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Macron charts France's energy future amid citizens protests over fuel tax increases

By AFP | November 27th 2018
President Emmanuel Macron's push for cleaner energy comes amid protests over fuel tax increases. [Photo: AFP]

French President Emmanuel Macron earned global plaudits for pledging to "Make our planet great again," but he faces a moment of truth at home Tuesday in presenting his multi-year roadmap for France's transition to cleaner energy.

The 10-year blueprint comes as Macron is facing fractious "yellow vest" protests by French citizens' angry over a string of yearly fuel tax increases to finance green initiatives, which Macron has indicated will continue.

Yet environmental advocates are also wary after the government last year walked back on a commitment to reduce French reliance on nuclear energy.

It was one of several bones of contention that cost Macron his wildly popular environment minister Nicolas Hulot, who quit earlier this year over the president's green record.

"They didn't listen to me, they cited budgetary limits," Hulot said on French television last week, recounting how he advocated more financial aide to help people cope with the costs of cutting pollution.

Had Macron done so, the "yellow vest" protests would have been "avoidable," Hulot said.

Macron is expected to address the protests Tuesday while laying out his energy priorities for the coming years.

Officials have already indicated he will announce the closure of France's four remaining coal-fired power plants, part of a pledge to get 40 percent of France's electricity needs from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The more delicate question, however, concerns the eventual timeline for shutting down some of France's oldest nuclear reactors.

- 'Reactors getting older' -

France is by far the country most reliant on nuclear energy, getting just under 72 percent of its electricity needs from 58 reactors spread across 19 power plants.

The country's two oldest reactors, which began operating at the Fessenheim site along the German border in 1977, are already slated for shutdown after reaching their 40-year lifespan.

The government is studying three scenarios for closing up to a dozen more, including an ambitious plan to shut down six by 2028, and six again by 2035.

"It's not a matter of being pro- or anti-nuclear, but our reactors are getting older and having more and more problems," Environment Minister Francis de Rugy told RTL radio on Friday.

But unlike its neighbours Germany and Switzerland, who worry about the safety risks of nuclear sites and radioactive waste disposal, France has no plans to phase out nuclear energy.

Apart from being a pillar of the government's plans for cutting carbon emissions as part of the 2015 Paris climate accord on capping global warming, the nuclear sector provides jobs for 220,000 people.

State-owned electricity giant EDF -- with the backing of the finance ministry -- is pushing Macron to close just nine reactors starting only in 2028, and replace them with four new next-generation EPR reactors.

That has environmental groups up in arms, not least given the huge bill for building the first EPR reactor at Flammanville, which was supposed to go online in 2012 but remains plagued by technical problems.

- 'Red line' -

Green lawmakers were already miffed by the government's decision last year to push back a pledge to reduce the role of nuclear in France's energy mix to just 50 percent of its electricity needs.

It now aims to reach that target by 2030 or 2035, instead of 2025 originally.

"The government has caved in to lobbies and surrendered the energy savings which would boost people's spending power, and the job-creating industries of the future represented by renewable energies," Anne Bringault of the CLER network for energy transition said last week.

"The red line for us is the closure of reactors" during Macron's five-year term, which ends in 2022, said Alix Mazounie of Greenpeace France.

"None of the other three options are acceptable nor sensible," she told AFP.

- 'Yellow vest' ire -

But Macron must also contend with the ire of the "yellow vest" protesters, mainly from rural and small-town France who rely heavily on their cars.

The movement erupted last month over claims that drivers were bearing the brunt of fuel taxes imposed to pay for the environmental push.

After violent demonstrations on the Champs Elysees in Paris on Saturday, calls have emerged for a fresh day of protests for December 1.

"If the government doesn't come up with any concrete proposals, the movement is only going to get stronger," Jose Espinoza, a "yellow vest" coordinator in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, told AFP.

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