French baguette fears as energy prices burn bakers

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Paris (AFP) – Recently described as “250 grams of magic and perfection” by President Emmanuel Macron, the French baguette is at risk from rising energy prices, with some bakers warning they can no longer afford to turn on their ovens.

Already struggling with sharp increases in the price of butter, flour and sugar for the past year and a half, the prized industry is now alarmed by the astronomical electricity bills looming in 2023.

“It was absolutely inconceivable to me that an electricity bill could force me to close my shop and end my life here,” Julien Bernard-Regnard, an anguished baker from the eastern French town of Bourgaltroff, told AFP by phone. .

He is still agreeing to close his doors for the last time in early December having decided that continuing his business, built over the last five years, was impossible given the cost of electricity.

“I had to renew my contract at the beginning of September and it increased three and a half times,” he said.

His monthly energy costs rose from around 400 euros (US$420) a month to nearly 1,500, while seeking an alternative supplier brought no relief.

Julien Bernard-Regnard closed his bakery in Bourgaltroff, eastern France, in early December.
Julien Bernard-Regnard closed his bakery in Bourgaltroff, eastern France, in early December. © Jean-Christophe VERHAEGEN / AFP

“I’m in a lot of groups online with other bakers and on social media. There are bakeries that close every day. Some have bills that multiply by 10 or 12. There’s someone else 25 miles (40 kilometers) from me who just close.” he added.

In a country where the availability of everyday crusty bread is a political issue fraught with danger for any government, Macron’s cabinet wants to show it is doing everything it can to safeguard the country’s 35,000 bread and croissant makers.

– State aid –

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced on Tuesday that cash flow-strapped bakers could request that their taxes and social security payments be delayed, while Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire welcomed the national federation of bakers to chat in their offices.

Le Maire acknowledged that the nation’s bakers were “worried” and some were “utterly desperate” just a month after the sector was honored with UNESCO world heritage status.

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet a delegation of bakers on Thursday
French President Emmanuel Macron will meet a delegation of bakers on Thursday © Brendan Smialowski / AFP

“At the moment when the French baguette has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, it would be a true paradox not to give everything possible to support our bakers who are struggling with the price of electricity and energy in general,” he told the journalists.

Existing schemes to help the industry, including direct state aid and a mechanism that allows them to demand a reduction in their electricity bill from suppliers, could help reduce energy costs for many companies by around 40 per cent, Le Maire said.

“At the moment, unfortunately, this is not very well known,” he added at a news conference in which he also criticized energy providers for not doing their part.

Although France has capped electricity prices for consumers, limiting increases to four percent in 2022 and 15 percent in 2023, there is no such protection for businesses.

Meanwhile, fierce competition from supermarkets means bakeries can’t pass major price increases on to customers.

– Loss to the community –

Bernard-Regnard dismissed government promises, saying he was “fed up with the propaganda”, saying red tape and complicated aid application procedure meant he was entitled to “zero” aid.

“I’m furious. The life of a baker is hard. We have no life, there are no Sundays, there are no holidays, you don’t see your children grow up, but we do it with passion. Though at some point, you have to stop taking us for idiots,” he said.

His biggest regret is letting down his regular customers in Bourgaltroff, who now face a 12-15 kilometer journey to find their daily bread.

“What saddens me the most is the old people. Many of them do not have a driver’s license and live alone. They told me that coming to the store was the ray of sunshine in their day because they didn’t see anyone else,” he told AFP.

Much of the French countryside has been in decline for the past half century, with shrinking and aging populations leading to the progressive closure of local shops and public services.

In many towns like Bourgaltroff, the local bakery is the last surviving business, also selling cigarettes and lottery tickets, as well as serving as a meeting place.

Bernard-Regnard says his days of waking up at 2 a.m. to start his routines and ending his workday at 8 p.m. are over, at least in France.

“It could go abroad where you are recognized for your true worth,” he said.

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