ago on the political timescale - nearly 24 months ago – sweeping out the eccentric and ever more-corrupt Sarkozy with his non-performing economy and ever-rising jobless numbers, budget deficits and national debt, Hollande also swept in the ecologists. To do just the same thing as Sarko! French ecology politicians banded together in a shifting coalition called Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, EELV, and were handed key roles in Hollande's first government, of course receiving the Energy-Ecology ministry, and also the Housing ministry.

The EELV was styled by itself, and by the sock puppet media as the natural party of government.

Things started going wrong early on, but the drubbing received by Hollande's Parti Socialiste in the 23 and 30 March local elections was the end of the road for EELV. It rapidly decided to not sit in parliament with, nor give automatic support to any laws proposed by the new “Tony Blair-inspired” Manuel Valls government.

President Hollande's Parti Socialiste faithfuls firstly hoped they could reverse the EELV walk-out in a day or two when the ecologists were dangled new and slightly bigger roles in the Valls government, but hopes faded to zero as the ecologists staged an angry public walk-out from government. With the French Far Left, sometimes allied with EELV and sometimes against it,  Hollande now faces a wider opposition in his own ranks.

Hollande then did the worst thing possible for keeping EELV neutral, let alone on board with his new government by wheeling-in his former No 1 ladyfriend, mother of 4 of his children and France's answer to Hillary Clinton - Segolene Royal - to head up the Energy Environment ministry, making her No 3 in the new Manuel Valls cabinet. For the ecologists if not the Far Left, Segolene is a somber throwback to the 14-year-long Mitterand era when Segolene, as a new female face in Mitterand governments sat in serial glove puppet cabinets which nodded-through Mitterand's imperial-style nuclear power plant building spree. This was at a rate of at least 2 new NPPs every year “to reduce French oil dependence”.

Even at the time France only produced a few percent of its electricity from oil, so how the  NPPs were going to cut that dangerous oil dependance wasn't explained, but nuclear power was terribly patriotic. Saying anything against it, which Segolene certainly never did, was even styled as “Anglosaxon thinking” by former Vichy France civil servant Francois Mitterand and “Anglosaxon thinking”, if you didn't know, is the worst possible thing in French political demonology. His NPP-building spree was cast in stone.

Segolene's main task, that she announced when she hit the ground running like a political pro even before moving into office, will be to rejig and reform, and relaunch the famous French "ecological tax" or Ecotax, basically a new road tax, to be levied using electronic gantries on all major roads, on any goods vehicle from anywhere in the EU. This tax is supposed to bring in a net 800 million euros a year, after the extreme high costs of setting up the tax system and paying impressive revenues to the private operating consortium which won the Ecotax concession in a murky closed tender process. The operating monopoly was quick to warn Hollande that if the tax system was abandoned, the French government would be obliged by the concession agreement it let and signed, to pay the operators compensation that could reach 2 billion euros. Segolene to the rescue!

Tax and Spend

Valls claims to admire “new socialist” Tony Blair and is committed to lower taxes, so his quick support to Segolene's "save the Ecotax" mission, to bulldoze through and apply the new and heavy road tax, already puts a large dent in his public image - but times are tough and Hollande needs revenues to pay for the tax cuts he intends to give employers in return for “possible” new jobs. His predecessor PM Jean-Marc Ayrault was described as a centre-right socialist, making it easier for him to defend a whopping new tax, but the near-instant and massive negative reaction to the Ecotax, especially from the ground-up Red Cap movement starting in Ayrault's Brittany, which systematically destroyed the 2-million-euro electronic gantries and organized major demonstrations in Paris as well as Breton cities, was a key event chipping away support to his government - and hammering one more nail in his political coffin.

To be sure, Valls has hurried to say how sincerely he supports "the ecology" and things like "the climate" which
of course need heavy taxes to protect them, making a new goods vehicle tax perfectly correct. This line of
political logic is called tax and spend. We can call it No Alternative.

While in power, EELV had few problems supporting the Ecotax. As the project grew through 2012-2013, it
became a new magic wand for Hollande's ecology-leaning dreamers and planners. According to them, the tax would be able to maintain and build highways and bridges, develop France's high speed TGV train system, develop canal transport, build and operate electric car hire stands in 13 major cities including Paris, provide free electricity in city centers to top-up electric car batteries and calm the range anxiety of car owners, build up the electric car industry with grants of 6300 euros for every single buyer and one day replace all "fossil" cars, help out with the installation of windfarms and solar panels - and even aid French agriculture by favoring local producers of “Bio” foods who will not be able to afford the goods transport tax on their products, anyway!

It was the magic of tax and spend. It was all things to all men and women! And of course, it wasn't necessary to add the Ecotax would create huge numbers of new jobs, by pulling in huge new tax revenues for Hollande.

Dirty Diesels and Nuclear, OK. Shale Gas and Bicycles Maybe Not

Showing the limits of EELV dreaming, only its "radical fringe" dares to speak out against France's diesel car plague, now making up 75% of the car fleet and 85% of new car sales. The World Health Organization's Cancer Research Institute, in a July 2012 report estimated Europe-wide cancer deaths from inhaling and ingurgitating diesel fumes and residues at around 200 000 deaths per year, with about 44 000 dead per year in France. But ecologists know in their political stem cells that diesel cars "protect the climate" because they emit less CO2 per mile than gasoline-fueled cars. Above all, diesel fuel has been heavily subsidized by French governments since the Mitterand era of the 1980s when heavy and dirty crudes, unlike today, cost much less than sweet light crudes, yielding more diesel fuel on each barrel than them when refined, and were hailed as a silver bullet.

Diesel fuel in France and several other "pro-diesel" EU countries is still priced far below gasoline fuel, despite a liter of diesel fuel having 10% more energy in it than a liter of gasoline. That, in a nutshell, is why diesel cars emit less CO2 per mile but the math is far too complicated for an average French political ecologist!

EELV steers away from too much criticism of the “complex diesel car issue”, while Hollande's mainstream Parti
Socialiste is an outright supporter of totally dieselizing the car fleet - with French-made diesel cars, of course!
This kicks the can down the road to much later on, when the French public will hear its political elite say "we didn't know". At that future time, whining about the dirty diesel cancer plague will be mainstream politics.

Extreme claims from the powerful Diesel Lobby are that French diesel cars if not others, such as inferior Anglosaxon and Japanese, or even German diesel cars, will be ultra-clean by at latest 2017-2020. The lobby says that in fact it has data paid for by itself which shows French diesel cars are the cleanest in the world. Using them is therefore already a sign of good will and better judgement, respect for the environment, and a major aid to creating jobs for French - including jobs for morticians and France's very fast growing cancer business!

Flamby Hollande's new reform agenda is stuffed with "the ecology", despite the EELV abandoning ship. He was quick to see the vast open door for new ways to tax and spend that "the ecology and climate" offers in almost all domains. Bowing to EELV pressure while they were still part of his government, he moved the furthest for any French president in decades by announcing that 1 nuclear power plant would be shut down - out of France's present 60-odd civil NPP fleet - by around 2017, when his presidential mandate ends.

This is France's oldest NPP, the famous Fessenheim plant located in Alsace and also located on a geological
fault line, which is a constant bone of contention between France and neighboring Germany which views this
NPP as a major risk. Periodic statements by Hollande's previous government headed by Ayrault, from several
ministries, suggested the shut down and dismantling project for Fessenheim could easily take 25 years and
might cost as much as 5 billion euros - but this would create a large number of jobs. Funding the decommissioning and safestor, however, would certainly and of course regrettably make it necessary to further raise electricity prices, and probably increase local taxes in areas where other NPPs would, some day, also be shut down and dismantled, in the fullness of time.

Hollande was quick to understand what that meant. In 2013 he ordered EDF to raise electricity prices at 10% a year for the next 3 years - while severely limiting public sector pay rises to a maximum of 1% a year. His Parti Socialiste has quickly polished up its line of po-faced "dismay and consternation" at spiraling Fuel Poverty in France! Such is greatness.

Hollande's Keynesian-minded planners also claim that knock-on multipliers from starting to shut down France's NPP fleet on a timescale stretching to "about 2065", while radical EELV firebrands called for 2055, would of course be massive. The lost power generating capacity would (of course) be replaced by wind and sun, if not wave and geothermal power, or even by biofuels. By anything at all except shale gas produced by fracking - at least by fracking in France - which is still taboo. This has provided a nice subject for staged and televised disputes between "pragmatists" in Hollande's government such as new Economics minister Arnaud Montebourg, and remaining No Fracking EELV diehards, but in any case France will soon be importing shale gas, as LNG.

No problem importing the stuff and using it, but producing it at home is, let us say, Anglosaxon. This gives us another great example of French political "logic".

The ecology party EELV also wanted a much faster agenda for replacing all of France's 40 million "fossil" cars
with electric cars, say 40 years, starting with electric cars being made the only private cars permitted in city centres and possibly raising the already massive grant electric car buyers get from the state, to perhaps 10 000 euros for each car purchased, of course if its French-made, although that could cause problems with Brussels and the WTO. Conversely, in the few short years that the EELV sat with the Parti Socialiste members in government, it learned to forget about bicycles, helped by the rapid shrink to near-oblivion of city center bicycle hire systems. These, like the Paris Velolib system were hailed as a Political Triumph for French Ecology, when they started all of 24 months ago, but the clunky, heavy and overpriced hire bicycles rapidly faded from the streets, and in some provincial cities have now almost totally disappeared.  Where they went is something of a mystery.

Saturation Effects

In fact France is already saturated with bicycles, as well as cars, buses - and NPPs. Bicycle numbers are
around 1 cycle for every man woman and child in the country, and increasing at a rapid clip of near 5
million a year, or over 10 times the growth rate of the French human population. Car sales although highly
depressed at 1.79 million in 2013, ran at 4 times the population growth rate - itself one of the highest in
Europe, and almost certain to fall. Bus numbers and their seating capacity are also growing at a very
impressive rate, making any theoretical claim to France having a "major transport crisis", an EELV pet
theme, a pure piece of nonsense.

Both French right and left, and the EELV, accept and promote the liberal economic model or No Alternative
of the European Union. This among other things fosters go-anywhere European transport companies, for example Polish-owned and Romanian-crewed bus and trucking companies operating in France, paying their drivers a princely 500 euros a month for a 240-hour work month. To be sure this only raises the transport capacity even higher. The Ecotax was therefore styled, by the EELV, as a way to cut back on spiraling road transport supply - and spend the tax on growing the French electric car market, electric bus market, TGV trains and even passenger-carrying canal boats! Only in the case of growing capacity of short-haul airline transport in Europe, which is what we have, does EELV disapprove.

But France has a terrible transport problem! This is official. Therefore more taxes are needed. Normally constituted human being do not have to admire this “logic” but even if you don't, French ecologists and Hollande's new government, like the old one, love it.  It means tax and spend.

Another permanent pet theme of EELV, in or out of power, is the terrible agriculture problem. EELV says everything must be organic. The knock-on from this has been fast and lurid. In the shops, all kinds of junk food is now labeled "Bio", supposedly produced without genetic modification, pesticides, fertilizers and the rest. This project has however run down fast, like the in-city bicycle hire stands, due to "Bio" foods tasting exactly the same as the other "Non Bio" stuff, that is no taste at all, but (isn't it a surprise?) priced at the same high price. EELV party chiefs, such as Jose Bove claim this is all a question of time - the New Foods may look and taste the same as the old chemical stuff, but the public has to hang in and keep the faith. It will all come right by about 2065 - long after Jose glides away to a rich retirement.

Believe us and keep voting, if you are stupid enough to do that.

Exactly like France's coming imported shale gas as LNG, around 60% of imported animal feeds, for the country's "organic oriented" animal herds, are already GM crops. Jose Bove and other tenors of political ecology in France have little to say about that except that it isn't necessary - even if its real. Lovely logic!

The saturation effects in no way stops with bicycles and bio. Recycling is another now-shrinking and fading way to tax and spend in a big way. Across France, accelerating under Hollande, local town councils built thousands of Ecological Recycling Points, big heavy underground metal vaults needing huge excavation works, contracted by Swiss firms for the highest-tech versions. With different ground level input units using supposed airlocks, equipped with electronic counters, able to weigh and sort and select glass, metal, textiles, papers, plastics, food wastes - but unfortunately stinking to high hell anytime the weather is hot, because the airlocks don't work. Community associations in many towns soon militated against these smelly eyesores, and obtained their removal. Often costing 75 000 euros each, the Recycling Point boom is already winding down - but not before most town councils increased local waste handling charges as much as 60% in 3 years to pay for the party.

France had its ecology boom, but it peaked and saturated. One totally ironic knock-on, only due to the distrust or even disgust of voters with "mainstream parties" is that EELV politicians have not lost all their voter support, and in many cities and towns can still count on around 2.5% of residual voters turning out to vote for them. What this could or might mean, for Hollande's new government headed by Manuel Valls, is presently hard to fathom - but "political ecology" was a strange and short-lived gimmick leaving an odd dirt line around the bath tub when the water ran out. Hollande, holding firm to the French presidential privilege of eccentricity, could well hold on to the political ecology thing – until his paws are burned by it.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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