Challenging Nuclear Energy in France

Although the construction of nuclear reactors in France received widespread support from the political and industrial elite, it did not always play out smoothly. A new look at the challenges and questions that shook the 1970s and 1980s.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also gave rise to a bitter opposition to nuclear energy. Marked by the scale of the devastation, pacifists began to coalesce into movements. Troubled by the proliferation of nuclear arsenals and the risk of atomic warfare between the superpowers during the Cold War, intellectuals and celebrities the world over united to sign the Stockholm Appeal. Drafted by Fréderic Joliot-Curie, the petition demanded the prohibition of nuclear weapons. More than 3 million people signed, including a very young Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin, Pablo Picasso, Pablo Neruda, and Yves Montand.

This criticism resonated strongly with citizens and politicians alike, but it did not lead to the disappearance of nuclear arsenals. The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the START and SALT I and II agreements at least reduced the number of nuclear warheads and by a discriminatory logic, reserved their possession to a small number of countries.

In the 1970s in France, this opposition to military uses of nuclear power extended to civilian uses as well. The launch of the construction of nuclear power plants under the Messmer Plan, which took place without any preliminary debate, mobilized crowds of tens of thousands of protesters. Left-leaning movements soon saw residents in areas where plants were being built joining their ranks. Opposition spread to the whole of the country and transcended mere local protest.


Poster for The Stockholm Appeal by the World Council of Parties for Peace, collection of Michel Dixmier and Kharbine Tapabor, published in Environmental Politics in Posters, 40 year of graphic militancy, Plume de carotte, Toulouse, pg. 17.
Bumper sticker No to the bomb, Jean-Luc and Sylvie BURGUNDER Fund, Foundation for Political Ecology.

The opposition included the Unified Socialist Party, or PSU, the environmental movement with René Dumont, candidate in the 1974 presidential elections, and parties from the extreme left. In 1975, an anti-nuclear week was organized at the national level, which brought together 30,000 protesters in various regions and 25,000 in Paris.

This same year saw the creation in Toulouse of the first Anti-Nuclear Action Committee, or CAN, which the following year launched a campaign for citizens to reduce their EDF bills by 15%, which was followed in 1977 by a “work-to rule” for paying EDF invoices. The two campaigns targeting EDF were led by various organizations (Friends of the Earth, CFDT, CSCV, PSU, and PS) demanding that the government open a debate on energy policy.

A fringe of the Socialist Party also joined this critical stance, led by François Mitterrand during his 1981 presidential campaign, when he committed to organizing a referendum on continuing the nuclear program.


This period also saw the birth of the first Regional Nuclear Information Committee, or CRIN, in Brittany, which was followed by the creation of twenty-four Local Nuclear Information Committees, or CLIN. Opposition to the reprocessing facility in la Hague mobilized inhabitants of the Nord-Cotentin Region, where CFDT union members joined hands with the anti-nuclear groups of CRILAN, the Committee for Independent Thinking and Anti-Nuclear Struggle, and CCPAH, the Committee Against Nuclear Pollution in la Hague. Working conditions in the pant were denounced in the film produced by the CFDT called Condemned to Succeed.
Blocage du train de déchets allemands à 4h20 du matin en gare de triage de Mézidon en direction de Cherbourg-la Hague en août 1981, fonds Jean-Luc et Sylvie BURGUNDER, Fondation de l’Écologie Politique.
Blocage du train de déchets allemands à 4h20 du matin en gare de triage de Mézidon en direction de Cherbourg-la Hague en août 1981, fonds Jean-Luc et Sylvie BURGUNDER, Fondation de l’Écologie Politique.
Intervention devant les journalistes de Pierre BARDEY (CRILAN) ; Guy ROBERT (CFDT-US) et Didier ANGER (CRILAN) lors du blocage du train de déchets allemands à 4h20 du matin en gare de triage de Mézidon en direction de Cherbourg-la Hague en août 1981, fonds Jean-Luc et Sylvie BURGUNDER, Fondation de l’Écologie Politique.

The protest movement also spread to the world of research. The Appeal by the 400 was launched in February 1975 by scientists, including 200 nuclear physicists, and quickly garnered the support of another 4,000 scientists. This marked the beginning of a scientific counterbalance to the imposition of the all-nuclear policy.

Critics called to reduce our recourse to civilian nuclear energy, to slow down construction, and to increase oversight of their operations. Scientists denounced the precipitous, outrageous nature of the program (France had set itself the goal of doubling the kilowatt/hours produced annually every ten years). They did not oppose nuclear energy in principle, but simply invited the government to open a “true debate.”

The criticisms from scientists were picked up by the media, and they gave an unprecedented legitimacy to the anti-nuclear movement, especially when a hundred researchers from the CEA in Saclay signed the appeal. The Group of Scientists for Information on Nuclear Energy, or GSIEN, was born following the Appeal by the 400. It was composed primarily of nuclear physicists, scientists, and engineers who were active members of Friends of the Earth and the CFDT. It would play a very important role in criticizing the use of secrecy, which continued to deprive the citizenry of essential information.

We believe that current politics do not take into account either the people’s true interests or those of future generations, and that it qualifies a political choice as being somehow scientific. We need real debate and not this fake consultation done in a hurry. We call on citizens to refuse that these plants be built until we have a clear understanding of their risks and consequences. We call on scientists (researchers, engineers, doctors, professors) to support this appeal and to contribute in any way they can to instruct public opinion. (Appeal by the 400, 1975)

After not being heard by the government and even having the nature of their scientific expertise attacked, torn between scientific positions and protest, the number of scientists who mobilized began to go down.


From the Protests of 1977 to the Disappointment of 1981

People began to express their awareness in response to the construction of the future nuclear reactor in Fessenheim in 1971. Protests were staged throughout the 1970s into the early 1980s at a number of sites, such as Bugey, Nogent-sur-Seine, Plogoff or, again, la Hague.

The feeble support from politicians and unions was indicative of the prevailing consensus surrounding nuclear energy. Only the CFDT, the PSU, and Friends or the Earth were willing to organize marches, while all the other unions and political parties agreed to denounce these protests as mere provocation.

The best known protest was organized against the project to build the Superphénix fast breeder reactor in Creys-Malville in 1977. Militants peacefully occupied the site and were quickly removed by the police. Police brutality became symptomatic of the authoritarian nature of the construction of these power plants, leaving one protester dead, Vital Michalon, and three seriously injured.

As at Creys-Malville, the mechanisms of police repression at the construction sites discouraged protesters, who came out of a pacifist, non-violent tradition.

Launched by decrees between 1976 and 1981, the construction projects progressed rapidly. The plants were quickly connected to the grid and became a permanent fixture in the landscape of municipalities who began to resign themselves to their presence.


On the eve of the 1981 presidential elections, a number of labor unions and civilian organizations, Friends of the Earth, the Federal Consumers’ Union, as well as the PS and the PSU drew up a national petition titled “For a different kind of energy policy, for a democratic debate on energy.” Although François Mitterrand signed the petition, at the end of the day, against all expectations, he showed himself to be favorable to pursuing the civilian nuclear energy program.
Mitterrand’s election provided the final blow to civilian protest. The loss of an identifiable enemy, the government, and the hope of pursuing this struggle that was betrayed by those now occupying positions of political power strongly diminished the repercussions among citizens. Given the heterogeneity of the reasons for engaging in this struggle, the profiles of the major actors and their means of action, a highly decentralized protest movement found itself penalized. François Mitterrand’s cancelling of the construction of the Plogoff nuclear power plant is the only victory achieved through civil protest. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a political maneuver more than a stance against nuclear energy.

Today, as the fleet of France’s nuclear reactors nears the end of its life, debate seems to be slowly acquiring the place due to it in the world of the media and politics: the closing of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant, the risks and costs of extending the life of all these plants, the reduced recourse to nuclear energy to develop renewable energies, and the economic challenges facing operators have begun to shed light on choices made in another century.

These pending questions lead us to believe that we still have a choice. Can today’s “privileged consumer” become an energy producer and an economic citizen?