EDF

  © Christophe Lehenaff / Getty Images

How far will the French government go in selling off some of its extensive portfolio of assets? In its last budget, the government said it would sell up to €4bn in shareholdings to raise money to pay down debt, or to invest in other companies. This could foreseeably include selling off parts of the government’s stakes in energy companies such as GDF Suez and EDF. But more may be necessary.

The ongoing conflict with the European Union over France’s persistent deficit, which according to the finance minister Michel Sapin cannot now be closed before 2017, is damaging France’s reputation as well as the all important relationship with Berlin. Some action is needed to buy German acceptance of a new timetable. Selling assets in itself would not solve the problem but could reduce debt levels and produce much needed revenue. As a concept, however, privatisation is still considered toxic in France. The terms of any sale will have to reflect these political constraints.

Any Brit commenting on France has to be careful after the childish abuse from Andy Street, the managing director (for the moment) of retailer John Lewis. France has its problems, as any Frenchman will tell you, but it is not “finished” or a country where “nothing works and nobody cares”. Mr Street should visit the thriving areas of the South West. He should remember that France, supposedly so hostile to globalisation, has 31 companies in the latest Fortune 500 listing against 28 each from Germany and the ultra-global UK. I hope that the Franco British Council, the Colloque and the other institutions that have laboured for years to build good relations with France are evidence that Mr Street speaks for no-one but himself. 

The sun sets behind Hinkley Point B, and (R) Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations besides the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater on November 12, 2013 in Somerset, England (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The EU approval of the nuclear development at Hinkley Point marks an important, if not decisive, chapter in the story of new nuclear in the UK. There are still legal challenges to be overcome and a financing package to be finalised within the constraints set by the EU ruling but this is a good moment to identify winners and losers.

The obvious losers are the UK’s consumers who are trapped into paying a price for electricity that is double the current wholesale price for 35 years after the plant starts up. The deal will go down in history, alongside the privatisation of the Royal Mail, as an example of the inability of the British government – ministers and civil servants alike – to negotiate complex commercial deals. The phrase “rolled over” will enter the French language and be accompanied always with a Gallic smile. Still, one should recognise talent and so chapeau to the French negotiators. 

The Chinese, as reported by my colleague Guy Chazan, are in talks with EDF on sharing the costs of building the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Their price is an unspecified “degree of control”. The Russian company Rosatom announced a couple of weeks ago that it was considering joining the game with the aim of building future nuclear stations in the UK. Perhaps we should be grateful that such nice people have taken an interest in the UK’s energy needs. But before we roll over in gratitude perhaps we should consider the links between energy and security. 

Nearly. That was my summary of the state of negotiations between the UK government and EDF on new nuclear last month. Nearly but not quite as comments by Ed Davey over the past week make clear. The government had hoped to make a positive announcement before the summer but it is now looking at the prospect of more months of further talks. A deal, intended by ministers in London to represent a final offer, was put on the table four weeks ago. EDF in Paris, where all the energy company’s decisions are made, has failed to respond.

Frustrated by the unwillingness of EDF to engage, the government, which wanted to do a deal and thought an agreement was possible after the last Anglo-French summit in May, has now effectively stepped back and is talking to other possible suppliers. 

As the FT reported on Friday, negotiations on the terms for new nuclear have advanced and there is increasing optimism that a deal can be done. The meeting between David Cameron and Francois Hollande in Paris two weeks ago amounted to a declaration of agreement in principle. Just three issues remain to be resolved.