A few months ago, when teaching, I reminded my students that reality is often more bizarre than fiction. A look at current European current affairs defies all logic.
Who could have predicted that a major war would engulf part of Europe in 2022? A war based on a nineteenth-century view of history and geography. A war born of a long-held fantasy of resurrecting an old Russian empire. Beyond any kind of military logic, buildings with families and small children have become targets of Russian missile strikes. Whole towns have been reduced to ruins and our screens are full of landscapes reminiscent of WWI and WWII.
Who could have predicted three years ago that a respiratory virus would spread all over the world killing millions of people and force vast populations into long lockdowns? The COVID19 virus has had a huge impact on the global economy, the world’s health systems, global supply chains, and the price for basic goods. It will likely have profound psychological consequences which could last years. Especially for young people.
Nothing (almost) should surprise us anymore. That was what I thought until I saw one of my favourite Parisian bakers on television last week. He is a true craftsman, and his bread, croissants, brioches, sandwiches, and pastries are masterpieces. He is courteous to his customers, and it is always a genuine pleasure to visit his bakery. He runs one of the over 33,000 small bakeries that are dotted across France, and bakeries in small towns and villages are incredible. Not just because of their fantastic baked products, but also because of their contribution to the local community. Each bakery is an unchanging point of reference playing a very important role for the cohesion of small communities.
My favourite baker appeared now on television, and was angry because he had to fork out €12,000 (AUD $18,500) per month for electricity. This is a huge jump from his usual €800 (AUD $1,200). A 1,300 per cent increase and far higher than France’s inflation rate of 5.2 per cent.
You don’t need a Master’s in Economics, or an MBA, to understand that no customer can accept such an extraordinary rise in energy costs. Particularly small family businesses, such as French craft bakers. Even a large multinational corporation would never pay such an extreme increase. Regardless of the country.
In France, a country where defying almost everything is the national tradition, craft bakers are now giving media interviews to explain their dire situation. The bakers warned that if they must pay thousands of euros for electricity, then they would be forced to close their bakeries and lay off their workers.
This will elicit a strong reaction from the French people who buy over 10 million baguettes per year and are deeply attached to their bakeries, particularly for breakfast. Raising the price of bread and pastries will enrage customers. Especially given that purchasing power is one of the most hotly debated topics in French society now.
The energy price crisis is a political issue. Bruno Lemaire, the Minister for the Economy and Finances, and Olivia Gregoire, the Deputy Minister for Small Businesses, offered financial assistance and tax breaks. The running of the European Union’s energy market has been heavily criticized, given electricity was previously cheaper in France due to nuclear plants.
It seems that the bakers’ energy crisis is the final straw that may break the camel’s back. French society is tired and frustrated due to the mounting crises since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic.
These crises have undermined public and private institutions, as well as the government’s credibility. Particularly in a highly centralized country like France, where the state is involved in almost everything.
The last queen consort of France Marie Antoinette in said, “Let them eat cake”, when told that the peasants had no bread and were starving. The comment (it is disputed that the queen actually said it) exhibited a frivolous disregard for the starving peasants and was symbolic of the careless disregard the Ancien Régime had for the people of France and became a lighting rod for the 1789 French Revolution. This crisis may provide possibly the most important cause for populists of all stripes. Let’s just hope this time that no one from the state offers the people the option of eating cake.
Dr George Tassiopoulos is a Greek French political scientist, with a doctorate in political science from the University of East Paris. He was born in Athens, and has lived in France for the past 20 years where he teaches geopolitics in a business school in Paris.