On Thursday, May 27, public gas and electricity workersstormed Paris in protest against the Frenchgovernment’s draft legislation to amend the statutethat created the nationalized energy producerÃ0/00lectricité de France-Gas de France (EDF-GDF) in 1946.If passed, the amendment will open the nationalproducer EDF to private capital investment.

Thedemonstration, which was organized by France’s majorunions, saw between 40,000 (according to policeestimates) and 80,000 (according to union estimates) workers converge on the capital, while several regionsof the country plunged into darkness.

The day’s events proceeded in a spirit of raucusfanfare. When I chanced upon one of the contingents ofdemonstrators on a train station platform on the eveof the demo, en route for Paris, I mistook them for acrew of sports fans en route to a big game. Clad inmatching red and blue t-shirts, the rowdy crowd that Iencountered on the Cannes platform was cheering andblowing whistles, with cases of wine, beer andpastisse conspicuously in tow.

They were awaiting theovernight train that the Conseil General du Travail(CGT), the largest union in France and one of the mainorganizers of the rally, had organized to transportpublic electricity and gas sector workers from theSouthern regions of Cote d’Azur and Provence-Alpes tothe demo. Similar transportation arrangements had beenmade to bring electricity and gas workers from allover the country to the capital.

The unions, as well as the Communist Party of France (PCF) and Socialist Party (PS), have decried theproposed amendment to EDF-GDF’s statute as anunwelcome step towards the privatization of thenation’s public energy system. The amendment wassubmitted to France’s State Council May 19, and isawaiting Council’s response by June 8. The unions areplanning more demonstrations for the date theamendment is slated to become law: June 15.

In the context of the European Union’s proclaimedmission of creating a common liberalized Europeaneconomy, the current French government has zealouslytrumpeted its commitment to privatization. FrenchPrime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin has declared his objective toprivatize all government functions that can beperformed by the private sector, refocusing the stateon what he describes as its “essential” functions, andleaving the rest of the “logistics” to the privatesector.

However, the French government has denied that it isprivatizing the national energy industry. According toRaffarin, the amendment is not privatization, it issimply indicative of a will to “development.” TheFrench Economy Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, rationalizesthe amendment as a way of giving EDF “the means” to beready for July 1, 2004, which is the date that thegovernment has set for opening the French electricitymarkets for professional clients to competition. In2000, the government opened up the electricity marketfor the largest industrial clients to competition. Bythe first of January, 2007, it is aiming to have fullcompetition across the French electricity market.

The demonstrations on March 27 were scheduled tocoincide with the reading of the draft legislation inParliament. Seeking to reassure the public, Sarkozyextended the government’s list of “guarantees” thatwill accompany the amendment; last Thursday, he added apromise that the state will hang onto 70 per cent ofthe capital of EDF-GDF. As the Marseille-based daily20 Minutes noted, Sarkozy was visibly glancing out thewindow as he read out these reassurances.

In defence of liberté, électricité

At 11 a.m. on May 27, the protesters converged at theBastille, the site of the prison of the oldmonarchical regime that was burned during the Frenchrevolution. Union placards proclaimed, “EDF belongs tothe nation,” while T-shirts sported the slogan“liberté, égalité, gas, électricité,” linking thenational public electricity and gas system to thevalues of French nationhood and citizenship,“liberté,égalité, fraternité.” The workers then marched along the coursethe unions had agreed upon with the police, down tothe Invalides.

During the march itself, loudspeakers blasted dancemusic, fireworks exploded on the ground, and peoplewhistled and sang as they marched, stopping only tosate their appetites with sandwiches and beveragesdoled out of the open backs of the union trucks.

The demonstrations went on into the late afternoon,under the watchful eyes of police. Walking away fromthe rally around five p.m., I spotteddozens of police cruisers, buses and vans lining theside streets around the area where the protest hadculminated. The gendarmes were ordering people walkingaway from the designated protest zone to remove theirunion t-shirts, and put them back on inside-out tocover up the slogans about electricity and liberty.

The costs of private investment

Discussions about the amendment of the EDF-GDF statutehave been animated by fierce debates over theanticipated prices that will be entailed by asemi-private energy system, as well as over theeffectiveness of such a system in meeting the energyneeds of the French population.

“Do you want to pay more for your electricity?”demonstrators asked the Parisian shopkeepers standingin the doorways lining the roads of the march. One CGTposter cockily inquired, “Do you prefer candlelight,like in California?”

The European Parliament and the French think-tank,Institut Montaigne, both maintain that theliberalization of EDF could lead to lower electricityprices.

However, under the nationalized system, the EDF hasbeen able to provide the lowest electricity prices inEurope, while recent electricity price rises reportedin France have been closely linked to the government’smoves to market competition. The major industrialclients of electricity, who have had access toliberalized electricity since 2000, have seensignificant hikes in their electricity bills in thepast few years.

The President of the French Union ofElectricity reported that the major energy consumershave seen increases of 50 per cent in just twoyears. Once strong advocates for liberalization, theUnion of Industrial Energy Users recently denouncedthe “liberalization of perverse effects” and a “highlymanipulable market” dominated by a “de factooligopoly.”

The unions have been quick to point to thefiasco-ridden energy privatization schemes in Britain,California, Italy and the northeastern U.S. and Canada;critics note that the cost of dividing up integratednational producers, advertising spending, and therampant corruption for which the Californianelectricity industry became famous, result in priceincreases and deteriorating services.

Critics of the amendment maintain that allowingprivate capital investments in the EDF will subjectthe producer to the spurious interests of corporationsseeking quick profits. Electricity prices will besubject to market forces, undermining the originalequity and access goals of the EDF’s statute.Meanwhile, private investors are unlikely to makecostly investments in facilities that will be usedonly in times of high demand.

This is particularly worrying in the context of theFrench electricity sector, where nuclear energy playsan important role. According to Le Monde Diplomatique,the reduction of 8,800 EDF jobs in the few past yearshas already had an impact on the maintenance of the nation’snuclear power plants, and this situation will onlybecome more precarious with the further job lossesthat privatization will likely entail.

Sarkozy rationalizes the move as necessary to ensurethe success of the current national producers on theEuropean scene. However, critics have noted that it isextremely difficult to effectively transportelectricity, raising doubts about the plausibility ofa common European electricity market.