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Nuclear power is the French election’s hot topic

Emmanuel Macron is struggling to reconcile climate action with a desire to support industry and secure France's energy supply.

By Philippa Nuttall

In a globalised world, France likes to try to keep things local. Supermarkets have shelves dedicated to regional specialities and during Covid-19 lockdowns the public was urged to buy “made in France”. Radio stations must ensure a certain percentage of their songs are en français, and there is the Académie française to ensure the language of Molière does not stray too far from its origins.

Nuclear power, too, is sold as “made in France”. The country is an anomaly in Europe in terms of its energy supply, with about 70 per cent of its electricity coming from nuclear. Governments left and right have pushed this vision of local energy since Charles de Gaulle instigated the birth of France’s nuclear industry after the Second World War. Since then France’s military and energy policies have been closely entwined. 

Today most of France’s nuclear reactors are old and technical difficulties hamper the newest power station, Flamanville-3 in Normandy. This giant reactor should have come online at the end of 2018, but now it is not scheduled to start producing electricity until the middle of next year. In 2020 nuclear’s share of the French electricity mix dropped to the lowest level since 1985 and until recently it seemed that France was going to part ways with its reactors. In 2017 the government set a goal to reduce the proportion of nuclear power in the energy mix to 50 per cent by 2025.

Yet as the presidential elections in April approach, nuclear energy has become a hot topic again. Energy bills remain high and tensions between Ukraine and Russia are threatening gas supply to central and western Europe.

[See also: Will the lights go out in Europe if Russia invades Ukraine?]

In simple terms, the far-right loves nuclear, hates wind power and doesn’t believe that renewable energy can be trusted to keep the lights on, while the far-left loves solar and wind and dislikes nuclear. The centre sits, well, somewhere in the middle.

“If I am elected, I will put a stop to the construction of all new wind parks and I will launch a big project to dismantle them,” the populist far-right leader Marine Le Pen has claimed. If she ever had the opportunity to turn her words into action, she would doubtless become very unpopular very quickly. Wind provides about 8 per cent of France’s electricity. Removing turbines would almost certainly lead to blackouts. 

She is, however, in favour of “maintaining and modernising” the nuclear power sector, and ensuring the future of France’s nuclear military force. 

The far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour wants a total ban on new onshore or offshore wind, a freeze on any offshore wind projects already under construction, and public funds for wind and solar power to be redirected to other renewables, such as biomass. As in Le Pen’s world, the rest of France’s electricity would come from nuclear power.

Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed, wants the country to have fully abandoned nuclear energy by 2045. The Green candidate Yannick Jadot has said that France should stop nuclear production “in a responsible way” over the next 15 to 20 years. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist candidate and mayor of Paris, takes a similar line.

In the midst of all this is President Macron. The left-right cleavage “has left space for Macron to call for nuclear and renewables, and to sell it as a compromise, a more balanced opinion”, says Yves Marignac from négaWatt, an energy transition NGO. 

Macron is a strong voice on the international stage for climate action but it is only in recent months that he has shown any real enthusiasm for revitalising France’s nuclear industry. “We are going, for the first time in decades, to relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors in our country and continue to develop renewable energies,” Macron said in a televised address to the nation in November 2021.

He has since announced funding for small reactor technology and plans for hydrogen production using nuclear electricity. He still has to decide whether he will back the construction of six big new reactors using similar technology to that which has plagued the much maligned Flamanville reactor, as called for by Électricité de France (EDF). Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the centre-right Republicans, says she would support this project, despite previous misgivings about nuclear power. 

“The nuclear agenda is complex because France has political, technical and financial lock-in to the technology,” says Marignac. “What was created in the 1970s has become a kind of monster. The notion of public service in France is much stronger than in other countries and EDF has been given this mandate of public service.”

Despite the liberalisation of EU energy markets, the French government still has a majority stake in the debt-laden company, which has an almost mythical status in certain minds. EDF has embraced the clean energy transition but believes renewables and nuclear together are the answer to reducing emissions. No decision on the future of the company will be made until after the elections, but Le Pen is clear that part of France’s nuclear revival is to keep EDF under state control and to “give her back a real mission of public service”.

There is also the question of jobs. The nuclear industry is France’s third-largest employer, after the aerospace and automotive industries. Green lobbyists argue that expanding renewables would create more jobs, but France is the only country in Europe that is lagging behind in terms of renewables installation. Renewables accounted for just over 19 per cent of France’s energy mix in 2020, short of the 23 per cent target imposed by the EU renewable energy directive.

Macron also has another thorn in his side. The EU green taxonomy, which is intended to show investors which investments can be considered sustainable, needs approval in Brussels but after years of work, some governments are still pushing for fossil gas, the least polluting fossil fuel, and nuclear to be included. 

Discussions about the legislation “are getting increasingly politicised”, says Sandrine Dixson-Declève, the president of the Club of Rome think tank and a member of the EU’s sustainable finance platform. This is not least because France wants nuclear to be included in the taxonomy and Macron is nominally head of the EU for the next six months under the rules of the rotating EU presidency.

“Given the price hikes since last autumn, green deal measures and the spectre of the gilets jaunes [the protests against fuel price rises that began in 2018], it is important for Macron to win the taxonomy battle domestically,” says Susi Dennison, director of the European power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The Republicans and the far-right want to see that France gets value for money from the EU. It will be difficult for Macron if he loses this battle during the French EU presidency.”

Climate change is one of Macron’s election priorities. “France is the home of the Paris climate agreement and Macron can’t be seen as ignoring the green side of the argument,” Dennison adds. “But his core voters want to see the competitiveness of French business too.”

The need to show his commitment to France’s big industries, such as nuclear, “will be very important in the second round of the French elections and to win a part of the right back from Le Pen”, she says. Many pundits predict that the second round will be Macron v Le Pen, as was the case in 2017.

“I don’t want to see Macron lose to a populist candidate,” says Dixson-Declève. “That would be dangerous for climate action and energy policies overall, but European climate ambition cannot be held hostage by national politics.”

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