A few months ago, any foreigner would have described France as the ever-lasting kingdom of the atom. In the French Republic, nuclear power appeared as one of the most representative remainders of absolute monarchy: only the case of the Prince and His close advisers, and not to be called into question. A broad political consensus maintained the status quo. From conservatives to the communists (except the Greens and some small left-wing parties only), the whole political class would support nuclear power, in the name of national independence, industrial pride or faith in technology.
Many local antinuclear groups were active in local resistance, but without being taken seriously, and their influence was by no way comparable with the powerful nuclear lobby and its propaganda. Decades of nuclear brainwashing had succeeded in making the population, if not supportive, at least passive and resigned. After the tale of “the energy of the future”, loads of “all-your-appliances-are-nuclear-and-so-what?”-advertisements in the nineties, the widely-spread myth of climate-friendly nuclear power, and even a 20-million-Euro luxurious animated movie ending with sexy young people dancing on Funky Town in a nuclear-powered party… no wonder that many people would think “Nuclear power ? Well, maybe it’s not all clean, but we just cannot do without it!”. Chernobyl? Well… it was in Soviet Ukraine, in a remote and backward state; it couldn’t happen now in a modern country…”
A tsunami over nuclear France
And then the unexpected happened. On March 11, the tsunami and the earthquake did not crippled only the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The blast wave also hit the French media and public opinion.
Unlike after the Chernobyl accident, the media focused immediately on the catastrophe and on the internet information coul;d be found, which made it not possible for the nuclear lobby to set a information black-out. The usual nuclear promoters made a quite low profile, official safety authorities did not really denied the seriousness of the accident… while antinuclear groups and independent organizations like CRIIRAD (the Independent Research and Information Commission on Radioactivity, founded in 1986 just after the Chernobyl accident) were suddenly bombarded with enquiries by journalists. As a result, French nuclear issues were addressed: what about the safety of our facilities? Are they earthquake-proof? Shouldn’t the older plants be closed? By the way, are there any plans to phase-out nuclear energy in France?
Suddenly, the myth of safe nuclear power broke into pieces, people realizing that the accident, after all, was possible everywhere. The latent feeling of being lied to by the political elite, which was already very strong, swelled again. Many people who had never been activists, or who had withdrawn themselves from any commitment, felt the need to take action. In the very week-end following the catastrophe, and in the days and weeks there after, antinuclear gatherings and protests proliferated.
A few months earlier, a call for action had been sent by the French antinuclear network “Sortir du nucléaire” to commemorate the 25th Chernobyl anniversary. With the Fukushima accident, this call got an echo like never before in the late history of the French antinuclear movement, with 366 actions all over the country. This bears no comparison with the huge demonstration happening in Germany at the same time, but in the French nuclear kingdom, it represents a lot.
Nuclear power becomes a political issue
With the Fukushima accident, the political class felt that it had to take a new stance on nuclear power. Of course, the ruling right-wing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire stuck stubbornly to the nuclear option. President Sarkozy (also UMP), one of the most enthusiastic nuclear power advocates, even made a trip to Japan only three weeks after the beginning of the catastrophe, to express clearly that nothing would change its plan to promote nuclear power worldwide. He even claimed that phasing out nuclear power would be like cutting one’s arm, vilifying the fools who wanted to “go back heating themselves with candles”.
On the other hand, the debate divided the social-democratic Socialist Party. The few antinuclear voices got more self-assured, and First Secretary Martine Aubry even expressed herself in favour of nuclear phaseout within 20 to 30 years. However, some other heads of the party, reacting quite violently, immediately tried to marginalise this point of view, claiming it not to be representative of the Party. The socialist program for the 2012 presidential elections therefore appeared as a battlefield where the few energy experts had tried to push nuclear phase-out in, before more influential elected representatives re-wrote it, adding long praises to an industrial flagship that should not get lost. This conflict reflects the growing gap between party elites and their electoral basis, now mostly supporting the end of the nuclear age.
However, possible change could happen in the coming months. The Strauss-Kahn affair put offside the “natural” socialist candidate, maybe leaving a chance for Martine Aubry and the more antinuclear wing of the party. Above all, the bargaining phase between the Socialists and the rising Green party Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, in the perspective of legislative elections next year, could play a key role. Some may have told that, for some years now, the nuclear issue did not stand in the forefront of the Green program, with the rise of newer issues like global warming and the party’s attempt to address people with no specific environmental background in the frame of “Europe Ecologie”. But it seems that this era is over now: nuclear phaseout has become the main point, strongly endorsed by all potential candidates. It is now seen as the very issue on which Europe Ecologie-Les Verts won’t give in, in any agreement with the socialists.
Is France “resilient”?
Finally, another thing that is still not clear is the question whether, after the shock, nuclear power will remain an important issue in French political debates, given that environmental problems have never been allowed a big place in France. If the media slowly forgets the still ongoing catastrophe and other issues come in the forefront, like unemployment or the ugly arguments about “national identity” pushed by the extreme-right, then the need to phase-out nuclear power could shift to the background again. In late March, a leaked Powerpoint presentation from Areva mentioned a “resilient public opinion”. It is now up to the French antinuclear organizations to make sure that a nuclear phase-out does not remain only an environmental issue, but becomes a social issue.