In France, the People the Climate Summit Forgot

MONTARGIS, France — Just 75 miles separate this provincial town from Paris, but if the capital is all about a renewable energy revolution, the talk here is of how it costs people way too much.

“We want to go too fast,” said Jean-Pierre Door, a conservative lawmaker with a lot of angry constituents. “People are being pushed to the limit.”

Three years ago, Montargis became a center of the Yellow Vest social uprising, an angry protest movement over an increase in gasoline taxes that was sustained, sometimes violently, for more than year by a much broader sense of alienation felt by those in the outlying areas that France calls its “periphery.”

The uprising was rooted in a class divide that exposed the resentment of many working-class people, whose livelihoods are threatened by the clean-energy transition, against the metropolitan elites, especially in Paris, who can afford electric cars and can bicycle to work, unlike those in the countryside.

Now as Mr. Door and others watch the global climate talks underway in Glasgow, where experts and officials are warning that immediate action must be taken in the face of a looming environmental catastrophe, the economic and political disconnect that nearly tore apart France three years ago remains just below the surface.

Three years ago, Montargis became a center of the Yellow Vest social uprising, an angry protest movement triggered by an increase in gasoline taxes.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

There are plenty of people in the “periphery” who understand the need to transition to clean energy and are already trying to do their part. But if the theme of COP26, as the Glasgow summit is known, is how time is running out to save the planet, the immediate concern here is how money is running out before the end of the month.

Household gas prices are up 12.6 percent in the past month alone, partly the result of shortages linked to the coronavirus. Electric cars seem fancifully expensive to people encouraged not so long ago to buy fuel-efficient diesel automobiles. A wind turbine that will slash property values is not what a retired couple wants just down the road.

“If Parisians love wind turbines so much, why not rip up the Bois de Vincennes and make an attraction of them?” asked Magali Cannault, who lives near Montargis, alluding to the vast park to the east of Paris.

For President Emmanuel Macron, facing an election in April, the transition to clean energy has become a delicate subject. He has portrayed himself as a green warrior, albeit a pragmatic one, but knows that any return to the barricades of the Yellow Vests would be disastrous for his election prospects.

Each morning, at her farm a few miles from town, Ms. Cannault gazes from her doorstep at a 390-foot mast built recently to gauge wind levels for proposed turbines. “Nobody ever consulted us on this.”

The only sounds as she spoke on a misty, damp morning were the honking of geese and the crowing of roosters. Claude Madec-Cleï, the mayor of the nearby village of Griselles, nodded. “We are not considered,” he said. “President Macron is courting the Greens.”

Magali Cannault in a field near her home where six wind turbines are planned to be installed. Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

In fact, with the election looming, Mr. Macron is courting just about everyone and is desperate to avoid a return of the Yellow Vests.

The government has frozen household gas prices. An “energy check” worth $115 will be sent next month to some six million people judged most in need. An “inflation indemnity” for the same amount also will be sent to about 38 million people earning less than $2,310 a month. Gasoline inflation has been a main driver of these measures.

Sophie Tissier, who organized a Yellow Vest protest in Paris in 2019, said a heavy police response made it “very hard to restart the movement,” despite what she called “a grave social crisis and rampant anger.” She added that inequalities were so extreme in France that “it prevents us making an ecological transition.”

The president touts the realism of his energy proposals. These combine the development of new small-reactor nuclear power with the embrace of wind power and other renewables.

To his left, the Green movement wants nuclear power, which accounts for 67.1 percent of France’s electricity needs, phased out, an adjustment so enormous that it is derided by conservatives as heralding “a return to the candlelight era.”

To Mr. Macron’s right, Marine Le Pen favors the dismantling of the country’s more than 9,000 wind turbines, which account for 7.9 percent of France’s electricity production.

The town hall in the village of Griselles. “We are not considered,” said the mayor, Claude Madec-Cleï. “President Macron is courting the Greens.”Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

In the middle, millions of French people, buffeted between concern for the planet and their immediate needs, struggle to adjust.

Christine Gobet drives her small diesel car about 90 miles a day from the Montargis area to her job at an Amazon warehouse on the outskirts of Orléans, where she prepares packages and earns about $1,600 a month.

Sitting at the wheel outside a garage where her diesel engine had just been replaced at a cost of about $3,000, she mocked the notion of switching to an electric car.

“For people like me, electric is just out of the question,” she said. “Everything’s going up, there’s even talk of more expensive baguettes! We were pushed to diesel, told it was less polluting. Now we are told the opposite.”

Christine Gobet at a traffic circle on the edge of Montargis, known as the “peanut roundabout,” which was blocked for two months by Yellow Vest protesters. Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

At the start of the Yellow Vest movement, she joined demonstrations in Montargis. It was not just financial pressure that pushed her. It was a sense that “we are not listened to, that it’s those elites up on high who decide and we just suffer the consequences.”

She dropped out of the movement when it became violent. At a traffic circle on the edge of Montargis, known as the “peanut roundabout” because of its shape, traffic was blocked for two months, and stores ran out of stock.

Today, she feels that little has changed. In Paris, she said, “they have everything.” Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor and a socialist candidate for the presidency, wants “no more cars in the city and has no time for people from the provinces who go there to work.”

For working-class people like Ms. Gobet, who was mentioned in a recent 100-part series called “Fragments of France” in the newspaper Le Monde, calls in Glasgow to stop using fossil fuels and close nuclear power stations appear wildly remote from their daily lives.

“Around here energy transformation is laughed at. It’s wealthy people who move to electric cars, the people who don’t understand what goes on around here,” said Yoann Fauvin, a garage owner. Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

At 58, she illustrates a generational chasm. The world’s youth led by Greta Thunberg is on one side, convinced that no priority can be more urgent than saving the planet. On the other are older people who, as Mr. Door put it, “don’t want the last 20 years of their lives ruined by environmental measures that drive energy prices up and the value of the house they put their money in down.”

The area around Montargis has attracted many retirees who want to be close to Paris without paying Paris prices, as well as many immigrants who live on the outskirts of town.

Gilles Fauvin, a taxi driver with a diesel Peugeot, was at the same garage as Ms. Gobet. He said most of his business comes from taking clients with medical needs to hospitals in Orléans and Paris. The combination of plans to ban diesel cars from the capital by 2024 and pressure to switch to expensive electric cars could ruin him. “Diesel works for me,” he said.

But of course, diesel cars produce several pollutants. The question for Yoann Fauvin, the owner of the garage and the taxi driver’s cousin, is whether electric cars are really better.

“You have to mine the metals for the batteries in China or Chile, you have to transport them with all the carbon costs of that, you have to recycle the batteries,” he said.

In front of him a classic green 1977 Citroen 2CV, was being reconditioned and a diesel Citroen DS4 repaired. “This business lives from diesel,” he said. “Around here energy transformation is laughed at. It’s wealthy people who move to electric cars, the people who don’t understand what goes on around here.”

Magalie Pasquet, a homemaker who heads a local association against wind power called Aire 45, said her opposition to about 75 new turbines planned for the area has nothing to do with dismissing environmental concerns.

Magalie Pasquet heads a local association opposed to wind power called Aire 45.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

She recycles. She is careful about traveling. She composts. She wears two sweaters rather than turn up the heat. She finds the environmental idealism of the young inspiring. But the world, she believes, has put the cart before the horse.

“Why destroy a landscape that attracts people to this area when the real energy issue is overconsumption?” she asked. “Local people are not consulted, and even mayors are powerless to stop these ugly turbines.”

A friend, Philippe Jacob, a professor of management and marketing also involved in the movement against the turbines, said the Yellow Vest movement had stemmed from rising gasoline prices, falling purchasing power, deteriorating public services, and widespread dissatisfaction with top-down decision making.

For the moment, in this part of France, the buy-in to the energy revolution needed for a carbon-neutral world appears some way off.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“The same is true today, and the situation is very dangerous,” he said. “People have invested their life savings here, and nobody listens when they say planned turbines and biogas plants will mean the region is ruined.”

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