France, and the Socialists, need a debate on nuclear

Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Carl Miller and Matthew Moran, July 2011.

… With the Socialist hopefuls defending the same party programme, little distinguishes them so far. Economic reform, education, youth unemployment…the party’s political priorities are the usual suspects and neither Aubry, Hollande nor Royale have suggested anything to invigorate the debate. Add to this the lack of any outstanding personality – this is where DSK’s absence is most keenly felt – and the Socialist ticket makes for dull reading.

So, each candidate is keen to sculpt a distinctive public persona: one with a cutting edge (and an eco tinge of green). Perhaps they won’t have to look too far. One of the big fears du jour is rooted in the nuclear industry. Earlier this year, the threat of nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan evoked the spectre of Chernobyl and provoked a wave of anti-nuclear policies across the globe. 

The Chinese, for example, immediately suspended any approvals of new power plants, while the British ordered a comprehensive safety review of their national nuclear infrastructure. Germany has gone even further, announcing a full withdrawal from nuclear by 2022.

Once an industry that soared above the political fracas, Fukushima has put nuclear energy onto the political map. A recent poll published in Libération found that 60% of respondents supported a progressive withdrawal from nuclear. This figure represents an increase of 9% on an Ifop survey conducted in March. Clearly then, the Japanese crisis has unnerved the French. And this public division is being played out in the Socialist Party. Martine Aubry has voiced her opposition to nuclear while fellow presidential hopeful François Hollande has claimed that a withdrawal from nuclear is neither economically nor socially viable.

The French have a long and prosperous relationship with the atom. In the civil sector, nuclear energy provides for almost 80% of France’s energy needs. Heavily dependent on imports in the 1970s, France is now the world’s largest net electricity exporter. Moreover, the nuclear industry has served as an international champion of French science and engineering. French-owned firms such as Areva and GDF Suez have become market leaders in the export of reactor (and related) technologies. In this industry, France is literally lighting up the globe.

And if global politics were an airline, French nuclear weapons are the country’s ticket to, if not First, then at least Business Class (where it can stretch its legs a little more than in Economy). De Gaulle’s idea of grandeur has woven nuclear into the fabric of French national identity.

Yes, the Socialists need an edge, but they also need credibility. A complete withdrawal from nuclear in France is almost inconceivable given how deeply reliant the country is on nuclear energy. The allure of a green, fashionable, and distinctive public persona is causing at least some Socialist hopefuls to lose sight of what France is – it is nuclear, more than any other country. France needs a debate on nuclear, and the issue could energise the Socialists’ campaign. But there is no point choosing a coronating question if you find that the throne is much diminished as a result. (full text).

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