New French PM vows to nationalise EDF and tackle cost of living crisis

In speech to divided parliament, Élisabeth Borne tries to court opposition parties to avoid deadlock

France is to renationalise its indebted electricity giant EDF in response to the energy crisis aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, has said.

Borne vowed to limit the impact of rising energy prices despite the political turmoil of Emmanuel Macron losing control of parliament in recent legislative elections.

“We must have full control over our electricity production and performance,” Borne told parliament in her first state-of-the-nation speech to parliament on Wednesday, as she tried to court opposition parties to avoid parliamentary deadlock.

“We must ensure our sovereignty in the face of the consequences of the war and the colossal challenges to come … That’s why I confirm to you the state’s intention to own 100% of EDF’s capital.”

The French state holds an 84% stake in EDF, one of the world’s biggest electricity producers, but the company is facing delays and budget overruns on new nuclear plants in France and Britain, and corrosion problems at some of its ageing reactors, which have heavily hit its shares price in recent months.

Macron, who was re-elected for a second term as president in April, wants massive investment in new nuclear reactors as a pillar of France’s push for carbon neutrality. Nationalising EDF is an idea that had also been recently promoted by the left, and Borne’s speech was seen as an attempt to appeal to different corners of a deeply divided parliament.

France is facing an unprecedented political crisis after Macron’s centrist grouping suffered big losses in legislative elections last month. The president’s centrist alliance, Ensemble (Together), won the most seats in the national assembly but fell about 40 seats short of the absolute majority needed to pass laws.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally saw a historic surge and greatly increased its seats to become the biggest single opposition party. The hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party also largely increased its seats and is now the biggest leftwing party in a broad coalition known as the Nupes, which includes the Socialists and Greens.

Borne’s government faces a constant struggle to pass legislation and will hope to negotiate compromises on a case-by-case basis with certain opposition lawmakers. This is a sharp contrast to Macron’s top-down approach to power in his first five-year term, when he held an absolute majority in a parliament that largely rubber-stamped his plans.

“Disorder and instability is not an option for France,” Borne warned the new parliament in its raucous first sitting, where she often had to push on through chants, jeers and shouting. “We must give back meaning to the word compromise,” she said, promising to “approach every draft law in a spirit of dialogue” and openness.

As France enters a new era of political uncertainty, Borne was under pressure to articulate a political vision for France after Macron’s leadership was accused of losing its way on the domestic front in recent weeks. The president maintains leadership on France’s international policy, but he no longer has a free hand on domestic aims, including his plan to raise the pension age or overhaul the benefits system.

Borne said the first challenge was the cost of living crisis, and a new package of measures would be announced this week. She said France must press on with changes to the pension system, adding that there was “no project already set in stone” but that an overhaul was “indispensable”.

She said the French social model was a “paradox”, as one of the world’s most generous while people work for the fewest number of years.

She said her priorities were helping low-income families cope with rising bills and costs, releasing extra funding for the struggling health service and addressing inequalities, including reviewing disabilities benefits, while pushing for full employment.

The government has already been criticised for pushing back “urgent” climate legislation on renewables until September. Borne insisted the environment was a priority.
Borne, 61, a former civil servant, also used her speech to tell her own personal story after criticism from some parties that she was too technocratic and low-key.

Noisy lawmakers quietened and some applauded as she spelled out her family history, saying her father, a Jewish Resistance fighter who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, “never really came back from the concentration camps”. He did return to France but took his own life when she was a child.

Borne said she was proud to be France’s second female prime minister and she promised the divided lower house: “We will manage to build together.”

Most new French prime ministers call a confidence vote after their first key policy speech. But Borne did not, because it was considered too risky without an absolute majority.

The left’s France Unbowed filed a no-confidence motion alongside its Socialist, Communist and Green allies even before Borne began speaking. But the motion, to be voted on later this week, is unlikely to pass.

It remains unclear which lawmakers will come onboard to pass crucial legislation on the cost of living crisis later this month. Mélenchon said Borne’s speech “offered nothing that would allow us to find compromises”. One lawmaker from the rightwing Les Républicains, seen as closest to a possible compromise with the government, called the speech “a catalogue of banality”.