Élodie Chavret puts bread on the shelves early in the morning before her bakery opens. She has managed L’Épi de Blé for 18 years and is now struggling with rising electricity bills.
In Millery, a small town in southeastern France, Élodie Chavret runs a bakery to support herself and her two daughters. The 39-year-old is also a part-time firefighter, but said it’s not a job that scares her.
her fear? Unable to pay electricity bills at the bakery at the end of the month.
The bill jumped from 900 euros ($978) in December to 7,500 euros ($8,146) in January as Chavret renewed his contract. With the government subsidy, her bill will drop to 4,500 euros ($4,888) a month. It was still an “unmanageable” increase, she said.
Chavret told CNN that the new rates are “unbearable” and will all but wipe out her profits, which are already being squeezed by rising raw material and gasoline costs, as well as wage hikes for six employees.
Bread is baked at Chavret’s bakery in Millery, a small town near Lyon in southeastern France.
Chavret greets customers. French bakeries are the lifeblood of many towns and villages.
In November, UNESCO designated the baguette as part of its “intangible cultural heritage” because of the specific knowledge and techniques required to make it, as well as the central role it plays in the French everyday Life.
But despite their high stature, many bakeries are struggling — and some are on the verge of closure — as energy prices and ingredient costs soar.
“Everything is going up,” says Nicolas Amaté, who owns a bakery in eastern France with his wife NadUmgive
“If this continues, we’re going to shut them all down,” he told CNN.
French industrial producer prices — the prices local suppliers of goods and services charge companies — surged 13% in February from a year earlier, official data showed, following a higher rise in January.
Input prices in French manufacturing, including bakeries, are also rising, although inflation has slowed since hitting an 11-year high in April last year, according to a Purchasing Managers Index survey compiled by S&P Global.
Amaté bought butter for 6 euros ($6.52) a kilo two years ago. It’s on sale now for €12 ($13). Flour prices tripled in a year. Eggs, milk and cream are also much more expensive.
But rising energy prices have been especially painful for many businesses as costs rise faster when power contracts are renewed.
Nicolas and one of his employees prepare a chocolate croissant.
Nadège keeps the pastries in a display case in her bakery.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent European gas prices surging to record levels last year. Electricity prices are not far behind.
French energy prices have also been pushed up by shutting down nearly half of its nuclear power plants for maintenance work in 2022, cutting off up to 70% of the country’s electricity supply.
French electricity prices have retreated from record highs hit in August, but are still nearly three times the pre-invasion average in March, data from the European Energy Exchange showed.
Businesses that had to renew or sign new energy contracts at the end of last year are doing their best to save money after electricity prices soared to 465 euros ($505) per megawatt-hour in December.
Bakers have access to government support, but many say the measures fall short of what is needed.
A “shock absorber” payment was introduced on January 1, covering up to 20% of the annual electricity bill if the bakery employs 10 to 250 people.
Bakeries with fewer than 10 employees can get “tariff protection”, limiting increases in annual electricity bills to 15%. Some of these small businesses are also eligible for an average cap of €280 ($304) per megawatt-hour on their annual electricity contracts.
Thierry Maillard, who owns a bakery in northwest Paris with his wife Catherine, noted that a 20% reduction in “shock absorbers” would not be enough to compensate for the 500% increase in electricity bills he faced.
A poster shows the price of La Maillardise bread. Owner Thierry Maillard has raised the price of his baguettes twice in the past year.
Thierry Maillard stands in front of his bakery.
Maillard is trying to negotiate a contract with another provider, though he still expects his electricity bills to nearly double.
Nice baker Frédéric Roy took even more drastic action. In October, he co-founded a bakers campaign group on Facebook that now has 2,100 members. They staged their first street protests in Paris in January, demanding a 20% increase in subsidized bills and a “tariff shield” to cover more bakeries.
Raising their own prices is another way bakers are coping with rising costs, and it’s one of the steps recommended by Dominique Anlact, president of the National Federation of French Bakers, which represents the country’s 33,000 artisanal bakeries.
“if [bakers] If they raised their prices and used [government] Help, the bakery is not under threat,” Anract said.
But the baker told CNN that raising prices is easier said than done.
Take Chavret’s Bakery, for example. Last year, she sold baguettes for 1.05 euros ($1.14) each. Now she charges 1.20 euros ($1.30), a 14 percent increase.
She has to raise prices on many products to make a profit. The price of a classic baguette needs to be roughly tripled.
“Let me tell you, the French are not ready to pay 3 euros for a baguette,” Chavret said.
Maillard, the baker, expressed the same sentiment. Last year, he twice raised the price of baguettes from 1.10 euros ($1.19) to 1.30 euros ($1.41).
Thierry compared last year’s energy costs with the new price list he received in January. Energy bills can vary greatly between bakeries in France, depending on the date of signing.
The hot croissant at La Maillardise comes right out of the oven. When bakeries switch to new suppliers, expect their bills to double.
But so far, the price increases have only helped cover the higher cost of raw materials such as eggs and butter, and he said raising prices further was not feasible because customers would be hesitant.
As for saving energy, Chavret and her staff will often turn off the lights and turn off the heat unless it’s very cold, but the bakery’s bills are still the highest ever.
“Very critical situation”
In recent months, thousands of French bakers have joined online campaigns for more government support — such as the one Roy co-founded in Nice — and some have joined street protests.
What prompted Roy’s action was a “very, very critical situation” with regard to energy costs, he told CNN.
“I’ve been in this business for 35 years. I’ve never been in a situation like this. I’ve never been shown in my life,” Roy said.
“Many of my fellow bakers had to lay off staff because they couldn’t afford to pay all the bills,” he added, noting that some bakeries “have closed permanently”.
It’s not just the bakers’ livelihoods that are at stake in the survival of their businesses.
French bakeries are the lifeblood of many towns and villages, a rare public space that neighbors often walk through. The often accompanying small talk keeps people connected, Chavret said.
“If bakeries close, we lose our human side, our communication and our mutual assistance,” she said. “It’s not a department store where people spend time chatting.”
Maillard issued a stronger warning.
“In a village or a neighborhood, if the bakery disappears, so do the other businesses around it… [It would be] Deaths in villages and certain areas,” he said.
“The bakery is the life of the neighborhood, the life of the village.”