As France’s election season gathers steam, the fishermen from Saint-Brieuc on the north Brittany coast have had a stream of illustrious visitors, including the EU’s former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
But instead of discussing Brexit and fishing, Barnier and other conservative politicians have focused on a different bugbear: a €2.4bn offshore wind farm project that has sparked such ire among locals that a flotilla took to the sea to protest when underwater construction work started earlier this year.
Dubbing it a “failure” and a “disaster”, Barnier, who is also a former environment and agriculture minister, joined a chorus of demands for the project to be stopped.
Barnier is one of the five politicians campaigning in the primary this week to choose the centre-right candidate in the presidential election in April.
What would normally be a local dispute has spiralled into a polarising national election issue as France gears up for what could be a tumultuous campaign. Grumblings over the Saint-Brieuc plans have been swept up in a broader backlash against wind farms that is hogging airtime in television debates and has become a rallying cry on the right.
Just weeks after the COP26 summit in Glasgow, when governments made bold pledges to reduce their emissions, the growing battle over wind power is becoming a crucial issue for France. Although support for wind power is strong among the French public, concerted opposition has already sharply slowed investment plans — even before the issue became so prominent in national politics.
As a result, the government is behind on its targets to produce more electricity from wind at a time when it is pushing hard to decarbonise its economy.
The controversy has been particularly acute for offshore wind. A decade after the first projects were announced, the first wind farms will only start operating next year, with Saint-Brieuc now scheduled to come online at the end of 2023.
“People are really asking when it will be finished,” says Henri Labbé, the mayor of the nearby port of Erquy, who laments how politicised the project has become. “It really annoys me. First the senators came — they were originally in favour, and now they are against — and departmental politicians came too. [President Nicolas] Sarkozy launched it, [François] Hollande continued it and [Emmanuel] Macron inherited it. If he stops it today, it will cost France a lot.”
A renewables laggard
France’s ageing energy infrastructure and the pressure to reduce its oil and gas consumption over the next decades are forcing the country to completely rethink its power strategy.
Europe’s nuclear power champion since the 1960s and a big developer of hydroelectric energy, France has for years lagged unnoticed behind its biggest neighbours in rolling out renewable alternatives such as wind farms and solar plants, though investments are now being ramped up.
Like the rest of the EU, France has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. At the same time, Macron has set a target of cutting the reliance on nuclear energy for its power output to 50 per cent by 2035, from just under 70 per cent now. Though providing France with a low-emission source of energy, the country’s reactors are reaching the end of their planned 40-year lifespan.
Attacking green policies has proved fertile ground for politicians on the far right before, especially since the motorists’ gilets jaunes demonstrations that erupted in 2018 when Macron introduced a fuel tax, which he later withdrew.
Named after the yellow vests that drivers carry in their cars in case of accidents, the protests morphed into a broader series of grievances against the administration barely 18 months into Macron’s tenure.
Partly rooted in the perceived disconnect between Paris and the rural world, that sentiment has found its expression in some of the backlash against wind farms too.
“Wind energy has become very symbolic and fits in with existing themes, like rural life and the preservation of the French countryside, which are then politicised,” says Alexandre Roesch of France’s SER renewable energy lobby group.
Opposition to wind power is particularly strong and uniform on the far right.
Eric Zemmour, a TV talk show polemicist and extreme-right presidential hopeful who launched his campaign this week, has called offshore wind farms a “catastrophe” that would wreck parts of the French coastline spared destruction in the second world war.
Marine Le Pen, currently the favourite to make it to an election run-off against Macron, has said she would even take down existing turbines. Two years ago, in an incendiary remark, she managed to combine two contentious political topics — immigrants and wind turbines. “Everyone thinks they should be there, but nobody wants them next door,” she said.
But it has also become a big issue among Les Républicains. Politicians such as Xavier Bertrand — who heads the northern Hauts-de-France region and is a rival of Barnier’s for the nomination — like to compare their provincial roots to the supposedly foppish Paris elite who go to work on electric scooters and have no idea about the travails of small-town motorists or villagers resentful of giant wind turbines in their backyards.
Even the most pro-wind of the centre-right candidates, Valérie Pécresse, called for a total rethink on her own tour of the Saint-Brieuc area.
As rightwing contenders for the election try to outflank each other, the opprobrium has reached new levels, with wind farms singled out as either useless or destructive and taking centre stage in televised campaign debates.
In one this week, Bertrand said he would end all projects if elected president in April. Asked in a primetime television interview last month about his views on energy, Barnier said bluntly: “I am against wind farms, pretty clearly.”
Barnier’s surprise lurch to the right on other election issues including migration and security, when he had long been seen as more moderate, has fuelled his campaign momentum.
“When you see at Saint-Brieuc how they are trying to plant turbines in the middle of the sea, when the economics of it make no sense, it’s not serious,” said Barnier, who favours solar energy instead, as well as fresh investment in nuclear power.
Despite the vocal opposition of conservative politicians, polls consistently show a majority of French people support wind energy — much more so than nuclear plants.
But age and political affiliation do make a difference. When asked for their feelings if a wind turbine were to be installed next to their home, over 60 per cent of far-right or centre-right sympathisers would oppose it, an Odoxa survey from September for France’s Figaro newspaper showed, compared to widespread support on the left. Older voters were also more inclined to want a slowdown in the wind farm rollout.
Winds of change in Saint-Brieuc
The bay of Saint-Brieuc is one of France’s richest fishing areas — from scallops and whelks to cuttlefish, spider crabs and lemon sole — and fishermen fear the noise disturbance from construction and the release into the sea of aluminium from the anodes that protect the underwater steel structures from electrochemical corrosion.
Initial acceptance of the project in the area has given way to scepticism and even outright opposition, exacerbated by long delays in approvals. The start of drilling in recent months in the hard rock of the seabed to build the turbine’s foundations caused an uproar after a boat leaked hydraulic fuel, pushing Spanish developer Iberdrola to temporarily halt work.
Some are now delighted that the protesters’ demands have been thrust into the spotlight. Grégory Le Drougmaguet, a marine biologist appointed by the local fishing committee to monitor the project, says that fishermen in the area “are full of hope because of the presidential election”.
“The construction makes us very, very afraid,” says Le Drougmaguet.
Emmanuel Rollin, the head of Ailes Marines, the Iberdrola-owned group behind the project, says the environmental impact was limited and within legal limits, and the wind farm would come on stream as planned.
But wind energy proponents in France are concerned that a small but dogmatic anti-wind movement could contribute to souring the mood nationwide, including through disinformation campaigns.
One example has been alarmist social media posts about “wind farm cemeteries”, after photos of decommissioned turbine blades piling up in a landfill began circulating in France several months ago.
While extracted from a real report about the problems posed by the blades, often made with hard-to-recycle composite materials, the pictures were from landfills in the US, not France, where there are strict rules on how to recycle such materials.
“It is simply not true that wind power doesn’t effectively address climate disruption, that wind turbines only operate 25 per cent of the time, that they aren’t recyclable, or that there are gigantic blade graveyards in France,” French energy and environment minister Barbara Pompili wrote in a September paper for the France Energie Eolienne (FEE) lobby which represents wind farm developers and manufacturers.
According to FEE head Michel Gioria, French opposition to wind power is small, but “very organised, virulent and with a lot of financial backing”. Public hearings around wind farm projects often draw 300 to 400 people who come from neighbouring regions in an orchestrated fashion, he adds.
“It puts us on the wrong track when we need society to be trying to reach a consensus on these issues [like energy],” says Gioria, adding that at its current pace of renewable energy rollout, France would reach “none of its targets, on all matters related to the energy transition”.
Labbé, the mayor of Erquy, recalls how residents’ fears quickly subsided in a nearby village where he used to live after they watched the installation of three wind turbines over a decade ago.
“There was a farmer who was worried the chickens wouldn’t lay their eggs, but the day we put up the turbines the chickens looked up and couldn’t have cared less,” Labbé said. In Erquy, he added, many objectors were owners of second homes who lived in Paris, and most residents were over-60s who tended to object to any new developments, including a skateboard park he wanted for the seafront.
France is not alone in facing a politicised backlash. In the US, where President Joe Biden has launched a plan to roll out wind farms off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts over the next decade, his predecessor Donald Trump has slammed the projects.
Trump called turbines “monsters” that “kill all the birds” in a British TV interview this week.
But delays to projects on top of the brewing political storm are already giving some companies in France the jitters. One senior executive at a big French company involved in rolling out renewable energy plants says some board members had even begun to question the virtue of investments in France.
“Local opposition to any wind projects is vitriolic and problematic, tying up projects for years in bureaucracy and court cases,” the executive says, adding that “even some backers have lost faith”.
The wait has also taken its toll on manufacturers. GE Renewable Energy, previously Alstom, withdrew from two out of three deals to supply upcoming French offshore plants in 2019, citing excessive delays which left one of its blade factories running under capacity.
Macron has so far sought to straddle both camps, recently signalling his support for next generation nuclear reactors in France as well as a continued commitment to renewable energy.
But nuclear power can only help so much. Even if the working life of France’s reactors were extended, several new ones built and other renewable power sources ramped up, France would still need to have between 65 and 103 gigawatts of installed capacity from onshore and offshore wind farms by 2050 to reach carbon zero, according to estimates from grid operator RTE — up from 17.6GW at the end of 2020.
France aims to derive 40 per cent of its energy production from renewable sources in 2030, from just under a quarter last year.
“If we want to reach net zero [in France by 2050], it can’t be done without wind farms,” said Vincent Bales, the head of Wpd offshore France, a wind specialist working with the likes of EDF on projects off the Normandy coast.
Progress in sight?
France’s three other offshore wind projects awarded in 2012 alongside Saint-Brieuc are at least scheduled to get off the ground without as many difficulties or rows over fishing grounds.
The first, off France’s west coast by the Saint-Nazaire shipbuilding hub, is due to come online in 2022. Backed by France’s EDF, Canadian pipeline company Enbridge and Canada’s largest pension fund, the site, with 80 turbines and a capacity of 480MW, still had to overcome legal wrangling, but got the green light from France’s Conseil d’Etat — the highest court for administrative matters — two years ago.
“Since 2019, there’s been a real accelerator effect, and orders started to really come through,” says Matthieu Blandin, head of offshore wind at Valorem, a French company which worked on developing the Saint-Nazaire project alongside its main backers, and is now vying for maintenance contracts.
France has made some tweaks to its system, with future legal appeals on projects set to be fast-tracked straight to the Conseil d’Etat, bypassing intermediary courts.
But projects are still dealt with on a case-by-case basis, without the broader regional planning some countries have adopted, which can also ease the process of public consultations.
“It’s true that France decided after others to invest in offshore wind, and once it decided it also did take more time [to proceed] than other countries,” says Rollin of Ailes Marines.
He is adamant, however, that even the electoral backlash will not stop the Saint-Brieuc project now it is under way.
“There are some very strong positions that have been taken by politicians,” says Rollin, adding that critics in the public sphere had never asked the company for information about the project. “They have never contacted us. They are political positions.”