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In Good Company: The German Energy Transition and its Echo in France

By Andreas Rüdinger , Kathrin Glastra

The chosen energy creation method in France – retention of two thirds of nuclear energy – is only at first sight incompatible with the idea of the German energy transition. The objective is strikingly similar.

The Great Divergence in Energy Policy

The German-French debate on energy policies is an incomprehensible “dialogue of the deaf”. Aside from the fact that the energy policies in both countries follow totally different traditions and, as a result, can be difficult for the respective neighbours to understand, the issue isn’t helped by the fact that one’s perception of a neighbouring country is shaped by stereotypes, which sometimes colours the view of change or innovation. The image of France as the ‘Grande Nation’, which is defined by its identity as a nuclear power, can be just as ingrained in Germany as the image of an ecological and anti-nuclear Germany is in France. There is hardly another policy area where the views of both countries are more divergent than in energy-related matters. While Germany has managed to establish the nuclear phase-out project as a worldwide “energy transition” brand and is celebrating the Renewable Energies Act as an export success, the nuclear industry continues to form part and parcel of the national identity of France. It is as if the term “nucleocracy” was invented for France: the power of the atom, born from the close interrelationship between the ubiquitous nuclear technology, centralised power structures, and a state-controlled energy economy.

Nuclear energy has also reached the rank of status symbol in foreign policy. As France was losing more and more colonies, the atomic bomb was meant to ensure that Charles de Gaulle’s doctrine of France’s “grandeur” would be preserved at a diplomatic level. Because nuclear force ensures a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it remains a national symbol of international prestige. The history of German nuclear policy developed very differently. It wasn’t until national sovereignty was regained in 1955 that nuclear energy could be contemplated in the German energy policy and under strict conditions of civilian use at that. But the German attitude towards nuclear power was somewhat sceptical from the outset.

As a consequence, the antagonisms won’t take long to list: decentralisation versus centralisation; renewable energy versus nuclear power; market economy versus a centrally planned economy; hard power as a diplomatic weapon versus the soft power of the German economic miracle.

But opposites attract. At present, France is looking across the Rhine with a mixture of curiosity, fascination, and distrust and is watching the development of the energy transition. Conversely, the German public has hardly noticed that France has increasingly been moving towards an energy transition project à la française in the past few years. In spite of the historical contrasts, the new French strategy with its Act on Energy Transition for Green Growth is strikingly similar to the German energy policy, and has obviously been modelled on it.

Two different traditions

In European politics, Germany and France have consistently become closer ever since the duo Helmut Schmidt/Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and their successors Helmut Kohl/François Mitterrand came onto the scene. The integration process in European key areas such as agriculture, trade and monetary policy progressed rapidly. But in terms of energy policy, Germany and France pursued very different paths. The 1973 oil crisis and the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 acted as decisive catalysts.

In the case of France, which is dependent on energy imports, the oil crisis triggered a return to “national sovereignty”, which was believed to be indispensable, even in the energy sector. This was achieved via the rapid construction of the French nuclear park, with 37 nuclear power plants made operational between 1980 and 1986. No other power plant park in Europe boasted so many nuclear reactors – the current number stands at 58. Nuclear power was abundant and cheap. Consume electricity instead of saving it was the motto.

Germany, on the other hand, essentially focused on domestic coal and lignite. In the wake of the oil crisis, it too, albeit hesitantly, turned to nuclear energy, but to a far lesser extent: nuclear energy happened to be socially controversial from the word go. The different attitudes were above all reflected by the reaction to the Chernobyl disaster. Although both countries were equally affected by the radiation, French public awareness was so indifferent that it seemed as though the nuclear cloud had stopped at the border. Chernobyl did not become the political hot potato in France as it did in Germany where national nuclear policy even became topic of a party political dispute. However, the shift in German public opinion was soon reflected in politics when the anti-nuclear Green Party began to gain popularity.

Since then, nuclear energy has remained unpopular in Germany as the Eurobarometer surveys show: in 2006, 50 per cent of Germans surveyed were in favour of reducing the proportion of nuclear energy. Interestingly, 49 per cent of French respondents also favoured a reduction in nuclear energy. In Germany, the first protest marches in Wyhl, Brokdorf, and Wackersdorf were held and “the nuclear debate changed from an energy-policy or energy-economic technological decision to a political moral issue”. This resulted in the, at the time, “underestimated” Electricity Feed-In Act of 1990 and the Renewable Energy Act (REA) of the Red-Green Government in 2000.

Not an issue for France: Fukushima – the small super GAU[1] [maximum credible accident]

In the German mind, the core meltdown of Fukushima and the radiation leaks clearly eclipse the more obvious consequences of the natural disaster. The Black-Yellow (CDU-FDP) Government, which had just decided to withdraw from the nuclear power phase-out, made a U-turn and ordered the closure of all nuclear reactors by 2022. Conversely, the French perception of Fukushima was similar to that of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The disaster in faraway Japan did not give rise to a critical debate on the state of the French nuclear facilities. President Sarkozy then emphasised France’s commitment to nuclear energy and its contribution to the reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions: “We are committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. To do so, we don’t have 150 solutions, but we have the atom.” In doing so, he made a clear political stance against the nuclear-critical Green Party, which was calling for a nuclear phase-out, especially after the Fukushima disaster. He affirmed that, in France, there would neither be an investment freeze nor a moratorium. A turnaround like that would be like “waiting for the sky to fall on your head, a medieval choice” – a comment that depicts the unshakeable confidence in modernity which is rooted in French society.

Although the political reaction to Fukushima was comparatively hesitant at the start, it did, over time, lead to a visible jolt in French politics. Energy issues – and thus an explicit position of the parties on the future of nuclear power – once again became part of the political debate in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. The look towards the German neighbours, which in a way was the indirect result of the drastic decisions by the French elite, was omnipresent. It is hardly surprising that the former socialist presidential candidate François Hollande presented his approach to the future of nuclear policy during a television debate as follows: “France must make the same efforts as Germany over the next 15 years, i.e. reducing its nuclear energy by 25%, from 75 to 50%.” The Socialists had already indicated their intention to slowly move away from nuclear energy in previous years. In the 2012 election year, the hour for such announcements had come – as had the opportunity to approach a possible Green coalition partner.

In France, the German “tournant énergétique” was initially observed from a safe distance and with a certain amount of scepticism. Apart from the surprise about going it “alone”, the view in the first months was that it would lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions, an increased dependence on electricity imports and rising costs to the consumer. Because, as Le Monde reported at the start of the winter of 2011, “the end of nuclear energy can only be achieved through coal. (…) Because of the closure of 8 out of 18 nuclear power plants since the spring, Germany could be facing a blackout or be forced to import large amounts of electricity.” As the debate on a French energy transition flared up at the end of 2012, this partly superficial view of a diversified and increasingly polarised discussion on the merits and risks of the German “transition” diverged.

Back to the Middle Ages with the energy revolution…

The extent to which France’s energy policy discussion was based on the observation of the German model can for instance be illustrated by the national debate on the energy transition, which served as preparation for the Act on Energy Transition and Green Growth, adopted in the summer of 2015, in the run-up of the December 2015 COP21 – the United Nations Conference of Parties on fighting climate change. In line with Hollande’s electoral promise of November 2012, this debate was convened on a grand scale under the chairmanship of renowned ecologist Laurence Tubiana. The aim of the government was firstly to define a broad “vision” for France’s energy transition via extensive dialogue with social groups and to accord France’s own objectives more legitimacy.

The reference to Germany and the German energy transition did not fall on deaf ears. Looking back, two aspects in this ideologically-laden debate merit emphasising: on the one hand, the ubiquity of the German example and, on the other hand, the very strong polarisation that gave rise to it. The ubiquity of the German model in the French debate can be illustrated by a short press analysis. In 2013 alone, more than 1,000 articles on the topic of the German energy transition appeared in the French media. On the basis of the principle “bad news sells”, the undertone was rather critical. “How Germany returns to coal”; “Germany: a high price for the success of renewable energies”; “Energy: the difficult transition”; “The great (too great) challenge of the energy transition”.

The reference to the German energy transition was also a prerequisite for the credibility of such arguments in political and scientific circles. Striking is how perception polarised and mutated into a veritable war of beliefs. On the one hand, conservative forces were eager to emphasise the risks and errors of the “German energy transition counterexample” so as to avoid any kind of imitation at all cost. The most important argument was the ecological one whereby a decrease in energy consumption, associated with an increase in energy costs (given the lower proportion of cheap nuclear power), with declining growth and prosperity, was declaimed as a return to the Middle Ages (le retour à la bougie).

… or the leap to modernity after all? Differentiation begins

On the other hand left-leaning actors grasped their view across the Rhine as an opportunity to criticise the French deficit and to praise the German energy transition as a role model. Guillaume Duval, editor-in-chief of the renowned critical business newspaper Alternatives Économiques, wrote in June 2013: “If there is any area where we can learn from our German neighbours, then it is certainly the one of energy transition”. The energy transition “job miracle” was also adopted by numerous stakeholders. As early as 2011, Hollande insisted on using the German energy transition as a swipe against his competitor Sarkozy. And also the French environmental organisations strove for the German model, in spite of the coal issue. They made several attempts to help the German energy transition, vis-à-vis French critics included, to gain prestige and to break persistent myths.

Polarisation almost forced observers to position themselves as either strong proponents or opponents of the German model. A fully differentiated and more neutral perspective was a rare occurrence. Ironically, this polarisation crossed the political lines. The French conservatives were and remain the fiercest critics of the energy policies of party-politically aligned Chancellor Merkel, whereas she was virtually celebrated by the French Green Party and defended by the environmental organisations in this case. At the same time, this ideological polarisation led to partly unexpected coalitions: the threat of the “energy transition” brought hereditary enemies, the employer’s association MEDEF and the trade unions together, to jointly defend the historical French model based on cheap nuclear power.

Many expert bodies also took a clear position. The think tank France Stratégie, mandated by the prime minister, repeatedly attracted attention with excessively negative publications and finally with the explicit title “Three years later: is the energy transition a failure?” In 2013, the French Court of Auditors also painted the German example as the worst-case scenario. The authority severely criticised any form of subsidies for renewable energy after having used the Germans as an example to criticise the inadequate provisions for dismantling and final disposal in its own country one year earlier. At the same time, aside from the political assessment of the German model, among experts, interest in the practical steps increased.

The debate on the financing of the French energy transition was also largely inspired by the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), then hailed as an example of ‘best practice’ throughout Europe. German representatives were invited on a regular basis and Minister for the Environment Batho personally visited the KfW headquarters in Berlin in 2013. Even the final report on the national debate DNTE (Débat national sur la transition énergétique) pointed out that France “should have a KfW à la française as quickly as possible”.

A further example is the topic of citizen energy, i.e. business models with investment funds, cooperatives or owner groups, which are accessible to private individuals. In Germany, the first comprehensive studies on the topic, published in 2011, showed that German citizens sometimes ensured half of the investment in renewable energies. Despite or perhaps precisely because of France’s centralised and state-controlled energy industry, this example extended the transition debate to the question of good governance. Although decentralisation was regarded as a bone of contention at the time, the German success story of citizens’ energy inspired a cross-party consensus on the need to involve citizens, not only as consumers, but also as independent stakeholders. This, among other matters, made that the vision of an “energy transition from all for all” was retained in the final report on the national debate. Aside from the media, the political world also began to pay attention to the growing movement of citizens’ energy projects in France. Although this development is not comparable to the German dynamism, hundreds of local citizens’ energy projects have also been launched in France in recent years, often with strong support from municipalities and regions. The Energy Transition Act, adopted in 2015, also amended provisions to support the financial participation of citizens and municipalities in renewable energy projects and to reduce legal and administrative obstacles.

Common goals – common tasks

Even though the German energy transition was met with incomprehension in France at first, increased interest finally dispensed with most of the misconceptions and resulted in the German examples of success being adopted.

Although nuclear energy still enjoys a better reputation in France, the two national strategies are more in line with the long-term goals of climate protection, renewable energy, and energy efficiency than ever before. And even if the political objectives on nuclear power differ fundamentally, both countries will also face the same challenge in the coming decades. Germany has to replace almost exactly 140 TWh of nuclear power by 2023 with energy efficient and renewable energy in order to accomplish a nuclear phase-out. This is the exact same quantity as France if it is to reduce its share of primary energy consumption generated by nuclear energy to 50 per cent.

The chosen method – retention of two thirds of nuclear energy – is only at first sight incompatible with the idea of the German energy transition. The objective is strikingly similar. How successful the project in Germany and France will be in the near future will also heavily depend on their embeddedness in the European environment. The German, and now French too, concept of an energy transition towards a low-carbon, safe, and affordable future also finds favour in many countries both inside and outside of Europe. The message is: it is possible to arrive at a common goal in various ways. Contrary to the thesis of the so-called “expendable French” neighbour, the energy-political cooperation between the Franco-German twosome is an important signal for Europe.


[1] Größter anzunehmender Unfall

This is a modified translation of an article originally published on the website of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung.

In Good Company: The German Energy Transition and its Echo in France