Unsanctioned energy provision also included public sports facilities, creches, universities, public libraries, some small businesses and homes that had been cut off from power.
The “Robin des Bois” operations – named after the English folklore hero, Robin Hood – were part of a wider effort to force the government to drop plans to increase the retirement age in France.
Free energy provision was intended to “intensify the balance of power” in favour of striking workers, said Philippe Martinez Secretary-General of the GGT, one of the largest confederations of trade unions in France. “[It’s about] returning energy to those who don’t have it at all because they can’t afford to, and making it free for hospitals and schools.”
The reference to the Englishman, known for stealing from the rich to give to the poor, was “appropriate” Martinez told FranceInfo on Wednesday
The unconventional protest comes during an ongoing cost-of-living crisis in Europe that will see gas and electricity prices rise by an additional 15% in France in 2023, intensifying long-standing issues. In 2021 a quarter of households in France were already struggling to pay energy bills.
‘We could paralyse the country’
Meanwhile strikes by energy workers in power plants, refineries, ports and docks on Thursday reduced French power availability by 2 gigawatts (GW) at three nuclear reactors, the outage table of state-controlled nuclear group EDF showed on Friday morning.
Strikes also took place in almost every French port with many coming to a complete standstill, the CGTs national federation for ports and docks said. While TotalEnergies workers broke their strike on Thursday evening, other energy strikes continued on Friday.
The energy walkout follows a national strike on January 19 over pension reforms proposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s government that include plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The changes would also bring an end to specific retirement plans in national energy companies EDF and Engie that allow some workers to retire earlier.
While Macron has pledged to push ahead with the reforms, which will be presented to parliament on Monday, strikers have also said they will not back down.
>> French government pushes pension reform through to parliament
“The point of today’s protests is to show that the balance of power is moving up a notch and that, if we wanted to, we could paralyse the country,” said Gwenaël Plagne, CGT representative at a thermal power plant in Cordemais, west France.
A second national strike including teachers, civil servants, transport workers and more is planned for Tuesday, January 31.
‘We will continue’
More “Robin des Bois” operations are also likely. “If the government doesn’t retract its retirement reforms, we will continue and we will make energy free for everyone who doesn’t have access to regulated tariffs, whether they are public establishments or businesses,” Frédéric Probel, secretary general of the CGT in Bagneux, in the Paris suburbs, told FranceInfo on Friday.
He said in Paris and the city suburbs free energy was provided on Thursday for hospitals clinics, skating rinks, swimming pools, high schools, public buildings, street lighting and heating. “At least it is meaningful and it helps the public,” he added.
Plans to provide or cut power may also become more targeted. GCT Secretary-General Martinez denied on Wednesday that elected officials or specific individuals could have their power supply cut off – with some exceptions. “I would suggest that some billionaires who think that we don’t need to increase salaries and that everything is going well in this country could do with living the experience of millions of households who are facing energy insecurity,” he said.
Leading politicians have spoken out against unauthorised free energy provision.
Minister for the Economy Bruno Le Maire described them on Wednesday as “unacceptable. It’s not up to the CGT to decide prices,” he told Europe 1. “It’s not up to the CGT to decide who should pay and how much. It’s the state, public interest, the French people via their [elected] representatives.”
Minister for Energy Transition Agnès Pannier-Runacher told France 2 on Friday morning that it was likely that taxpayers would ultimately have to foot the bill for unauthorised electricity usage.
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