The French public would like the country to end its dependence on nuclear power for most of its energy needs in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster in Japan, but don't expect the government to do much about it.
Considering that much of France's economy is tied to nuclear energy, there is not much chance that there will be any sort of shift away from nuclear energy production there in the foreseeable future.
Nuclear power has always been controversial in France, but the public outcry against nuclear power among the French electorate has grown recently. Following recent announcements by Germany and Switzerland that they will eventually phase out nuclear power production in their countries, the French public is overwhelmingly in favor of ending their own reliance on nuclear power.
In a survey conducted this month, French market research firm Ifop found that 77 percent of those polled seek either the immediate or gradual phase-out of nuclear energy production in France.
But despite the French public's hostility towards the nuclear power plants that dot France, neither government-controlled EDF nor Areva, the world's largest nuclear energy producer and distributor, have expressed doubts about their nuclear futures. Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon told Dow Jones in May that she was confident that nuclear power would remain a primary source of energy in France as well as around the world. “The world is not saying 'no' to nuclear,” Lauvergeon told the wire agency. It “is simply saying nuclear is not for everyone.”
Besides being one of the largest employers in France (Areva employs over 5,000 in the United States alone) and one of its largest exporters, the nuclear industry offers perceived benefits to French society. France, for example, has one of the lowest electricity rates in the Western world — it helps that over 70 percent of its electrical power is derived from nuclear energy, according to France's government statistics office, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE). Nuclear proponents in France also readily emphasize how nuclear power production generates a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions that coal-produced electricity releases into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how France's mainstream politicians are either ignoring public opinion or tiptoeing around the nuclear issue (aside from the Green Party and other environmental activists, which, however, do not hold much political weight relative to France's major parties).
For example, Eric Besson, Minister of Industry, Energy, and the Digital Economy, told television reporters last weekend that phasing out nuclear energy production in France would be “excessively expensive” and was not “under discussion.”
France's Socialist Party opposition leaders have recently stepped up criticism over nuclear power while advocating further development of renewable energy sources. However, none has offered a firm plan. François Hollande, one of the Socialist favorites, who leads in polls prior to the first round of the French presidential elections in 2012, has expressed an interest in France relying less on nuclear energy but has ruled out communicating any set timeline by when the country might phase out nuclear power.
France's mainstream political elite on the right and left now face the conundrum of trying to convince the French public that nuclear power production is in their best interest. Hopefully, a disaster will never occur that would force French politicians to respect the wishes of its population. But in the meantime, don't except France's nuclear status quo to change much.