• In 2005, the French rejected the adoption of the European Constitution, with a 54.6 percent No vote. The referendum was supposed to be a foregone conclusion. The right and the left campaigned for a Yes vote ― only the nationalist far right and the radical left were opposed.

    One figure derailed the campaign: “The Polish plumber”.

    A year after the largest enlargement of the EU, sovereigntists constantly used this expression to inflame fears of immigration by eastern Europeans who would work for lower wages. This was one of the main factors in the No vote. Yet foreign workers had nothing to do with the European Constitution. No wave of Polish plumbers or Latvian bricklayers ever arrived in France.

    Now, in light of another possible EU enlargement, politicians and the public in different member countries are expressing fears that workers and goods from future EU members may flood local markets. Just like in France, some of these fears may never come true.

    Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has just been sentenced to a year in prison, including a six-month suspended sentence, for illegal campaign financing. In 2012 he spent almost twice as much as the legal maximum for a presidential bid, which he covered up by using a system of double billing.

    No ex-French president had ever been sentenced to a prison term before. This is the second time for Sarkozy. Last year, he received a three-year term for trying to obtain confidential information from a magistrate about another court case in which he was also being prosecuted.

    In total, Sarkozy has been sentenced to four years behind bars. However, he still influences the government. In the latest reshuffle, several of his protégés became ministers.

    Over the phone, the voice of Léa Marco, 29, sounds confident. “I don’t feel the need to have a child. I feel complete without becoming a mother. I want time for myself.” Almost one in ten French citizens, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties, share her opinion.

    “If we still lived in the world I grew up in, I might think about having a child without having to worry all the time about the planet’s future,” says Zelda Hogrel, a 27 year-old teacher, who loves children. “I work in summer camps with kids, but I don’t feel the need to have a child of my own.”

    Never since WWII have there been so few births in France. President Macron has called for “demographic rearmament”, making the low birth rate a national struggle. This patriarchal injunction to start a family has angered many women.

    “As a teacher, I already feel I’m doing my social duty. I’m not the one who’s going to ‘rearm’ France,” says Léa Marco. “We all know that having a child brings out the inequalities in a couple. Women have to think of everything, take care of their baby and their partner. Moreover, the pressure to be a ‘good parent’ is much stronger than a few decades ago: you have to invest yourself completely in your child.”

    Like her friend Zelda Hogrel, she believes there are ways of being part of a family other than having children in a heterosexual couple.

    “For the past four years, I’ve been taking a foster child on vacation, and I even considered adopting her when she had problems with her mother,” explains Hogrel. “Investing in the education of a child you love is also something that makes sense to us.”

    The French government has long concealed the exact amount of its military aid to Ukraine. Officially, the aim was to avoid giving the Russian army any indication of the type of weapons the French were supplying Ukraine.

    In November, a parliamentary report finally revealed the precise figure: since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, France has given Ukraine 0.1 percent of its GDP in military aid, or 3.2 billion euros. To compare: Estonia spends 1.2 percent of its GDP on weapons for Ukraine.

    The transfer of military equipment as such represents only 1.7 billion euros. Moreover, this price does not represent the value of the weapons sent, but the cost of replacing them with more modern equipment.

    Nicolas Quénel is a specialist in the intelligence services and disinformation wars. He has recently written Allo Paris? Ici Moscou, Plongée au cœur de la guerre de l’information (Hello, Paris? This is Moscow. A dive into the heart of the information war). 

    Is France particularly targeted by Russian influence operations? 

    Along with Germany, France is one of the EU member states most affected [by Russian influence ops], and has been for a long time. French authorities have been confoundingly naive in their dealings with Moscow. In 2006, President Jacques Chirac decorated Putin with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor [France’s highest distinction], and in 2011 President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a contract to deliver helicopter carriers to Russia while the Russian army was occupying northern Georgia. In 2017, the first thing Macron did once he was elected was to receive Putin at Versailles. Two years later, in a speech in France alongside the Russian president, he said that Russia was “profoundly European” and a “great Enlightenment power”. The obsession was to normalise relations with Moscow. 

    How do you explain the extent of Russian influence in France?

    There are several historical reasons. The anti-Americanism of the French elite played a role, as did the presence of a long-standing and powerful French Communist party and the existence of a press that emphasised opinion articles and was therefore more permeable to Russian discourse.

    But just recently, France was the subject of an interference operation probably directed by Russia… 

    That’s right, a Moldovan couple were paid to paint Stars of David on the walls of Paris to stir up trouble in French society, and Russian bot networks relayed the images. It was a low-cost operation, but it worked. The media covered it extensively before it became clear that it was a remote-controlled operation from abroad. Intelligence services are noticing a return to these modes of operation, reminiscent of those used during the Cold War. In 1960, the KGB did exactly the same thing in West Germany, painting swastikas on walls to suggest that Nazism was returning to Germany and to undermine Western confidence in their partner.

    France’s ageing nuclear plants shut down many reactors for maintenance last winter, forcing the country to import electricity for the first time since 1980. This year less turbulence is expected for the country’s power sector and France is again becoming a key electricity exporter, according to energy expert Nicolas Goldberg, energy expert at Colombus consulting and for the Terra Nova think tank.

    Are France’s nuclear power stations better prepared for winter than last year?

    The situation is undeniably much better than last year. The availability of nuclear power supply in October was comparable to that of 2019 [i.e. at its highest level for four years]. Not all the reactor maintenance problems have been resolved, but progress has been made. Concerns for this winter are very moderate, especially as there are still traces of last year’s energy savings plan.

    Will this mean lower prices for customers?

    Market prices are set by anticipating the next day’s price and by confidence in production. In September, French market prices were below German prices, which is almost unheard of. This shows that confidence has returned. It’s also good news for Europe. France is once again exporting electricity, and we’re even close to maximum export capacity. The French nuclear system has once again become an asset for the European market.

    Could the situation in the Middle East, on the other hand, push up European energy prices?

    Gas markets are very nervous, and following the Hamas attacks, gas prices jumped slightly. But in the medium term, there shouldn’t be any major consequences. Israeli gas is hardly ever exported to Europe.

    In France, a Sunday lunch of a roast chicken is a time-honoured tradition. The dish, the French people’s favourite, is available to just about everyone. You can find organic free-range chickens for 20 euros, as well as poultry for less than ten euros, often sold in halal butchers’ shops, where broke students can only afford a bag of potatoes. It is also a symbol of French agriculture, which continues to raise alongside battery chickens.

    But since 2022, the French chicken market has been in crisis. The lifting of restrictions on the entry of Ukrainian poultry into the European Union’s market has left the industry facing unexpected competition. In the first half of 2022, Ukrainian chicken imports into France rose sharply by 120 percent, and have since grown at a more moderate rate. With the Russian blockade of the Black Sea, Ukraine can “no longer export to the Middle East [by ship], which was one of its main customers,” explains Yann Nédélec, director of the poultry producers’ association.“It has switched to Europe, via lorry.” 

    French poultry farmers see the massive arrival of chickens up to four times cheaper than their own as unfair competition. 

    Ukraine does not have to comply with the same quality standards as countries of the European Union, and has huge farms with over a million head of poultry, whereas the largest French farms number only a few tens of thousands. In addition, massive exports to the EU mainly benefit one man, the oligarch Yuriy Kosiuk, who controls 80 percent of the Ukrainian poultry market via his company MHP. This mega-business is based in Cyprus and listed on the London Stock Exchange. 

    In June, the industry asked the Minister for Agriculture to “activate the European safeguard clause to halt the asphyxiation of the sector” and suspend imports.

    Unexpectedly, this request met with little response from the political class, even on the far right.

    For French soldiers and officers, their deployment in Romania since 2022 has been a practical apprenticeship in NATO. This might be a surprise given that the French army is the third largest in NATO, but France has had a complicated relationship with the Alliance over the decades.

    In 1966 Charles de Gaulle withdrew the country from the integrated command, while more recently, Emmanuel Macron said the organisation was experiencing “brain death” in 2019. Since the early days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Paris has become more involved, sending troops to Romania to “reinforce NATO’s defensive and deterrent posture” and “consolidate the protection of Europe’s eastern flank”, according to the ministry of defence.

    The Aigle mission, part of the Rapid Reaction Force, now includes around 1,000 French troops. They work with Belgian, Dutch, Romanian and US soldiers in Constanța, on the Romanian Black Sea coast. For the French army, more accustomed in recent years to operating in a desert environment and facing terrorist groups, this is a major change. In Romania, it is working in coalition to act as a deterrent against Russia. 

    For an incoming enemy missile, the Romanian airbase of Mihail Kogalniceanu is only seven minutes’ flight from occupied Crimea. If Moscow pushed its invasion further west, this Aigle Mission would form the first line of defence. Now French soldiers have to learn how to make different equipment work together, learn the doctrines and tactics of their allies and improve interoperability.

    The French army is also getting used to different deployment conditions. Its Leclerc tanks had to be brought in by rail, as Germany does not allow such huge tanks to cross its territory. This military hardware also needs warming up with hot air during the winter to protect its electronic systems. The Aigle mission is set to grow: it is expected to have 6,000 soldiers by 2025, making it France’s largest deployment abroad.

    Le Havre has long been nicknamed “Stalingrad-on-Sea”. To the eyes of many, its straight avenues lined with identical grey concrete buildings, built after the Second World War, were depressing and the city was considered one of the ugliest in France.

    Towns on the Normandy coast paid the highest toll to the war: they were massively bombed, and Le Havre suffered the most destruction. 82% of the buildings were razed.

    In the place of the ruins, architect Auguste Perret created a giant experiment. This was long criticised, but the inhabitants have since managed to change the way the city is seen, and obtained a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2005.

    “We must prepare France for +4 degrees of warming,” Christophe Béchu, the minister for ecological transition, admitted in February. Today, France is experiencing +1.8 degrees of warming, which is already having far-reaching consequences. Given that the world is heading for at least a three degree rise by 2100, and that France is heating up faster than the global average, this prediction is not an exaggeration.

    At +4 degrees, heatwaves could last for two months, heat peaks could reach 50ºC for several days in a row, the wildfire season would last twice as long as today, and blazes could ravage the north of the country. Snow would disappear in the mid-mountains, and rainfall would be much more intense and sudden in the plains, with an increased risk of flooding.

    Beyond the global strategies to try to avoid the scenario of global warming, France has started to think about preparing for the worst. How can we adjust to such a future? This is the question posed by the government, which has launched a national online consultation. The results, which will be collected over the summer, will help define a new plan for adapting to global warming.

    One of the biggest challenges is preparing public infrastructure for such conditions. Some roads will have to be relocated because of the risk of flooding and railways will have to be redesigned because today’s TGV can’t run when the ground temperature is above 57 degrees.

    Another key issue is to help municipalities adapt to extremely high temperatures. Roofs and walls could be painted in white to reflect heat, pipe networks should be repaired to avoid loss of drinking water, wastewater could be reused on an individual (shower water for toilets) or collective level.

    All this will cost money. “The adaptation measures to be taken now will represent at least an additional 2.3 billion euros per year,” the government has already warned.