In France, major strikes have been going on for weeks to protest against the pension reform proposed by President Emmanuel Macron. Among other things, the reform provides for the raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64 and the cancellation of the “special” regime for some categories of workers, which currently gives them the possibility of early retirement. The strike involved various sectors: transport, schools, the energy and gas industries.
The French site Mediapart recently told how some technicians of the main French gas and electricity distribution companies, in addition to participating in strikes and street demonstrations, are implementing another form of protest in a rather coordinated way: they tamper gas and electricity meters so that users pay only half of their actual consumption, or not at all. These practices, which are by no means new, have been nicknamed “Robin Hood actions”, the popular English hero who “stole from the rich to give to the poor” and who returned to citizens the taxes collected by the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Mediapart journalist Khedidja Zerouali met two of the technicians of a large gas distribution company who are participating in the protest and followed them in one of their actions. “We will call the first Paul and the second Marcel,” she wrote, explaining that Paul Marcel is the reference figure that the two said they wanted to inspire.
Paul Marcel, a communist, was a trade unionist and minister of what was then called the Ministry of Industrial Production. Appointed in 1945 by Charles de Gaulle, he was the one who the following year proposed the nationalization of the production, distribution and supply of gas and electricity, managing to create a special national agency: the EDF-GDF, which was subsequently divided into two entities separate for electricity (EDF) and gas (GDF). “He was the one who bequeathed us the status we still enjoy today and which the government continues to attack. Let us remember that the pension reform provides for the end of the special regime for workers in the electricity and gas sectors» the two technicians said.
Khedidja Zerouali met them on Sunday 12 February, shortly after six in the morning in a small square in the Marseille area. They showed up dressed in black, with covered faces and gloves, and arrived at the appointment in a car that wasn’t theirs. The trunk was full of flags, megaphones and stickers from the CGT, one of the largest trade union confederations in France, which together with others has called strikes against pension reform in recent weeks: “People lend us their car when we do these actions so as not to come with our vehicles and be recognized», they said.
When they carry out this type of intervention, they leave their cell phones at home and try as much as possible to avoid the neighborhood cameras: a rather easy task in any case, writes Zerouali, given that they know the cities, the streets and the places where there are counters and gas cabins.
Marcel and Paul open these cabins, tamper with them so that only half of the actual consumption is recorded, and close them immediately after sticking a blue sticker that reads: «Electricity and gas increased! Amputee purchasing power! Angry technicians!». Furthermore, some cabins do not have the device that directly transmits the information on consumption to the distributor: and in this case the consumption register can be completely reset, without the company realizing it immediately. «100% free operation for the inhabitants of this area. And our employer won’t notice until they send a technician to read the meters, in six months or more.
In addition to making consumption free or halving, the interventions also consist of restoring access to electricity or gas in homes where supplies have been cut or reduced due to non-payment of bills.
Paul and Marcel say that these interventions are a “grain of sand”, but also that it is what they, due to the role they have, can do directly “for the common good”: “If the inhabitants ask us what we are doing, we we say, but if we meet the police we lie».
On the day of their interview, and in less than an hour, Paul and Marcel tampered with around fifteen cabins, giving hundreds of residents free gas or allowing them to pay only half the price of their consumption. Since the start of the strikes against the pension reform, there have also been similar interventions on electricity meters and, as explained by Renaud Henry, general secretary of the CGT Énergie union in Marseille, about 60,000 residents have been disconnected from data collection on energy consumption .
At the national level, the trade unions cited by Mediapart spoke of about thirty health facilities that are not paying for electricity after this type of protest. Similar interventions have been made throughout the country in nurseries, swimming pools and public sports centres, libraries or canteens. Then there are about 500 families whose electricity has been restored after it was cut because they had not paid their bills, there are at least 300 small businesses and artisans, such as bakers, who have been given the opportunity to pay electricity at a reduced rate and there are more than 100,000 households whose electricity meters have been disconnected.
However, having precise numbers is very complicated and not providing them is a strategy for the unions: the goal is not to give too much information so as not to activate suppliers and distributors with checks, resets and, possibly, with future issues of corrective invoices.
However, these actions are not new, even if the novelty of recent weeks is that they are carried out in a coordinated way throughout the country. They began to be practiced in 2004, when EDF and GDF were transformed from public bodies to joint-stock companies, thus opening up to private investors: tampering with cabins and meters became a form of protest to oppose certain reforms, the increase in gas and energy prices or to ask for salary increases.
Paul and Marcel are aware that if they were discovered they would lose their jobs and would be reported: «But we are doing it because if we don’t cost this government dearly we will never get the pension reform revoked. We also find the price people pay for electricity and gas outrageous. For us these are common goods, it is necessary for people to live with dignity, and they should not be subject to the laws of the market”. Alongside the new strike days scheduled, this form of protest will continue to be carried out, the unions say. Also under discussion is the proposal to cut supplies to MEPs who have declared themselves in favor of pension reform in a targeted manner.