France's new socialist government has signaled a radical turn in the nation's energy policy by "freezing" all nuclear energy projects not yet under construction.
In an attempt to democratize the controversial nuclear issue, the Socialist feel that the country's energy problems should first be debated in public before embarking on a course that they say could prove disastrous.
Louis Le Pensec, Francois Mitterrand's minister responsible for energy, explained that this did not necessarily imply an abandonment of France's ambitious nuclear energy program, but rather a suspension. "I intend to complete all [nuclear] power stations already under construction, but half those which are not," he said. The new administration has also suspended military nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean and has yet to state its position on strategic weapons.
Nuclear energy has long been a heated issue in France. But the regime of Valery Giscard d'Estaing managed to override all opposition despite often extremely violent demonstrations in order to push ahead with an expansive nuclear program designed to drastically reduce the country's Mideast oil requirements. In contrast, other West European countries, such as West Germany, have seen their nuclear programs almost totally bogged down in the face of severe protests.
Giscard had planned to increase French nuclear energy sources from a mere 6.4 percent in 1981 to 30 percent in 1990 by constructing power stations throughout France. At the same time, the former President had hoped to cut down foreign oil supplies to around 30 percent of the nation's needs.
The new decision notably affects the plight of the Breton village of Plogoff at Cap Sizun in southern Finistere. An Atlantic coastline region with towering cliffs of great natural beauty, Cap Sizun was to be the site of a huge 5,200 megawatt nuclear plant capable of providing some 15 billion kilowatts of energy by the 1990s -- the equivalent of nine conventional coal-powered plants.
For the antinuclear movement in France, Plogoff has become a symbol. It was here that thousands of protesters ranging from Breton farmers and fishermen to ecologists from Paris and the Alsace gathered early last year to demonstrate against the project, which they felt was being ruthlessly imposed on them by Paris.
In an attempt to appease resentment, the government launched a public investigation into the planned nuclear plant in early 1980. Angry local municipalities, however, refused to lend their facilities to Electricite de France (EDF), which was in charge of the investigation.
For two nights, violent confrontations broke out between the barricaded demonstrators and the government security forces, resulting in injuries on both sides.
"It was scandalous and an insult to all Frenchmen," remembers one local resident. "It was like living in an occupied country. The paratroopers were screaming their war cries as they moved in to break us up."
"The government was determined to do anything in order to quash the antinuclear opposition," added Plogoff Mayor Amelie Kerloch'. "But now that the Socialists have made this decision, we must prove that other forms of energy can represent an alternative to nuclear [power]."
France's influential socialist Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT) announced that the decision to suspend the project "is an act of justice for the whole population of Cap Sizun. . . ."
Three years ago, the CFDT published a highly detailed report that did not condemn outright nuclear energy but severely criticized the Giscard regime for pursuing its national program without taking necessary safety precautions.
It also warned that present research is insufficient to determine the long-term performance of nuclear plants, particularly the fast breeders. Some economists have also pointed out that by the end of the century France would be almost as dependent on foreign uranium imports as it is on oil today.
But the socialist administration's decision to "freeze" Plogoff and some 10 other yet-to- be-started nuclear projects has already run into fiery opposition. The EDF has predicted that Brittany, an "energy desert" with no natural resources of its own apart from wind and tides, imports 20 percent of its electricity needs from power plants in other parts of the country. "By 1985," an EDF official maintained, "it will be 50 percent."
Aware of its energy capacity, Brittany's regional and departmental assemblies had earlier come out in favor of Plogoff and other nuclear plants with the neo-gaullists, Giscardiens, and Communists voting together. Only the Socialists , Ecologists, and the local municipalities directly affected by nuclear projects have expressed vehement opposition.
This attitude has changed little today. The French Communists almost immediately condemned the decision. "We believe that Brittany needs to develop energy programs, particularly nuclear energy, so that it may contribute, as do all regions, to the energy independence of France," said a party official.
The conservatives have also protested strongly. "This will severely put back our national energy program," said a neo-Gaullist politician from Brittany. "We need to be independent at all costs. Until someone can come up with a better idea, nuclear energy remains the only practical answer."