Protester shutdown of France’s biggest hydro-dam creates power shortfall

Disruption to Grand’Maison comes a day after energy workers cut power to Paris’ wholesale food market. (Isère Tourisme pic)

PARIS: Energy workers temporarily halted power generation at France’s biggest hydro-electricity plant on Wednesday in protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s overhaul of the pension system.

The shutdown took place as hard-left unions resort to wildcat actions to demonstrate against a reform they say will force workers to stay in the labour force longer.

Macron has largely stood his ground during weeks of strikes and street marches.

The outage at the Grand’Maison plant in the Alps left France needing to import power early in the morning as a cold snap gripped the country.

Those supplies meant disruptions at factories and hardship for the French public were avoided.

At 6:30am power demand stood at 82.6 gigawatts (GW) as sub-zero temperatures pushed up heating needs, while available capacity was 82.4 GW, data from grid operator RTE showed.

The disruption at Grand’Maison, carried out by members of the CGT union, came just a day after workers from the same union cut power to the world’s largest fresh food wholesale market, Rungis, outside Paris.

The right to strike is enshrined in France’s post-war constitution but the legality of wildcat actions can be more blurred.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday accused protesters who blockaded plants and cut power supplies of “disrespecting democracy and the law”.

After Tuesday’s deliberate power outage at Rungis, RTE and state-run utility EDF said they would take legal action against those behind such acts.

CGT boss Philippe Martinez denied power cuts were an act of sabotage.

“When there are strikes, things don’t work,” Martinez told BFM TV. “EDF management is pursuing through the judiciary those behind the outages. They refuse to recognise the discontent.”

Macron’s proposed pension reform would be the biggest overhaul of the system since World War II.

He wants to streamline the existing set-up with 42 different pension schemes, each with different levels of contributions and benefits, into a single system that gives every pensioner the same rights for each euro contributed.

The myriad special benefits handed out to different types of workers in France’s existing pension system deter mobility within the job market, says Macron, for whom the reform is central to his drive to create a more flexible labour market.

Infuriated trade unions say the reform will require people to work longer for a full pension and launched a wave of public sector strikes in early December the hit transport networks hard and lasted more than six weeks.

While the rail and metro strikes have lost steam, industrial action persists in some sectors. Dockers on Wednesday began another three-day authorised walk-out.

Vessels exporting about 188,000 tonnes of wheat and 10,000 tonnes of malt barley are currently held up in the port of Rouen.

Macron’s government has made some concessions, including over the age of retirement, as it seeks to drive a wedge between hardline unions and those that are more reform-minded.