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Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-04-26

Breaking a long silence, Green Party presidential hopeful Nicolas Hulot adopted a resolutely anti-nuclear stance on Monday, which risks alienating potential voters in a country where 55% of the electorate sees nuclear power favourably.

The nuclear disaster unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is definite proof that nuclear power is not a solution to the world’s energy needs, French environmentalist and presidential hopeful Nicolas Hulot said on Monday, ending his often-criticised tolerance of France’s civilian nuclear energy programme.

"I was one of those who had a certain trust in the arguments made by pro-nuclear engineers. Today they are losing their edge in the face of the facts," Hulot told journalists at an anti-nuclear demonstration in the city of Strasbourg to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine.

Hulot was heckled by some protesters for his alleged inconsistency. Stéphane Lhomme, one of his rivals in the Green Party’s upcoming primaries, said Hulot’s “sudden conversion” was “due to his need to get the Green Party’s financial backing” and to rally enough supporters to “hang up his [campaign] posters”.

But while Hulot’s delay in fully adopting the anti-nuclear position is seen by some as a ploy meant to secure his nomination as the Green Party’s candidate in the 2012 presidential vote, it reflects a widely held ambivalence in France about the issue of nuclear energy.

With more than 58 reactors in operation, France is one of the world’s nuclear powerhouses and has, for decades, been resolutely in favour of atomic energy. According to government figures, more than 75% of the country’s electricity is produced in nuclear plants.

“I’m amazed that Hulot took so long to show a clear anti-nuclear stance,” said Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist and expert on the political left in France. However, he added, the anti-nuclear movement has had little room to manoeuvre in France until recently.

France’s decision to heavily invest in and develop nuclear energy was a direct result of the 1973 oil crisis, Wieviorka explained. At that time a consensus that nuclear power was critical to France’s independence emerged between the conservative Gaullist politicians and almost all of the political left, including the powerful CGT trade union.

“That consensus began to erode after Chernobyl,” Wieviorka said, adding that it remained mostly intact until very recently. Even after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a majority of the French opposed the Green Party's proposal to scrap the civilian nuclear network.

Fifty-five percent of French people are against quitting nuclear energy, according to a survey done by French polling agency TNS Sofres at the request of the EDF energy company. That compares to 87% of Germans and 77% of Swiss who would like to lay nuclear energy to rest.

“The conflict within the political left is ongoing,” said Wieviorka. “There is a position that favours high economic growth, and the production of energy is important for that. And then there is the idea that we can live better with less growth.

“The conflict is not between one left-wing party and another. It exists within parties and even within individuals,” he added.

As the world remembers Chernobyl and remains anguished by the plight of Fukushima, Hulot’s anti-nuclear awakening may seem a bit late in coming. But in France the debate over the wisdom of nuclear energy is hotter now than its ever been before.

Date created : 2011-04-25


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