Nuclear is the hot topic of the French elections

In a globalized world, France likes to try to keep things local. Supermarkets have shelves dedicated to regional specialties and during the Covid-19 closures the public has been urged to buy ‘made in France’. Radio stations must ensure that a certain percentage of their songs are in French, and there is the French Academy so that the language of Molière does not stray too far from its origins.

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

Today, most French nuclear reactors are old and technical difficulties hamper the newest power station, Flamanville-3 in Normandy. This giant reactor should have been commissioned at the end of 2018, but it is now not expected to start producing electricity before the middle of next year. In 2020, the share of nuclear in the French electricity mix fell to the lowest level since 1985 and until recently it seemed that France was going to part with its reactors. In 2017, the government set itself the objective of reducing the share of nuclear power in the energy mix to 50% by 2025.

However, with the approach of the presidential elections in April, nuclear energy has once again become a hot topic. Energy bills remain high and tensions between Ukraine and Russia threaten gas supplies to Central and Western Europe.

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

Simply put, the far right loves nuclear, hates wind power and doesn’t believe renewables can be trusted to keep the lights on, while the far left loves solar and wind and don’t like nuclear. The center is, well, somewhere in the middle.

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“If I am elected, I will put an end to the construction of all new wind farms and I will launch a major project to dismantle them,” said far-right populist leader Marine Le Pen. If she ever had the opportunity to go from her words to action, she would undoubtedly become very quickly very unpopular. Wind power provides about 8% of French electricity. Removing the turbines would almost certainly lead to blackouts.

However, it is in favor of “maintaining and modernizing” the nuclear sector and the sustainability of the French nuclear military force.

Far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour wants a total ban on all new onshore or offshore wind power, a freeze on any offshore wind project already under construction and a redirection of public funds for wind and solar power towards other renewable energies, like 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 far-left France insoumise, wants the country to completely phase out nuclear power by 2045. Green candidate Yannick Jadot has said France should stop nuclear production “responsibly” over the next 15 to 20 years. Anne Hidalgo, socialist candidate and mayor of Paris, takes a similar line.

In the middle of it all, President Macron. The left-right divide “left room for Macron to call for nuclear and renewables, and sell it as a compromise, a more balanced opinion,” he said. Yves Marignac from négaWatt, an energy transition NGO.

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

It has since announced funding for small reactor technology and projects to produce hydrogen from nuclear electricity. It remains to decide whether it will support the construction of six new large reactors using technology similar to that which undermined the much maligned Flamanville reactor, as requested by Electricité de France (EDF). Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the centre-right Republicans, says she would support this project, despite previous reluctance on nuclear power.

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

Despite the liberalization of European energy markets, the French government still owns a majority stake in the indebted company, which has an almost mythical status in some minds. EDF has embraced the transition to clean energy, but believes that renewables and nuclear together are the answer to reducing emissions. No decision on the company’s future will be made before the election, but Le Pen is clear that part of reviving French nuclear power is keeping EDF under state control and “giving it a real public service mission”.

There is also the issue of jobs. The nuclear industry is the third largest employer in France, after aeronautics and the automobile industry. Green lobbyists say expanding renewables would create more jobs, but France is the only country in Europe lagging behind in terms of installing renewables. Renewable energies accounted for just over 19% of France’s energy mix in 2020, below the 23% target imposed by the European directive on renewable energies.

Macron also has another thorn in his side. The EU’s green taxonomy, which aims to show investors which investments can be considered sustainable, must be approved in Brussels, but after years of work some governments continue to push for fossil gas, fossil fuel least polluting, and nuclear power are included.

Discussions on legislation “are becoming more and more politicised”, says Sandrine Dixson-Declève, chair of the Club of Rome think tank and member of the EU’s Sustainable Finance Platform. Not the least because France wants nuclear included in the taxonomy and Macron is nominally leading the EU for the next six months under the rules of the rotating EU presidency.

“Given the price increases since last fall, green deal metrics and the spectrum of yellow vests [the protests against fuel price rises that began in 2018], it is important for Macron to win the taxonomy battle at the national level,” says Susi Dennison, director of the European power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Republicans and the far right want France to get its money’s worth 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 birthplace of the Paris climate accord and Macron cannot be said to ignore the green side of the argument,” Dennison adds. “But his core voters also want to see the competitiveness of French companies.”

The need to show one’s attachment to major French industries, such as nuclear, “will be very important in the second round of the French elections and to win back part of Le Pen’s right,” she said. Many experts predict that the second round will be Macron against Le Pen, as was the case in 2017.

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

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Jessica C. Bell