France adopts soft energy proposals after business flexes muscles

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 18, 2013 2:29 PM

By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) - France's eight-month national consultation on the future of its nuclear-dominated energy sector ended on Thursday with watered down targets on cutting energy consumption after a big business lobby group said earlier proposals were unrealistic.

The world's most nuclear-reliant nation launched the debate on energy transition last November in a bid to reshape the way energy is produced and consumed as it faces increasing costs to maintain an ageing fleet of reactors.

It was the first time the French people have been allowed to discuss the nuclear power issue in an official setting and was meant to shape a framework energy law to be debated in parliament early next year following a government opinion.

Business groups, trade unions, parliamentarians and NGOs met in Paris to adopt conclusions after months of small, low-profile meetings across the country that have largely failed to grab the media's attention.

In a last-minute negotiations, representatives from the national employers' group Medef, small and medium-sized companies, farmers and artisans threatened not to support the conclusions before accepting a reworked version later.

The document, already watered down and short on concrete measures, replaced 15 "recommendations" with 15 "challenges". "There was a real evolution during the day, we couldn't initially support this document," said Michel Guilbaud, Medef general director.

One target mentioned, cutting energy consumption in France by half between 2012 and 2050, had been rejected by Jean-Louis Schilansky, head of the UFIP oil lobby and Medef's energy chair president, earlier in the day.

"It seems utopian to us, we don't have the means to do it," he told BFM TV.

"We should take realistic, economic measures that improve French people's purchasing power and not dream of an ideal society we won't be able to obtain," he added.

The final version includes a minimum target for a 20 percent cut in consumption, depending on technological breakthroughs.

Some organizers of the debate had expressed suspicion at Medef's tough, last-minute stance. Its new head Pierre Gattaz, chief executive of industrial group Radiall, has adopted a more combative approach towards the government than his predecessor, Laurence Parisot.

The business group is keen to flex its muscles in the midst of important talks with unions and the government on pension reform, with a draft law due around September.

"Medef spoils eight months of debate by refusing a text that it still supported yesterday at 4pm," said Bruno Rebelle, member of the debate's steering committee and former president of Greenpeace France.

"After that little bluff, we have finally got back to talking about substance, so we are satisfied," said Matthieu Orphelin, spokesman for the Fondation Hulot environment group.

The document was cautious on the controversial nuclear energy issue, proposing a study to evaluate the economic, social and environmental consequences of President Francois Hollande's pledge to cut reliance on the energy source.

Working to fulfill key electoral pledges, Hollande aims to cut the share of nuclear power in the electricity mix by 2025 to 50 percent from 75 percent, to reduce the country's appetite for oil, to boost renewables and lift energy savings.

With France currently shunning shale gas for environmental reasons, energy-hungry industrial firms have argued that they simply cannot do without cheap nuclear power.

France's energy is one of Europe's cheapest, thanks to its 58, mostly-amortized, nuclear power reactors, although stricter, post-Fukushima rules and ageing infrastructures mean costs are set to rise.

(Additional reporting by Marion Douet; Editing by David Evans)