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Nuclear power, the perfect concentrate of France’s relationship to its political power


“It is achievements like these that allow us to judge what a people is worth, what they are worth in the modern era, what they want and what they know how to do. » It was in these terms that, in 1967, General de Gaulle raised the issue of civil nuclear power during a trip to the nuclear installations of Pierrelatte (Drôme) – whose power station was not yet called Tricastin . As if the destiny of the entire country lay in the exploitation of this technology resulting from military research, then mastered by a small handful of States.

Half a century later, the image of the atom in the French collective imagination has hardly changed: more than elsewhere, nuclear power is associated with sovereignty and independence. What other Parliament could have investigated “the reasons for the loss of sovereignty and energy independence of France”as the National Assembly did, at the beginning of 2023, without even having to specify the heart of the subject in the title, namely nuclear energy?

This vision of origins is the source of numerous disputes in Brussels, where it is confronted almost daily with the German perception, almost in every way opposed. It is difficult to understand this divergence without going back to what this energy embodies in the political culture of the two neighbors: emblem of military and strategic power in France, symbol of an existential danger and a dispossession of the citizen in Germany, where it has founded the creation of the environmental movement. Nuclear power is a perfect concentrate of the relationship of these two countries to their own political power.

“It’s a Colbertist energy”

“Nuclear is a centralizing energy which requires control by a strong central state”according to former environmentalist MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, which fits very well with the French Jacobin tradition and its system of large bodies. “Germany is very attached to federalism, nuclear power is considered as an energy which escapes the control of citizens, which dispossesses them”he continues, while, in France, the State is on the contrary the backbone of society, called upon to solve all problems”. From this follows a “Gaullist tradition of adherence to major state projects which guarantee the independence of our countrysummarizes Philippe Etienne, former French ambassador to Germany. This type of reasoning is much more natural in France than in Germany.”

An integrating technology by nature, nuclear power requires centralized safety authorities, even if the power plants are distributed across the territory. “We cannot have nuclear power in a country where the State is weak because the safety authority will itself be weak”, judge Louis Gallois, former president of EADS (now Airbus). Nuclear power also needs a State capable of looking ahead thirty or fifty years, of planning. “It’s a Colbertist energy, which is not in German culture », he believes. Seen from Germany, this ultra-sophisticated technology implies on the contrary too great a dependence on a State whose reliability is questionable, since it has not been authorized to master the technology for military purposes in the after war. The episode of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, in a country considered as technologically advanced as Japan, completed the discrediting of the atom.

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