France is famous for being one of the most nuclearized nations in the world, and from this fact one might assume that the French population has consented to this status and apathetically gone along with the nation’s energy policy. That might have been the case in the past, but there are signs that the citizenry are waking up and nuclear energy is getting much more attention than it does in North America, where the issue barely gets covered by the mass media and is never discussed in policy discussions of the major parties.

In contrast, France has a relatively strong anti-nuclear movement that is actively opposing nuclear projects and loudly publicizing the numerous problems in the nuclear sector. The excerpt below shows how the issue made it to mainstream television on a weekly news panel discussion where veteran journalist Jean-Michel Aphatie spoke about the nuclear establishment. In France, it is now possible to say on such a platform such things as “In ten years we will speak of nuclear in France as one of the greatest scandals ever, an aberrant political decision–and it’s General de Gaulle who made it–totally aberrant. Nuclear is a lie.”

For an American equivalent, one would have to imagine an MSNBC news anchor saying the same thing about the American nuclear sector—and not immediately being paid off to terminate his multimillion-dollar contract. As bad as things are in France, one can at least say that the problem is on the agenda.

The quote above was spoken in reference to the recent policy announcement made by Nicolas Hulot, the minister of “transition écologique et solidaire.” He announced on November 7, 2017 that the government…

…probably would not be able to keep its 2025 deadline for reducing the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear to 50 percent, an admission which angered ecologists. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot admitted it “will be difficult to keep to the 2025 calendar without relaunching energy from fossil fuels.” In 2015, the previous Socialist-dominated parliament passed a law obliging the government to reduce the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear to 50 percent by 2025 compared with around 75 percent now.[1]

This was all quite surprising (but maybe not so surprising to some observers) because Nicolas Hulot had only recently joined the administration of President Macron after a long career as a filmmaker and activist. For an American equivalent one would have to imagine someone like Bill McKibben from becoming head of the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. It would never happen, and it probably shouldn’t happen because there is a good argument to be made that someone with a radical position will be more effective working from the outside of the halls of power.

In 2009, Nicolas Hulot was on the verge of taking a very radical position against the interests of the capitalist oligarchy, but critics such as Herve Kempf wondered if he was ready to lose his accustomed access to mainstream media platforms:

[Hulot] answers: “… I don’t understand that so much energy should be necessary to put what is obvious before our elites. People who have a sometimes dazzling intelligence have blind spots. That is, they don’t manage to understand that their economic model will not succeed.” That’s Nicolas Hulot’s problem, and, consequently, our problem: He believes that political action today is inspired by the pursuit of the common good. But he forgets the strength of interests: individual and class interests. What Hulot calls the elites are today an oligarchy. The oligarchy does not want to hear about the obvious facts of environmental crisis and social disintegration because the principle objective of the oligarchy is to maintain its own interests and privileges… When one is a nice person, it’s difficult to absorb the fact that others are not all so nice. Nicolas Hulot is about to… no longer speak in vague terms about “capitalism,” but to plunge a knife into the flesh of class selfishness. He can do it. But he knows that then, all of a sudden, a number of media and of more low-profile powers will suddenly find that he has many flaws.[2]

The fact that Nicolas Hulot had to cave in to the status quo on nuclear energy underscores what happens when a self-declared radical decides to join government in the hope of changing the system from within. It becomes obvious that he will be able to change very little and that he could have been more effective by pushing for radical change from outside. Furthermore, his decision makes everyone question his own motives. Did he simply want to maintain a prominent position and avoid being marginalized? What did he expect to achieve in the administration of Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker for Rothschild and classic neoliberal fan of austericide policies?[3]

Analysis of the revised energy transition policy by Jean-Michel Aphatie:

Nuclear energy is said to be a non-carbon energy source which means it contributes to the fight against global warming because it doesn’t produce CO2.[4] So people have trouble understanding why ecologists are against nuclear. But we can say that nuclear is an industry that is extremely polluting.

We make nuclear energy, electricity from nuclear, for sixty years, and we will produce very toxic nuclear waste that lasts 100 million years. It’s insane. This report says nothing except that nuclear is a serious problem.

Closing the power plants? In France there are fifty reactors. No country has such a high dependency on nuclear. The choice of nuclear made by President de Gaulle in the 1960s put France at the top rank of nuclearized countries. Closing the nuclear power plants is a necessity, but it’s impossible. Why? For two reasons. First, it would deprive Eléctricité de France (EDF) of profit. It would be put in danger. Then it would oblige EDF to begin dismantling projects that would be very expensive. It is believed that it will take 50 to 100 years to dismantle them. So there is absolutely no way for EDF to financially support the closing of its reactors. EDF has 180,000 employees. It’s a corporation that is extremely important for the economy. What Nicolas Hulot (ecology minister) is in fact doing is saving EDF. Though he doesn’t say so, everyone can understand this.

In ten years we will speak of nuclear in France as one of the greatest scandals ever, an aberrant political decision—and it’s General de Gaulle who made it—totally aberrant. Nuclear is a lie, and that’s what Nicolas Hulot told us this Tuesday [2017/11/07], in his own way.[5]

* A reader pointed out that the speaker was wrong to say that de Gaulle was responsible for French nuclear energy policy. He was an avid promoter of France restoring its status by developing a nuclear arsenal, but the later drive to develop nuclear energy is more correctly attributed to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. See this related post.

En Français :

L’énergie nucléaire est une énergie décarbonnée. C’est à dire qu’elle participe à la lutte contre le réchauffement climatique puisqu’elle ne produit pas de CO2. Et on a du mal à comprendre à partir de là pourquoi les écologistes sont contre le nucléaire. Alors on peut dire que le nucléaire est une industrie en fait extrêmement polluante.

Nous fabriquerons de l’énergie nucléaire, c’est à dire de l’électricité à partir de l’énergie nucléaire, pendant 60 ans, et nous produirons des déchets radioactive pendant 100 millions d’années. C’est un dinguerie. Rien qu’avec ce rapport là on se dit que le nucléaire est un grave problème.

Fermer les centrales nucléaires et les réacteurs nucléaires : il y a en France 50 réacteurs. Aucun pays en a autant. Le choix du nucléaire fait par de Gaulle dans le années 60 a placé la France en tête des pays nucléarisés. Fermer les centrales nucléaires est une nécessite mais c’est impossible. Pourquoi ? Pour deux raisons. D’abord parce que ça priverait EDF de recettes évidentes. Ça le mettrait en danger.

Ensuite ça obligerait EDF à se lancer dans un démantèlement qui couterait très, très cher. On pense que pour démanteler les centrales il faut entre 50 ans et un siècle. Et donc EDF n’a absolument pas les moyens financiers de supporter la fermeture de ses réacteurs. EDF c’est 180,000 salariés. C’est une entreprise évidemment extrêmement importante pour l’équilibre économique du pays. Et ce que fait Nicolas Hulot mardi [2017/11/07], c’est préserver EDF. Il ne le dit pas comme ça, mais c’est ce qu’il fait. Il ne dit pas autre chose parce que chacun doit bien comprendre.

Dans dix ans nous parlerons du nucléaire en France comme l’un des plus grands scandales, une décision politique aberrante–et c’est Général de Gaulle qui l’a prise–totalement aberrante.

Le nucléaire est un mensonge et c’est ce que nous dit à sa manière, Nicolas Hulot mardi [2017/11/07].


[1] France backtracks on promise to cut nuclear power reliance, The Local, November 8, 2017.

[2] Herve Kempf, “The Oligarchy and the Titanic Syndrome,” Truthout, October 6, 2009

[3] Patrick Marnham, “Who’s behind the mysterious rise of Emmanuel Macron?The Spectator, February 4, 2017.

[4] Although Mr. Aphatie makes some accurate criticisms of the nuclear industry, he fails here to note that the nuclear industry has a significant carbon footprint.

[5] This citation comes from the program C l’hebdo on Canal 5 ( the week of November 6, 2017. The video was shared on Facebook, but it has, curiously, vanished from the program’s Youtube channel where all the other episodes from November 2017 are featured.