Among other unexpected consequences, the surge in energy prices will have provoked a joint forum of the three major French companies to encourage… energy sobriety. Patrick Pouyanné for the oil company TotalEnergies (ex-Total), Jean-Bernard Lévy for the electrician EDF, Catherine MacGregor for the gas company Engie (ex-GDF) called for “an awareness”. Or “a collective and individual action so that each of us – each consumer, each company – changes its behavior and immediately limits its consumption of energy, electricity, gas and petroleum products”.

These groups, however, taking advantage of the energy sold, their column of June 26 in Le Journal du dimanche is disconcerting. The three highlight the desire to spare the country from unfortunate supply disruptions. In short, the “need [to] manage future peaks in consumption and [to] cushion the technical hazards or geopolitical shocks that we may have to face”.

In hollow, their initiative underlines all the more the absence of strong actions of the government, until then, on the energy savings to accomplish. In particular with a view to next winter, which the national electricity transmission system operator, RTE, is already placing “under special vigilance”. The three leaders are, in fact, pushing the public authorities to clarify their positions on a question that has long remained outside the presidential rhetoric. In his Belfort speech on February 10, the President of the Republic has certainly already announced that the “first major project was to consume less energy”. Even if it means dropping the word “sobriety”. A notable development for Emmanuel Macron who, in September 2020, in front of the digital bosses, mocked the opponents of 5G, those who wanted to “return to the oil lamp”, followers, according to him, of the “Amish model”.

“Quite Remarkable”

Change of foot, therefore, even if, in Belfort, the head of state, future candidate for his re-election two months later, continued to reject any policy based on “energy austerity”. The call for sobriety from energy companies would therefore not bother, it is said on the government side. “Sobriety is not about decreasing, it’s about being more efficient”, we decode in the entourage of the Minister of Energy Transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher. And to highlight the latter’s trip to Ile-de-France, with the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, Thursday, June 23, on the theme of energy.

On this occasion, Ms. Pannier-Runacher insisted on the objective of reducing energy consumption by 10% within two years, a step towards the target of 40% less by 2050. aware of the initiative of the three energy companies, who had exchanged views with the Minister beforehand, and this fits well with the government’s perspective. It’s quite remarkable. It is as if Renault were calling for fewer cars to be purchased. »

Zélie Victor, energy transition manager at the Réseau Action Climat, a group of environmental defense associations, regrets, however, that the forum is “focused on the efforts required of citizens more than of businesses and public authorities”. “That these companies dare to call citizens to sobriety is a communication posture and puts the burden of responsibility back on them, while the solution must come from the public authorities and a radical change in corporate strategy”, criticizes Lorette Philippot, campaign manager for another NGO, Les Amis de la Terre.

For trade unionist Marie-Claire Cailletaud, this appeal to the population finds its limits all the more quickly because “we should not ask everyone to tighten their belts in a uniform way. Some can still tighten a notch, while others are already on the last notch, ”recalls the CGT representative to the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, referring to households already in a situation of energy poverty.

At the Ministry of Energy Transition, it is assured that the question of sobriety will be at the center of the discussions of two working groups set up. On Wednesday, June 29, the first will meet with Stanislas Guerini, Minister of Transformation and Public Service, in particular, on the theme of “the exemplary state”. It will be a question of seeing how the State and its declination in the regions can accomplish efforts of sobriety. “These can be simple gestures, such as mastering heating and air conditioning instructions in public buildings,” says the ministry. Friday, the private sector will be involved in the second group, with in particular the Minister of Labor, Olivier Dussopt.

“Behind the sobriety” suggested by the forum, “we find above all energy efficiency, but not the desire to produce and consume less, believes Nicolas Nace, in charge of energy transition for the NGO Greenpeace. It took a war, an energy crisis and the setbacks of the French nuclear fleet for the alarm to be sounded”. He too criticizes the failure to take into account a “fair distribution of efforts, in particular of those who, like Total and Engie, have benefited the most from the situation”. In mid-May, Engie communicated on a gross operating surplus of 4.6 billion euros for the first quarter, or nearly 50% increase over one year. When TotalEnergies announced, for the same first quarter of 2022, adjusted net income of 9 billion (excluding asset impairment), three times more than a year ago.

Specific tax

This position in the JDD comes at a time when the debate is about the possibility of applying specific taxation to the excess profits recorded since the start of the war in Ukraine at the end of February. For energy companies, “it’s about giving themselves a good role and ignoring the fact that they have made windfall revenues,” said Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, energy policy researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute. .

Pushing consumers to restrict themselves also allows energy companies to protect themselves. The higher the demand, the higher the cost of energy will be when it comes to getting supplies from the wholesale markets, before selling it to individuals. “A few percentages of energy saved would already have an effect on the security of supply, as well as on prices,” underlines Thomas Veyrenc, director of forecasting and strategy at RTE.

“These manufacturers anticipate that in the fourth quarter they will have difficulty supplying demand, analyzes Henri Sterdyniak, co-founder of the collective of Terrified Economists. They try to exculpate themselves in advance of violent criticism that could be made to them. Engie is already seeing a reduction in gas deliveries from Russia, with the Kremlin considering European Union states to be “unfriendly” because they support Ukraine. For EDF, the difficulty lies elsewhere. The operator of the French nuclear fleet announces for the current year a production at the lowest for three decades, in particular because of corrosion problems on certain power stations.

On the political side, on the left, the New Popular Ecological and Social Union (Nupes) is mainly targeting TotalEnergies. The ecologist Julien Bayou finds it “inflated”, for example, that the major talks about sobriety while continuing to invest in fossil fuels, those responsible for global warming.