The march towards the atom in France began in the postwar period amidst an international environment dominated by the confrontation between East and West. Although efforts focused initially on nuclear uses for the military, this quest for strategic power soon transferred to civilian uses of nuclear energy. The atom became an indispensable aspect of France’s economic and cultural expansion, for better and for worse.
Photograph of a high-ranking official and a banker’s wife, newlyweds, cutting their wedding cake shaped in the form of a nuclear mushroom cloud, , ETOPIA Archives, Belgium. All rights reserved.
Following the first discoveries by the French physicists Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie, and Marie Curie at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, nuclear energy became a State concern at the beginning of WWII with the Manhattan Project, the US scientific and military program that brought together some of the greatest scientific minds of the era. Their research resulted in the design of the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This demonstration of firepower unprecedented in the history of warfare ended the Second World War by emblazoning images of the apocalypse on everyone’s minds.
The end of the war in Europe and then in Asia marked the beginning of a new era in international relations, in which the atomic bomb became the ultimate strategic asset.
The former colonial empires of the Old Continent appeared to vanish in an international political scene dominated by US-Soviet rivalry. The growing opposition between these two superpowers and the desire of certain countries to assert their predominance gave birth to the nuclear arms race.
In the 1950s, the peaceful use of nuclear energy for the production of abundant electricity became a symbol of the rivalry between two models of civilization that squared off against each other: the nuclear Soviet on one side, and the capitalist world on the other. The leaders of the two blocs used civilian nuclear energy as a way to extend their sphere of ideological, economic, and financial influence by exporting their respective technologies and knowhow. We may recall that Eisenhower’s famous 1953 address to the UN General Assembly was in fact titled “Atoms for Peace.”
At this same time, nuclear energy began to be used in medicine and to produce electrical energy. This created a more peaceful image and rendered it indispensable to modern society. Exit the images of devastation. This modern form of energy became a way to access an abundance and longevity that had until then only been dreamed of, but ultimately remained inaccessible to humans.
In France, the potential of nuclear energy was enlisted to bolster the State’s power. On October 17, 1945, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, directed by General de Gaulle, created the Atomic Energy Commission, or CEA, which institutionalized the State’s march towards the atom.
The atom represented strategic power, the promise of prosperity, as well as a symbol of modernity for France, which sought to reconquer its primary role in the international political scene that it lost after its defeat in 1940 and during the Occupation.
France’s loss of its colonial empire in the two decades following the end of the Second World War and its submission to the United States resulting from Liberation and the Marshall Plan impelled the search for new means of growing its political power. Upon returning to power in 1958, General de Gaulle benefited from the progress of the CEA’s work. On February 13, 1960, Gerboise Bleue, France’s first atomic bomb, was exploded in Reggane in the Algerian Sahara. Endowed with its own atomic bomb, France finally recovered its strategic independence from the United States and the USSR.
Having its own nuclear bomb allowed France to once again take its place on an international political scene dominated by the confrontation between East and West. This marked the beginning of the politics of dissuasion as a way to guarantee strategic independence.
Nuclear tensions between the two blocs reached their peak in October 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis. In a matter of just a few days, the two superpowers faced off against one another and became interlocked in a seemingly apocalyptic spiral.
The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s film about Robert S. McNamara.
Paradoxically, just as the atom gave humanity the technological ability to destroy itself, it also came to harbor many of its hopes, especially that of a progressive society where an unfailing alliance between science and technology would guarantee energy opulence, at the time synonymous with the common good. The decade following France’s acquisition of the bomb ushered French society into this new era.
In 1973, with the first energy crisis, France was forced to acknowledge its dependence on Gulf countries and the vulnerability of its energy supplies. Faced with almost no fossil fuel reserves in its territory, France looked to nuclear energy to guarantee its energy independence.
1974 saw the launch of the Mesmer Plan, an enormous program to build 200 nuclear reactors before the year 2000 and plan the electrification of French ways of doing and living. Its doctrine was summed up by the famous phrase, “All nuclear, all electric.”
The notion of energy independence became associated with this idealized vision of modernity, in which nuclear electricity became “made in France.” The French thereby became convinced of the need to resort to the atom. The creation of the fleet of French nuclear reactors in a brief timeframe created considerable economies of scale that made electricity available at low cost. EDF thereby became the world’s first electrician. Seduced by its comforts, the French became firm believers in their nuclear lifestyle. The flagship of French industry was born, and its reach was international. With its newfound power, the structure of this centralized government complex modeled a society in is own image.