Paris — The rocket attack on France's Creys-Malville nuclear reactor site underscores the growing frustrations of supporters of this country's antinuclear movement.
Many also feel betrayed by President Francois Mitterrand's government.
Their impotence to slow down France's ambitious nuclear program finally erupted in the Jan. 18 midnight attack which caused little damage despite four hits to the reactor's outer shell.
Organized antinuclear groups condemned the attack, but said they sympathized with its motives.
''It's too close to terrorism for us, but at the same time the problem has to be publicized and it wasn't the affair of the century - no one was hurt,'' said Dominique Martin, a member of the national secretariat of the ecologist party, Friends of the Land, France's largest antinuclear group.
The fast-breeder Super-Phenix reactor has long been the object of special scorn for antinuclear groups. One demonstrator died there in 1977 during fighting between protesters and police.
When it opens in 1983 it will be the world's first nuclear plant to use plutonium, the radioactive and poisonous substance also used in nuclear weapons. That permits it to produce more nuclear fuel than it consumes in making electricity, extending the use of the scarce fuel.
But technical uncertainties and safety worries have forced the US to abandon its fast-breeder project. Similar worries about nuclear power in general after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident prompted the Socialists and most of the country's trade unions to join the ecologists in signing an antinuclear petition calling for ''an alternative energy policy.''
As a result, during last year's election campaign when Mr. Mitterrand promised to hold a national referendum on the issue, the ecologists and other local antinuclear groups supported him.
But no referendum has been held. Instead, after initial doubts, the Socialists adopted the previous government's position that, with few energy resources of its own, France must rely on nuclear power.
Mr. Mitterrand has slowed down nuclear development, but only marginally. Instead of providing 30 percent of all French energy needs by 1985 as previously planned, the Socialists want nuclear power to account for 26 percent of the country's energy, according to statistics from Electricite de France, the state-owned electricity company. To reach this goal, Mr. Mitterrand has decided to begin construction on six more nuclear plants over the next two years.
France will then be the second largest producer of nuclear power, behind only the US and ahead of West Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. And while in the US, nuclear power now accounts for 11.5 percent of electricity production, here it already represents 37 percent, French government statistics show.
The Mitterrand government's determination to proceed with its all-out nuclear committment stems from two considerations, explained Yves Maurot of Electricite de France.
The first, of course, is political: France aims to reduce its dependence on uncertain supplies of foreign oil, which totalled 137 billion francs last year (
The second is economic: Nuclear energy is still much cheaper here than fossil fuels, a little less than half the price of coal, and a fourth that of oil.
This reasoning doesn't please the ecologists whose presidential candidate, Brice Lalonde, polled more than 1.2 million votes last year. ''We're furious at Mitterrand,'' snapped Mrs. Martin. ''Mitterrand doesn't have the courage to take the economic risks of curtailing the nuclear program.''
But the ecologists' anger does not translate into power. France is a highly centralized state, that for better or worse, lacks the legal and administrative checks which allow small pressure groups to delay nuclear projects.
''Unlike America, there are no public hearings here,'' complained Mrs. Martin. Antinuclear activists have never succeeded in blocking plans for a nuclear reactor in France, she said.
In fact, under Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the government felt so confident of its power to proceed full-throttle ahead with the nuclear program that the week after the Three Mile Island accident, it boldly announced a speedup in nuclear plant construction.
With the left in power now, the ecologists are as impotent as before to stop nuclear construction. They bitterly chastize the unions and other leftist groups that supported the 1979 antinuclear petition, but now will not break with the government.