Liberté, Egalité, Electricité
James Meek pays his electricity bill
I paid my electricity bill today, and spent some time trying to work out how much of my bill goes to the French government to defray the costs of running that large, complex and hexagonal country. I don't live in France. I live in London and, like millions of other Britons, buy my electricity from EDF, aka Electricité de France, which snapped up three of England's privatised electricity minnows in 2002. Privatisation, a policy supposed to liberate us from the burden of allegedly inefficient state-owned industries, has led to more than five million households and businesses in this country buying electricity and gas from a state-owned industry in that country.
EDF is 85 per cent owned by the French government. And because of the way it's structured, that 85 per cent is in the form of shares; and those shares pay dividends. The figures change from year to year, of course, but if you take the numbers in EDF's last annual report as a guide, any British EDF customer can work out how much they are paying the French state. Roughly speaking, in your bill, an eighth of what you pay is EDF's profit; and an eighth of that eighth goes to la belle France, prop. N. Sarkozy, in dividends. The bill I paid today is £253.47 (I don't have gas in my flat). So my contribution to keeping the French state afloat has, over the past few months, amounted to almost four pounds. Yay!
It's true that EDF doesn't have a monopoly on electricity or gas in London, or any other part of Britain. I could buy my power elsewhere. Or I could try to balance my account by riding on the metro for free in Paris (as in London, if two people walk through the barriers close enough together, one ticket gets both through).
EDF's profits from Britain, France and other countries have given it enough heft to bring its main French business – generating electricity from nuclear power – to Britain. When a new generation of nuclear plants gets built here, as now seems certain to happen, some of them will, effectively, be built and owned by the French government, with future income from Britain's energy consumers as collateral. The others will be built by the two big German power companies, E.ON and RWE. Britain's future private nuclear industry, in other words, is in the hands of a state-owned company from France and two companies from a country that has renounced nuclear power as dirty and unsafe.