French nuke scene

IssueOctober 2012
Feature by Marc Morgan

Questioning France's nuclear arsenal is not quite taboo, but the myth that it enables the country to retain great power status is accepted slavishly by most politicians, and with resigned passivity by the majority of the press and population.

Nevertheless, there is a strong and diverse protest movement.

One strand, closest to the Green party, opposes nuclear weapons as an extension of its opposition to nuclear energy. Just as nuclear weaponry is supposed to guarantee military independence and security, so France's pre-eminent position as a producer of nuclear energy and a promoter of related technology is held to guarantee her economic and technological independence.

The Sortir du Nucleaire network, an umbrella organisation, works tirelessly to counter orthodox thinking on these issues; on nuclear energy at least, there is in France a wide and lively public debate.

A second key player in the struggle against nuclear weapons, and historically the most established, is the Mouvement de la Paix (MdlP). The MdlP, born out of the Liberation struggle immediately after the Second World War, has made a specific contribution to the development of a culture of, and initiatives for, peace, and its active commitment to multilateral nuclear disarmament is indisputable. However, the MdlP does not oppose civil nuclear energy, a policy dictated by its wish to maintain its links with the mainstream political parties, in particular the Communists and Socialists.

The third key actor in the struggle against nuclear weapons is a coalition, Armes nucléaires STOP, consisting of about 20 nonviolent groups opposed to both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

The most active members are the Mouvement pour une Alternative non-violente (MAN), les Verts (the Greens), the CANVA (communauté de l'Arche de Lanza del Vasto), the Sortir du nucléaire network itself, and the Maison de Vigilance (the main organiser of the annual fast between Hiroshima and Nagasaki days: see PN 2549).

The most significant divergence of opinion within the collective concerns the position of Mouvement pour une Alternative non-violente, of which I am a member.

In 2010, the MAN launched a campaign calling for unilateral disarmament by France. This is inspired by the MAN's absolute opposition to nuclear weapons on moral principles, by its strong sense of the specific responsibility of French citizens to call on their own government to disarm, and by the MAN's analysis according to which multilateral disarmament, which it supports in principle, is improbable in practice.

The MAN does not oppose the nuclear abolition convention voted by three-quarters of member states at the United Nations, and it supports AN Stop's work to promote that project; but it fears that the convention could easily become a talking shop enabling nuclear-armed states to assert their readiness to disarm, while actually modernising their arsenals as talks about disarmament drag on.

Several of AN Stop's member groups – the CANVA, the French branch of IFOR, the Maison de Vigilance, as well as other groups not affiliated to AN Stop – explicitly support MAN's unilateralist campaign. Most member groups, however, as well as the MdlP, believe that unilateral disarmament by France is at least as unlikely as multilateral disarmament, and that the convention offers better prospects for progress.

While it is difficult for either side in this debate to prove the greater effectiveness of its approach, it should be remembered that the call for unilateral disarmament is radical, bold and new.

Despite the sympathy of many anti-nuclear activists with unilateralism, since the 1970s (when even the Socialist party was unilateralist), it has not been put forward as a specific, coherent, and urgent demand. To that extent at least, the MAN's contribution to the debate is welcome.

The sustained activity of anti-nuclear forces, and the lively debate within their ranks, is one factor of hope; the challenge now is to carry that debate to a wider audience. This does not depend on the nonviolent movements alone: the contribution of leading public figures is essential. Recent encouraging signs include a series of statements by Paul Quilès, ex-Socialist minister of defence under François Mitterrand, vocally and cogently challenging official government doctrine on nuclear weapons, helping to breach the taboo.