/ 43% of homes not on gas grids were built pre-1945; they are inefficient and hard to upgrade.

France ● EXPOSED*

Winters in France are far from extreme. Even in the coldest cities of Strasbourg and Rouen, average temperatures in January hover around freezing. But the climate, particularly in the north, is damp, and cool, damp air can easily draw heat from the human body, creating the perception of a lower temperature. In such a climate, the fact that about two-thirds of homes in France were built before 1975 — indeed, in both large cities and rural areas, many are more than a century old — means they pre-date energy efficiency codes.

In addition to the 10% of household budget being spent on energy, France considers the perception of ‘feeling’ cold and a calculation of being ‘low income with high costs (LI/HC)’ as important measures of la précarité enérgetique (energy vulnerability). Between 2006 and 2012, the number of people reporting being cold jumped by 44%, to a total of just over 7.5% of households. Combining all three metrics, L’Observatoire national de la précarité énergétique (or ONPE or National Energy Poverty Observatory) estimates that 19.5% of French households (representing 12.5 million people) are affected. ONPE studies note that rates are high among retired and unemployed people; whether they are owners or renters, these groups spend more time in poorly equipped homes, thus paying higher energy costs in relation to limited incomes while also being more susceptible to feeling cold for more hours per day.

An interesting history underpins the questions of disconnections for non-payment of bills in France. In the early 2000s, when both of the main energy suppliers, EDF (Electricité de France) and GDF (Gaz de France), were still national entities, trade union employees mobilised and refused to apply disconnection rules – becoming ‘The Robin Hoods or Energy’. In 2006, the association Droit à l’Energie Stop aux Coupures (Right to energy, stop disconnections) was created. On year later, the RAPPEL network, a consortium of energy poverty actors was established was a national energy ombudsman was (Médiateur national de l’énergie).

Following market liberlisation in 2008, the French government began to officially recognise energy poverty in legislation associated with how energy suppliers should handle situations of non-payment. Several modifications have since been made, including that low-income households are eligible for an energy allowance (chèque énergie) while the social fund for housing (Fonds de Solidarité Logement or FSL) provides assistance to households with energy payment difficulties. Notably, decree n° 2008-780 specifies that any consumer who has benefitted assistance automatically qualifies for a longer delay before connections and that the supplier should inform social services of the local authorities to review the situation. Beneficiaries of an energy check cannot have their power reduced by a supplier and a household receiving FSL assistance cannot be disconnected for non-payment.

Since the winter 2013-2014, the decree also bans disconnections during the winter period (01 November to 31 March) and obliges suppliers to inform the energy regulator (Commission de régulation de l’énergie) and the energy ombudsman about the number of supply interruptions and power reductions. In practice, suppliers often disconnect large numbers of households on 1 April.

In 2019, a significant increase in supplier interventions for non-payment was noted: 279 950 (+13%) consumers were disconnected from electricity supply; 273 437 (+19%) had their power supply reduced (+19%); and 118 159 (+24%) were disconnected from gas supply.

In 2020, to prevent an increase in spring disconnections during the COVID-19 crisis, the ban was extended until 10 July 2020. In response to the second lockdown, which started in late October, the main electricity supplier (EDF) announced it would extend the ban on power reductions and disconnections of electricity and gas until 15 January 2021 and suspend penalties for late payment of bills.

France has weathered the energy crisis sparked by Russian’s invasions of Ukraine somewhat better than other EU countries, largely because ~75% of electricity is generated with nuclear power and therefore less subjected to the volatility of global gas markets.

Lens, France • Raymonde, 59, unemployed and her husband, René 62, retired, are tenants in social housing with their 28-year-old son. Having acquired a few debts, they could not keep up with the bills.

" Gaz de France (GDF) cut off the gas supply about two years ago. Now, we have a single electric heater that we move as needed. The washing machine broke down three years ago, so I wash our things by hand. The fridge is empty, like a demonstration fridge at the appliance store. We get used to everything…except the idea of being on the street.

Sète, France • Corinne, 40, single mother, four children, assistant to unemployed persons. Corrine’s rental apartment is classified ‘indecent’; because it has wet closets, walls and windows, the family’s clothes are moldy.

I have support from Revenu de solidarité active (RSA); but once all my bills are paid, I have €70/month left. I go without heat during the day while the children are at school. Sometimes, it goes down to 13°C in the living room; some days, it's colder inside than in the street. During the holidays, my daughter stays in bed all day, under the duvet with the cats to keep her warm. In the evening we sit on the floor together, below the radiator. Still, it is just 16°C.

Le Vexin, France • Nadine, 71, widow, 2 children, retired commercial employee. Nadine was a young bride when she and her husband bought this prefabricated home in 1964; there is no foundation under the floor.

You can feel the mold and humidity that comes from the ground: the smell is unbearable. I keep my clothes in plastic and wipe the mold from inside cabinets, but it keeps coming back. I decline invitations from friends because I cannot invite them back. I am ashamed for people to see this.

Ganges, France • Françoise, 56, a divorcée with three children and retired caregiver, bought this home when she retired in 2011, planning to repair it with her son’s help.

Buying the house left me with €15 000 of savings. In the end, I used the money to help pay some debts my son had. Now, I have €50/month to live on. Sleeping here in winter is difficult. I have no electricity, no water and no toilet. I use candles for lighting and heat canned food on a Butagaz stove. I stuff the windows with clothes and warm myself with an oil stove.

Nanterre, France • Fatima, 60, married, housewife, four children, two of which have disabilities. Fatima’s house is 34 years old. The electric convectors are original—like ‘old toasters’ she says; she doesn’t feel safe using them.

We cannot afford to install gas heating, so I use an oil stove that I move from room to room. At night, we put it on the landing upstairs to reach all the rooms. And I put our clothes on the floor in front of it to dry. Eating with a jacket on is not nice but we can do it. We can deprive ourselves of a steak dinner — it’s a luxury. But not heating.

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