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Greenpeace 55 get suspended jail terms over French nuclear protest

AFP / Sebastien Bozon - the March protest banner at the Fessenheim power station
3 min

A French court Thursday sentenced 55 Greenpeace activists to two-year suspended prison terms after they launched an audacious break-in at France's oldest nuclear power plant to highlight weaknesses at atomic installations.


Only three of the defendants were present at the court in the eastern French city of Colmar for the trial over the March 18 protest at the Fessenheim power plant near the border with Germany and Switzerland.

The activists – who were all convicted of trespassing and causing wilful damage – included 21 Germans, seven Italians and people from several other nationalities including France, Turkey, Austria, Hungary, Australia and Israel.

Colmar prosecutor Bernard Lebeau, who had sought three to four month suspended sentences, said although debate on nuclear energy was "perfectly legitimate", the activists’ actions were completely "illegal”.

The defendants insisted they had done the right thing. "It was my duty to do this and I did it," Eddy Varin, a French 41-year-old civil servant who was among the protesters. "It was legitimate."

"To create public awareness, one sadly sometimes has to do media stunts to put pressure on elected representatives," added Jean-Michel Vourgere, a computer specialist from Paris.

The three defendants who came to court, including 73-year-old German national Peter Wendt, unfurled a banner outside which read: "We are disobeying to secure a better future."

The March dawn protest took place at the plant run by state-run power firm EDF. About 20 activists managed to climb up onto the dome of one of the reactors but EDF said the safety of the plant had not been compromised, and the protest ended hours later.

‘François, you promised’

France, the world's most nuclear-dependent country, operates 58 reactors and has been a leading international cheerleader for atomic energy.

But in a deal with the Greens before the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections, French President François Hollande's Socialist Party promised to cut reliance on nuclear energy from more than 75 percent to 50 percent by shutting 24 reactors by 2025.

Hollande has pledged to close Fessenheim, which was commissioned in 1977 and is considered vulnerable to seismic activity and flooding, by the end of 2016.

"François, you promised," read one Greenpeace banner on Thursday, in reference to this pledge.

Greenpeace wants Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to push Europe towards cleaner energy, complaining that France relies too much on nuclear power and Germany on coal for electricity supplies.

Hollande has repeatedly pledged to develop renewable energy and vowed to improve the energy efficiency of one million badly insulated homes.

France plans to reach the EU's 10-percent renewable energy target by boosting the use of second-generation biofuels, which are made from crop residues, waste, algae or woody material.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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