Like many American expats in France with a spare bedroom, I welcomed my family to my home this Thanksgiving. Then I spent the next two weeks following my careless siblings around, turning off lights, grumbling loud enough to be heard.
“If we don’t use less electricity now, there will be rolling blackouts in January.” My diatribe rang out over the breakfast table of my poorly insulated stone house in Le Perche, a damp forest region in Lower Normandy. There we hunched over cafés au lait in knit hats and down vests, because space heaters to supplement already inadequate central heating were now entirely off the menu.
“If we use too much of our dwindling power supply now, train service and traffic lights may be cut,” I lectured. “No elevators for high-rise buildings. Emergency lines to the police and fire departments may go dark. How am I supposed to remember the E.U.-wide number in a panic?” (It’s 112.) “Kids may have to stay home from the morning shift of school. No Internet for hours at a time,” I pleaded, trying to make them understand the gravity. “In Switzerland, they’re telling people not to use their at-home raclette machines.” It took threatening the Swiss right to tableside melted cheese to finally make them understand.
Russian-gas-and-oil sanctions are the culprit for power shortages all over the Continent, which uses fossil fuels to generate much of its electricity. In France the situation is made worse by the ailing state of its nuclear plants, which produce well over half of our current and make us a major exporter across Europe. (Sweden now holds the prize.)
In November, almost half of the reactors operated by EDF, the majority state-owned electricity company, were offline for routine maintenance. Even as the company works around the clock to increase the number of reactors, there are knock-on effects with French-electricity clients such as Switzerland and Italy.
But the pain is continent-wide. (And beyond: in the financially stressed U.K., which is experiencing its own power-supply crisis, people who have fallen into arrears with the utilities are having to endure pay-as-you-go meters and are visiting warming stations.)
Clearly, none of this is as bad as what our stalwart Ukrainian friends are experiencing, their power stations routinely bombed, and their winter temperatures dramatically more extreme, as they huddle together for warmth.
In case anyone’s wondering about the fleets of massive windmills that have infuriated so many in rural France that they were an issue in the presidential election this spring, their output is currently a whopping 13.35 percent of their capacity. Solar is even less productive. It’s crucial to plan for a green-power future, but in France it’s still a long way off.
And so President Emmanuel Macron has been seen conspicuously in a (slim-cut, flattering) turtleneck, and large public establishments have already started turning their thermostats down a few degrees, just as our first cold snap hits. If you’re wondering why the pool at the Ritz seems a little nippy, this is the answer.
Media, both social and legacy, and opportunistic political characters are inflaming fears more efficiently than the wood-burning stove in my living room. Harsh possible future measures were announced at the end of November, and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne was said to have distributed a top-secret memo to police prefectures, which provoked endless rumors.
If you’re wondering why the pool at the Ritz seems a little nippy, this is the answer.
This much is confirmed: if consumption is not dramatically reduced before January, we could see total darkness for two-hour windows in locations determined by regional conditions, most likely during the peak morning hours. Ministers have since jockeyed to reassure the public that police, hospitals, and fire brigades will remain connected at all times. (“Will power cuts also affect store alarms? Asking for a friend,” tweeted one concerned citizen.)
As more details emerge, the whole question has been so clumsily handled that Macron had to chime in from temperate Tirana, where he was attending the EU-Western Balkans Summit, to try to talk the country off a ledge. (It will likely be an ongoing operation.)
The main culprit is French public-private electricity company Enedis, which has the extra-fun task of being the designated public punching bag during this phase of crisis management. Its flack, Laurent Méric, is now the most hated man in France. (And that calculus includes Norman Thavaud, the kiddie-beloved YouTube superstar recently placed in police custody for a rape investigation involving under-age girls, and Jean-Marc Morandini, a legacy TV presenter, who was just sentenced to a year in prison for “corruption of minors.”)
Méric recently went on TV to drop the news that high-risk people confined to their homes, including those who rely on personal respirators, are, well, screwed. “If I can say it like this, they’re not a priority,” he admitted.
Meanwhile, according to the National Association of Mayors of Mountain Resorts, winter holidays on the slopes should still be relatively carefree. For now, most expect only minor adjustments in services. In certain locations, night skiing (illuminated by flood lamps) is off, and gondolas may be running at a slower pace depending on demand. “I really can’t wait to see how train cancellations and school closings will be justified while the chairlifts in Megève or Courchevel continue to function,” wrote the economist Maxime Combes in his blog on Mediapart.fr.
Finally, Macron had enough of the rapidly rising chatter. Responding to passing questions in Tirana, the sun glinting off his sandy-brown hair, ruffled by the gentle breeze, he retorted, “This debate is absurd.… The role of the government, its ministers, and operatives, is to do their job to provide energy. That’s it. It’s not to scare people with absurd scenarios like I’ve heard in the last few hours. Stop all that. We’re a big country … we will keep it together this winter.”
The fine print—that everyone will receive ample notification of upcoming blackouts and school closures, and at-risk outpatients will get an escort to the nearest hospital—has been easy to miss. (Those who don’t get phone calls will have to rely on the little-used EcoWatt app to stay up to date.)
But no one will be spared—hotels will have to warn guests in advance if their key cards won’t work, and parents will still be expected to show up for work like everyone else, by hook, crook, and, possibly, bicycle. Yes, even if their young children are home from school, where they won’t have Zoom classes or the Internet to pass the time. At least making the French pine for the days of confinement is sort of an achievement.
The country has already seen an encouraging 10 percent reduction in consumption over the past week (compared with the 2014–19 average), but we haven’t hit our lowest temperatures. The plans for power cuts have been pitched as only in case of emergency. Macron’s ministers are following his lead, now blanketing news shows with remarkable message discipline “not to scare the French.”
But France is a country that pays loud attention to the distribution of favors, which is both one of its moral strengths and an excellent source of comedy for how easily it sends its people into hissy fits. Never one to miss an opportunity, Marine Le Pen has taken to Twitter to denounce how the “6th world power” has returned to “the stone age.” And the far-right former presidential candidate (and disturbingly popular populist columnist) Eric Zemmour called the situation “more proof of the Third Worldification” of France. This is entirely predictable, but in a country well known by its citizens to overpromise in even the best of times—check the overly rosy economic-growth forecasts over the decades, or Macron’s own statement this summer that there was no risk of outages, or EDF’s fingers-crossed prediction that only ten nuclear reactors will be offline by January 1—the happy talk now is still cold (cheese) comfort.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. She is a contributor to W, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Travel + Leisure. Marshall recently relocated from Paris to Le Perche