In Good Company. The German Energy Transition and Its Echo in France

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.

The Great Divergence in Energy Policy

"It is anything but complicated", summarises a French expert on energy policies in Germany and France: "The French do not understand the Germans, just like the Germans don’t understand the French", before adding: "But the Germans are crazy."

This lack of understanding of neighbours is symptomatic for energy policies and is also the reason why 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 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 only at that. But the German attitude towards nuclear power was somewhat sceptical from the outset.

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. The Act on "energy transition for green growth", which was adopted in the summer of 2015 in the run-up to the 21st International Climate Conference in Paris (COP, 21), marked the start of an ambitious national strategy designed to show that, also in matters of climate protection and energy transition “French excellence” prevails. This energy policy convergence by the two countries opens up promising prospects for cooperation at a European level.

In spite of the historical contrasts, the new French strategy is strikingly similar to the German energy policy, and has obviously been modelled on it. The present contribution therefore addresses the question of how the German energy revolution was perceived in France and how it managed to influence the energy-policy debate in France. It also analyses how the German energy transition was used to shape the French strategy in the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima.

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 under the Messmer plan. The catchy phrase "tout électrique – tout nucléaire" soon had the desired persuasive effect on the population.

In the course of this initial French version of the "energy transition", 37 nuclear power plants went into operation 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, which the almost nationwide electric heating was an example of.

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. Unlike in France, 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 if 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 not only the anti-nuclear Green Party began to gain in popularity, but also when doubts about nuclear energy were being raised among the rank and file of the former People's Party.

Since then, nuclear energy has remained unpopular in Germany as the Eurobarometer surveys show: in 2006, 50 per cent of Germans surveyed was in favour of reducing the share of nuclear energy. Interestingly, 49 per cent of French respondents also favoured a reduction in nuclear energy. But in spite of the clearly critical attitude towards nuclear energy emerging in society, there was no comparable political or socially organised movement of nuclear opponents as there was in Germany. As the first protest marches in Wyhl, Brokdorf and Wackersdorf were held, "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. Quite a few French observers considered it to be a particular German path which – completely incomprehensible to most French citizens - culminated in the plan for a nuclear phase-out. Most French observers have always found it strange that Germany is "one of the most reserved European countries when it comes to nuclear technology", despite its relevant industrial experience.

Not an issue for France: Fukushima - the small super GAU [worst possible 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 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. Quite to the contrary, during a brief visit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan French aid and praised the domestic nuclear industry. He specifically offered the robots of the French nuclear group Areva, which are equipped to deal with contaminated areas. On that occasion, Sarkozy 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.

At the same time, Sarkozy indirectly commented on the announcement by German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel to immediately decommission old nuclear power plants and Germany’s entire nuclear park by 2022. "This is not the time to make rash decisions, which points to one thing only, i.e. a lack of level-headed consideration." The fact that the French government probably believed that it could lay claim to such level-headedness is evidenced by the president’s statesmanlike appearance in France and abroad. It indicates a historically rooted, unshakeable faith in national sovereignty and the Jacobin state, which cannot be called into question by either natural or manmade disasters. One month after the reactor disaster, the media-savvy Sarkozy visited the French Gravelines facility in the North of France, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

Sarkozy did not spare his criticism of the German government - or, for that matter, of the Italian government, which had postponed a nuclear discussion in the wake of Fukushima. 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. As a safeguard against a political argument with the governments in Berlin and Rome, he also added that it was not up to him to pass judgement on what was happening in Germany and Italy.

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 so 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.

Even though German policy had taken a completely different path with its nuclear phase-out, the French public looked at the positive effects which the EEC had on German industry since the beginning of the 20s - another advantage for Germany as a location, which turned "French companies green with envy, as their focus on nuclear energy became more difficult to sell in the midst of the financial crisis and in the wake of Fukushima". But there were increasingly more critical voices, because the unaided market survival of promising renewable energies did not seem feasible at the time as the rise and fall of the German solar industry showed. When the former German market leader Q-Cells went into insolvency in 2012, "the debacle of an entire industry, which went from boom to general bankruptcy within a few years" struck home.

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 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 debate was partly practical and partly fundamental. Answers to the following questions were required: Is it ecologically necessary and socially justified to relinquish economic growth? Is questioning nuclear energy indirectly equivalent to criticism of the French past and its own prestige? And would a French energy transition on the German model ultimately not be a symbol of German hegemony over Europe?

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). Conservative Senator Jean Bizet was proof of the pudding. In May 2014, he published a 70-page pamphlet in the name of the French Senate under the harmless title "Report on the German-French cooperation in energy policy", the sole purpose of which was to dismiss the usefulness and credibility of the German plan and to refer to the necessity of the French nuclear industry. In an interview with the in-house television station Public Sénat, he went on to exhort: "We don’t have to copy everything our German friends do (...), the German nuclear phase-out is as expensive as it is dirty and inefficient". More astonishing was the position of former Environmental Minister Delphine Batho, who was considered rather progressive and also built up a very good relationship with her German counterpart, Peter Altmaier. Her interview during the critical phase of the French energy transition debate was entitled: "Germany is not my role model".

... or the leap to modernity after all? Differentiation begins

Other 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. "If we continue to do nothing, our deficit in renewable energies will increase even more. Precisely because of the chaotic policy of the government for five years, the deterioration in performance, compared with our neighbouring countries, especially Germany, is becoming increasingly worse (230,000 jobs against 40,000 in France)". 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.

Politically, the dispute with the German neighbour came to a climax when Peter Altmaier, former German Minister for the Environment, travelled to France in February 2013 to address and answer questions from the stakeholders in the French debate. Altmaier impressed his audience, which was rather critical at the beginning, with his proficiency in French and his willingness to discuss the criticism of the German policy in a constructive manner. What about the cost of the energy transition? What is going to happen to the German coal and CO emissions during the nuclear phase-out? And what is Germany going to do to minimise the impact of the fluctuating supplies of renewable energy on the electricity grids of neighbouring countries? Although the minister's openness did not get all the stakeholders to change their position, his willingness to communicate did indicate however that an in-depth interaction in the interest of both countries can be meaningful and that, apart from the frequently polarised depiction of the overall project, it is relevant to direct the exchange towards individual questions and instruments.

Many expert bodies also took a clear position. For one, 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.

For one, the debate on the financing of the French energy transition was 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.

With the adoption of the energy transition project, France took its own path towards a low-carbon future, and offered to host the World Climate Conference of December 2015. The fact that France has set itself ambitious goals is also slowly finding its way into the German press. In this respect, the headlines and reports on the French Energy Transition Act in the summer of 2015 seemed surprised and almost incredulous: "France has suddenly become the nation of energy transition," reported the Handelsblatt, while the Renewable Energy Agency headlined: "France wants to start its own energy transition".

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 the embedding in the European environment. The German, and now French concept too, 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.