French nuclear energy and the 2012 presidential campaign

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Isabelle Guinaudeau, Max Weber Fellow 2011-2012By Isabelle Guinaudeau, Max Weber Fellow 2011-2012 in SPS

One year after the accident in Fukushima, support for nuclear energy is growing among the French public.

As shown by the election surveys TNS-Sofres TriÉlec, the proportion of those claiming to be favourable to “the production of energy through nuclear power plants” has increased by 12 points between October 2011 and February 2012.

This seems paradoxical after a year marked by the novel intrusion of the nuclear issue on the French political and media agenda, which has placed the consequences of Fukushima, the reflections on the safety of the French plants and the phasing-out decided by four of France’s direct neighbours at the centre of attention. In a research note published on the website of the TriÉlec programme, Sylvain Brouard, Florent Gougou, Simon Persico and I have explored the mechanisms and reasons for this dynamic.

With over 75% of its electricity produced by nuclear plants, France is the country which is by far the most dependent on this technology.

Since the creation of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique in 1945 and the decision to produce nuclear electricity, investments in this industry reach 188 billion Euros following a recent evaluation by the French audit office. Since 1973, the growth in the nuclear sector has been spectacular: the increase in French electricity production (+314%) almost exclusively resulted from nuclear electricity production, which has reached about 400 TWh since the late 1990s.

Over more than three decades, this choice has never been seriously challenged. While most Western party systems were debating nuclear policy choices, French political parties have remained both quiet and consensual on this issue.

Before 1993, no anti-nuclear political party could attract more than 3% of votes at legislative elections. This has progressively changed with the emergence of the Greens as an indispensable coalition partner for the Socialist Party (PS) from 1997 on. Traditionally constrained by the necessity of governing with a strongly pro-nuclear Communist Party, the PS now needs to deal tactfully with the Greens.

In the meantime, however, given the high amounts invested in nuclear power plants and the French dependence on them, the inertia of past decisions has considerably raised the cost for a phasing-out (in comparison to the situation François Mitterrand had found in the early 1980s). The red-green coalition in power between 1997 and 2002 neither sought particularly to politicize this issue, nor did it radically re-direct energy policy. Beyond the closure of Superphénix, the Jospin government maintained the traditional consensus of French elites in favour of the civil nuclear power.

From this point of view, the 2012 electoral campaign is a major reversal. For the first time, nuclear energy has been subject to public controversies between candidates. The mainstream right UMP, in particular, has decided to politicise its differences from the PS and the Greens, by framing the topic in terms of employment and spending power, and by pointing to the disagreements dividing the left block. The mediatisation of nuclear policy and these dynamics of politicization, may exert an influence on French public opinion. In the (very) short run, they have had spectacular repercussions which are reflected in the brutal and considerable rise in support for nuclear energy. This trend is particularly palpable among men over the age of 46, the highly qualified and the rich. Above all, support is strong among right-wing voters.

At first sight surprising in the current context, this evolution can be understood with respect to the reframing of nuclear energy which goes hand in hand with its stronger presence in the media. The UMP and the members of the executive have successfully emphasized the jobs, the industrial advantages linked to the nuclear sector, but also its merits in terms of CO2 emissions. Faced with this right-wing offensive, the ecologists did not manage to impose their framing in terms of risks.

These framing effects are the more influential since the French are largely ambivalent towards nuclear energy. Discussions do not occur as a confrontation between contradictory arguments, but rather as debates regarding a hierarchy of distinct aspects: risks, energy independence, industrial policy and international competition, climate change and CO2 emissions… The TriÉlec survey reveals that most French are prepared to consider the arguments of both the advocates and the opponents of this technology, and that they tend to define their position pragmatically, after having weighted pros and cons. The favourable conjuncture enjoyed by the nuclear sector in French public opinion could thus rapidly be reversed if negative frames become more visible in media and political discourses.

This text is a summary of the research note co-authored with Sylvain Brouard, Florent Gougou and Simon Persico, and available online:—fevrier-2012/lesfrancaislenucleaireetlacampagnepresidentielle2012