Macron announces ‘nuclear renaissance’ — and papers over past mishaps

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced the construction of six new nuclear reactors, a long-anticipated move to ramp up the country’s long-term energy-production capacity and add to the country’s aging nuclear fleet.

Thursday’s announcements are the acme of Macron’s nuclear push, which has intensified over past months as an answer to skyrocketing energy prices and a way to reach the country’s energy-independence goals.

They’re also meant to put a lid on the president’s past mishaps when it comes to the country’s energy infrastructure, namely the sale of one of the country’s industrial jewels to American giant General Electric in 2014 — finalized when Macron was economy minister.

“The time of nuclear renaissance has come,” Macron said Thursday in Belfort, East of France, in a speech outlining France’s energy policy for 2050 and retracing “the great adventure of civil nuclear in France.”

Macron said the government would commission six new generation reactors — aiming to put the first of them on the grid in 2035 — and have the option to build eight more. He also said France wouldn’t close any of its existing reactors “unless of course for safety reasons.”

The announcements were planned well in advance but only came Thursday — just two months before the presidential election — as Macron wanted them to coincide with another key moment of his nuclear campaign: the purchase of GE’s nuclear steam turbines by state-owned energy giant EDF, made official on the same day.

The acquisition partly reverses the high-profile sale of French conglomerate Alstom’s energy branch to GE in 2014, when Macron was the Elysée’s deputy secretary general and then-economy minister. The sale resulted in thousands of job losses and is now widely considered a strategic mistake, with Macron’s role in it heavily criticized by workers unions and political rivals.

“I am not an industry specialist; I don’t know whether there were other, more intelligent options from an industrial perspective,” Macron told GE workers in Belfort ahead of the speech, while acknowledging that the government had the power to block the deal at the time.

Thursday’s moves feed into Macron’s narrative around sovereignty, making sure that France’s and Europe’s critical infrastructure are robust enough to support their economies — and shield them from foreign pressure.

Turning the page

Macron’s bet is that this week’s announcements will overshadow his past involvement in the Alstom-GE saga.

Ahead of his trip to Belfort, the historical seat of Alstom, French officials downplayed Macron’s role in the 2014 deal.

“At the time … there was no reason for public authorities to doubt that GE, a large energy group, would develop these activities” and preserve jobs, one of them told reporters.

Someone close to the French president told POLITICO’s Paris Playbook that back then Macron “was more of an adviser, not a decision-maker.”

But it’s hard to argue that Macron’s involvement was only marginal. The then-minister defended the deal in Brussels, when the European Commission was reviewing it under the bloc’s competition rules, and personally reassured workers at the time that the sale would not result in layoffs.

Over the last seven years GE cut thousands of jobs in France, a social disaster for which far-right leader Marine Le Pen, among others, has blamed Macron.

Macron has put nuclear energy at the top of France’s policy agenda and has earmarked €1 billion of public support to build new small modular reactors (SMRs), seemingly shifting away from the goal set by his predecessor François Hollande of cutting the share of nuclear in the country’s energy mix.

Paris recently obtained that nuclear investment will be labeled as green under the EU’s sustainable investments’ list, the so-called taxonomy. Macron said this will allow France to fund these new projects.

He also said France will provide “tens of billions of euros” of financial support to EDF to build new reactors. Elysée officials said the project will be discussed with the Commission, which is likely to look into the government’s support to EDF under the bloc’s state-aid rules.

Before announcing his nuclear plans, Macron insisted on the importance of investing in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and reaffirmed the country’s target to raise the amount of electricity produced from renewable sources.

Macron’s nuclear push still sparked controversy with environmentalists.

Green presidential candidate Yannick Jadot was quick to slam Macron “for condemn[ing] France to programmed energy and industrial obsolescence until the end of the century.”

Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.

Source: Politico