Politics & Other Mistakes: French kiss-off

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In public, heads of major utilities almost never say what they really think. That’s because what they really think is: Screwing over the public is so much fun.

You can see the public-relations problem. But more often than not, the version spewed out by CEOs is so unbelievable, it does about as much damage as if they’d said what was actually on their minds. For example:

According to a May 12 report from La Presse, a Canadian newspaper, Sophie Brochu, the head of Hydro-Quebec, said the following: “On nous accuse de nous immiscer dans un processus électoral, mais ce n’est pas un processus électoral. C’est un processus commercial.”

If you’re going to say something stupid, it helps if it’s in a language most Americans learned from Pepe Le Pew.

My high school French is a little rusty, so it’s possible Brochu’s statement had something to do with the high price of snails or the shortcomings of California wines. But it’s also possible it relates to Hydro-Quebec’s massive spending on advertising – a figure well north of $10 million – promoting the construction of a power line through the forests of western Maine to deliver juice to Massachusetts. Here’s a rough translation:

“We are accused of interfering in an electoral process (in Maine), but it is not an electoral process. It’s a commercial process.”

This argument appears aimed at a bill passed by the Legislature (but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills) to ban foreign-owned companies from spending money in state political campaigns. In spite of the fact that a referendum seeking to block the project will be on the November ballot, Brochu is pretending all those ads are intended to promote her company’s product, which isn’t even available for sale in Maine.

The ads are clearly presenting the power line as something other than an ugly blot on the landscape that damages Maine while mostly benefiting the Bay State. And Hydro-Quebec.

“The Clean Energy Corridor will replace oil and gas with clean, renewable hydropower,” one ad says. “The Clean Energy Corridor is part of the solution for a cleaner present and future in Maine,” claims another. “That means less pollution and improved air and water quality in Maine for future generations,” promises a third ad. “Clean, renewable energy is a sound choice for all,” Hydro-Quebec reminds us one more time.

Hydro-Quebec’s record of environmental stewardship is much disputed, but even if these claims were true, they’d still sound like political speeches. The company has no commercial interest in promoting its electricity to Mainers since nobody in Maine can buy from Hydro-Quebec.

Even though a small amount of power from the project would be diverted to this state’s grid, no consumer would have the opportunity to sign up to receive it. In fact, Hydro-Quebec will be paying us a paltry sum to take it, as part of a package of bribes negotiated by Mills, after former Republican Gov. Paul LePage agreed to allow the line to run through Maine for almost nothing in return.

As Brochu correctly noted in her veiled remarks back in May, this is a commercial endeavor, in the sense that her company and her partner, Central Maine Power Co., stand to make billions of dollars. As with any commercial activities, there’ll be winners (the power companies) and losers (everyone in Maine who doesn’t own stock in Hydro-Quebec or CMP).

That’s just the way the business world works.

It is not, however, the way the political process works.

Polls show the power line is unpopular, with around 60 percent of respondents opposed to it. Without massive spending by Hydro-Quebec, the project will almost certainly be rejected by the voters this fall.

The only way to save it may be to convince everyone, as Brochu keeps trying, that this isn’t about letting the people vote. It’s about letting the corporations do whatever the hell they want.

Or as French-speaking CEOs are wont to say: L’argent est tout ce qui compte. C’est vraiment ce que je pense.

No line is safe to touch – evah. But you can safely email your charged lines to me at [email protected].

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