Anti-Nuclear Movement in France

Hanna Chang
March 27, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Fig. 1: Nuclear Energy in France (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The anti-nuclear energy movement began to gain full momentum in the 1970s within some powerful western European countries like France. This movement was led by activists comprised of mostly young-aged groups and intellectuals. [1] Out of all the anti-nuclear movements in western Europe, France experienced the most intense anti-nuclear movement during the 1970s, but it became one of the world's most prominent nuclear energy powered countries by the 1980s. [2] Fig. 1, which shows a map of nuclear power plants in France, demonstrates the prominence of nuclear energy there. In order to analyze the dramatic shift in the French nuclear energy, it is necessary to observe the historical sequences of the French anti-nuclear movement and to demonstrate how its failed anti-nuclear movement was different to that of Germany.

History and Failure of the French Anti-Nuclear Protest

The French anti-nuclear movement began in the 1960s and ended around 1977. During the beginning of 1960s, the first anti-nuclear organization was established as the French government announced plans to test nuclear weapons. In 1971, the first anti-nuclear protest was led by 15,000 people in order to demonstrate opposition to the Fassenheim nuclear power plant in France. [2] Although the organization gained much public attention, it was not able to wield much political power on the country. Due to the closed political opportunity structure of France, the executive power of France was dominant and social movements were easily repressed. [3] For this reason, newly formed social movements like the anti-nuclear organization in France lacked solid political grounds. Later in 1977, the largest demonstration comprised of 60,000 was taken place in order to protest against the Creys-Malville nuclear power station. [2] However, the protest in 1977 was repressed by police forces and consequently failed.

Comparison to the Anti-Nuclear Movement in West Germany

Germany's anti-nuclear movement experienced success, while the French peace protest experienced failure. Population distribution and the possession of coal reserves played an important role in determining the success and failure of the movement in both countries. The distribution of population was much more concentrated in Western Germany, when compared to that of France. For this reason, the opposition was much less effective [7]. Furthermore, with smaller coal reserves, France needed nuclear power to support its energy demand [7]. With the underlying need for nuclear energy and the lack of domestic coal resources, the opposition for nuclear energy was unrealistic. Also, while France was barely affected by the radiation of the Chernobyl accident, Germany was affected more by it. The fears of radiation effects fuelled the mobilization of the movement in Germany. In West Germany, anti-nuclear activists were allowed to intervene in licensing activities and regulatory decisions over nuclear energy. [3] The activists used this as a major strategy make the court to delay the construction of nuclear projects. [3] However, this was not true for the activists in France, because they had no power to intervene in regulatory matters over nuclear projects. By slowing down the construction of nuclear projects, anti-nuclear activists imposed economic penalties on nuclear builders and this highly discouraged the growth of nuclear power in Germany. [3] Through strategic interventions, the activists reformed new safety measures requiring the nuclear builders to reconstruct the previous nuclear models, leading to more economic costs. On the other hand, the these strategies of Germany could not be applied to the French anti-nuclear movement, because of the dominant power of the government and the lack of public participation in court rulings. For more details on the historical sequences of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany, please read Xin Min Lee's Germany's Change of Mind. [5]


The resources and economic cost of nuclear power of France played an influential role in halting the anti- nuclear movement in France by the end of 1977. Although Germany seemed to have a similar political structure to that of France, it was able to have a successful anti-nuclear movement due to its resources and court intervention. Due to the failure of the French anti-nuclear movement, France has now become one of the major countries that has nuclear power. For more information on the French nuclear identity and future nuclear plans, please read James Chenevey's report on French Nuclear Phase Out. [6]

© Hanna Chang. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Nelkin and M. Pollack, "Ideology as Strategy: The Discourse of the Anti-Nuclear Movement in France and Germany," Sci. Technol. Hum. Val. 5, 3 (1980).

[2] T. Litmanen, "International Anti-Nuclear Movements in Finland, France and the United States," Peace Research, 30, No. 4, 1 (November 1998).

[3] H.Kitschelt, "Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protest: Anti-Nuclear Movements in Four Democracies," Brit. J. Polit. Sci., 16 57 (1986).

[4] R. Koopmans and J. W. Duyvendak, "The Political Construction of the Nuclear Energy Issue and Its Impact on the Mobilization of Anti-Nuclear Movements in Western Europe," Soc. Probl. 42, 235 (1995).

[5] X.-M. Lee, "Germany's Change of Mind," PH241, Stanford University, 14 Mar 2015.

[6] J. Chenevey, "French Nuclear Phaseout," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[7] J. Radkau, "The Anti-Nuclear Movement in Germany," Duke University, 2009.