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German decision has France pondering nuclear future

Germany’s announcement that it would phase out nuclear power production has shed new light on the conflicted French attitude towards the possibility of abandoning nuclear development.


Germany’s announcement on Monday that the country would phase out nuclear power production by 2022 has caused some soul searching on the issue in France, which has more than 58 operating reactors and is one of the world’s nuclear powerhouses.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision is seen as a response to a shift in German public opinion on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

But reactions to the news in France have been mixed, reflecting a stronger French attachment to nuclear power production – and a more conflicted attitude towards the possibility of stopping it.

75% of France’s electricity is produced in nuclear plants, and a recent survey by French polling agency TNS Sofres revealed that 55% of French people are against abandoning nuclear energy (compared to 87% of Germans and 77% of Swiss who said they were in favour).

A range of French reactions

The French government has reiterated its commitment to nuclear power production following the Fukushima disaster, insisting that France’s nuclear energy allows both businesses and individuals to pay significantly less for electricity than their German neighbours.

This position seemed largely unchanged by Germany’s shift in nuclear policy. Prime Minister François Fillon said that France “respects the German decision, but does not share it”, while Jean-François Copé, the secretary general of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party, noted that he would be “totally against” France emulating Germany in this respect.

He specified that nuclear energy “is today a major element of France’s industrial power” and that “independent authorities confirm that [its production] is done in remarkably safe conditions”.

Among the expected defenders of France’s nuclear power production was Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of French nuclear company Areva. “It’s a totally political decision because there was never a referendum,” she said, adding that Germany would still be obligated to import nuclear electricity from neighbouring countries.

But French environmentalists have been calling for a gradual phasing out of nuclear power production in France, and Germany’s announcement seemed to give them new momentum in arguing their cause.

Cécile Duflot, the national secretary of the Europe-Ecology-Greens party (EELV), told French journalists: “[Germany’s decision] proves that it’s totally possible to pursue an end to nuclear power production….it’s an example, and I hope this is what will happen in Europe, in any case in France, very soon.”

Prominent Socialist Harlem Désir echoed the call for France, too, to prepare itself for a gradual end to nuclear power production. “We were very good at nuclear energy production, it played a role for a time,” he said. “Tomorrow, we need to be pioneers in solar, geothermal, and wind.”

France’s particular ‘nuclear context’

Not all Socialists necessarily agree with Désir, proving that nuclear power is one issue on which French political opinion cannot be read along party lines. Jérôme Cahuzac, a Socialist member of the National Assembly, told journalists that Merkel’s decision was “probably a political obligation” and that Germany’s “nuclear context has nothing to do with that of France, where today we are far more dependent on nuclear energy than Germany”.

He added: “We have an energy policy that was decided several decades ago, all successive governments subscribed to this policy, and I think it will be the same in the future -- even if I think it’s necessary to develop renewable and alternative energy sources.”

France’s significant investment in nuclear energy accelerated in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, during which oil-producing Arab countries declared an oil embargo. The idea that nuclear power development was crucial to France’s independence was, at the time, largely shared across the French political spectrum.

But Roland Desbordes, president of French NGO Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, contests the commonly cited notion that the French broadly support their country’s nuclear power production. “French nuclear policy was not chosen by the French people,” he told FRANCE 24.

“We know that, because all the big nuclear development projects were widely protested in France. Wherever there are strong autonomist movements, as in Brittany or Corsica, there are no nuclear reactors.”

According to Desbordes, while countries like Switzerland and Germany have engaged in “real democratic debate on the matter”, the debate in France has been stifled in part by a complicit political class.

“French politicians are pressured by lobbies,” he said. “If you’re a politician and want to travel on the cheap to all corners of the globe, you sign up for a seminar run by Areva.”

As for whether or not Germany’s decision to halt nuclear power production could alter France’s stance, Desbordes said French policy makers would be forced to re-examine the issue. “Germany is our neighbour, our top economic partner,” he told FRANCE 24. “What we said was undoable here was done right next door.”

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