October 13, 2022 - 3:45pm

Grand Est, France

Believe it or not, the UK isn’t the only economy on the rocks right now. For instance, Germany — with its enormous manufacturing sector — is more exposed to an energy crisis that we are. And then there’s France, whose prowess in nuclear power isn’t quite the shield it’s often assumed to be. 

For a start, the country’s nuclear power stations are experiencing major technical problems and, even if normal service is restored, most cars and trucks still run on petrol and diesel, not electricity. It’s rather unfortunate, then, that workers at French oil refineries have chosen to go on strike — taking over 60% of capacity offline.

Fuel supplies in many areas are running short, causing queues at petrol stations. The disruption isn’t yet nationwide but, if something isn’t done soon, it will be. The industrial action is concentrated in the northern Hauts-de-France region. I’m currently next door in the Grand Est region and, while there’s not much in the way of panic buying, there are signs taped to fuel pumps warning customers not to fill-up jerry cans (prompted by the black market trade now thriving in the worst-affected areas).  

Losing patience, Emmanuel Macron has ordered strikers at fuel depots to return to work. This isn’t just tough talk from the French President — as The Times reports today, his government has the power to act if there’s a risk to “public order, health, tranquillity and safety.”

It’s still unclear how far the crackdown will go. While the situation is unlikely to escalate into a 1968-style struggle for control of the country, Macron will have searing memories of the gilets jaunes protests during his first term as President. Though he survived that confrontation, he did have to back down on the measure that triggered the protests — a hike in the tax on fuel. 

This time the stakes are even higher. The unions are using their chokehold on the French economy to demand a 10% pay rise. If they succeed then that will open the way for similar tactics in other sectors, just when western governments are struggling to keep a lid on inflation. It is a struggle that Macron cannot afford to lose. 

Liz Truss ought to be watching closely. Her government is planning to introduce legislation to curb the right to strike in vital services. RMT union boss Mick Lynch has called for a general strike if she does. However, if Macron is able to use this weapon effectively in France then Truss will be encouraged to use it here too. 

There’s a deeper lesson for the British Government in this. It’s reported that the Transport Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, wants to tread carefully on the electrification of transport. This would be a serious mistake. An economy which is dependent on oil is demonstrably open to disruption at every point in the supply chain — from oil fields abroad to refineries and depots at home.

An electrified transport system, especially one powered by diverse, domestic and renewable power sources, will be less vulnerable to hostile forces. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.