Fears for French baguettes as power prices burn bakers

Recently described as "250 grams of magic and perfection" by President Emmanuel Macron, the French baguette is at risk from surging energy prices, with some bakers warning they can no longer afford to fire up their ovens.

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

"It was absolutely inconceivable to me that a power bill could make me close my shop and stop my life here," Julien Bernard-Regnard, a distraught baker in the village of Bourgaltroff in eastern France, told AFP by phone.

He is still coming to terms with closing his doors for the final time in early December having decided that continuing his business, built up 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 by three and half times," he said.

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

"I'm in lots of online groups with other bakers and on social media. There are bakeries closing every day. Some have bills that are multiplied by 10 or 12. There's someone else 40 kilometres (25 miles) from me who's just shut down," he added.

In a country where the availability of crusty daily bread is a political issue fraught with danger for any government, Macron's cabinet is keen to show it is doing everything possible to safeguard the nation's 35,000 bread and croissant makers.

- State aid -

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced Tuesday that bakers with a cashflow problem could ask to delay the payment of their taxes and social charges, while Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire welcomed the national bakers' federation for talks at his offices.

Le Maire acknowledged that the nation's bread makers were "worried" and some were "in complete despair" just a month after the sector was honoured with UNESCO world heritage status.

"At the moment when the French baguette has been given world heritage status by UNESCO, there would be a real paradox in not giving everything possible to support our bakers who are struggling with the price of electricity and energy in general," he told reporters.

Existing schemes to help the industry, including direct state aid and a mechanism enabling them to demand a reduction in their electricity bill from suppliers, could help reduce the power costs for many businesses by around 40 percent, Le Maire said.

"At the moment unfortunately, this is not widely known," he added at a press conference in which he also criticised energy suppliers for not playing their part.

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

Meanwhile, cut-throat competition from supermarkets means bakeries are unable to pass on major price increases to customers.

- Loss to community -

Bernard-Regnard was dismissive of government pledges and said he was "fed up with the propaganda", saying that red tape and the complicated application procedure for aid meant he had been entitled to "zero" help.

"I'm furious. The life of a baker is hard. We don't have a life, no Sundays, no holidays, you don't see your children grow up, but we do it with passion. At some point though, you have to stop taking us for idiots," he said.

His biggest regret is letting down his regular clients in Bourgaltroff who now face a drive of 12-15 kilometres to fetch their daily bread.

"What makes me most sad is the old people. A lot of them don't have a driving licence and live on their own. They told me that coming to the shop was the ray of sunlight in their day because they didn't see anyone else," he told AFP.

Large parts of the French countryside have been in decline for the last half century, with shrinking and ageing populations leading to the progressive closure of shops and local public services.

In many villages 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 at 2 am to start his routines and finishing his working day at 8 pm are over -- in France at least.

"I might go abroad where you are recognised for your true value," he said.

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