CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1On December 31, 2016, Reactor 1 at the Fessenheim nuclear power station resumed operations following a temporary shutdown imposed on the operator, EDF, by the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) (French Nuclear Safety Authority), pending further tests on its steam generators. The date is highly symbolic, since during his 2012 campaign President François Hollande  [1] had promised that the Alsatian plant would be decommissioned “by the end of 2016.”  [2][3] The coincidental timing seems particularly apt for the “Fessenheim saga”: the story of a very particular campaign promise and the struggle to see it realized. Its uniqueness stems partly from the specific attributes of the French energy sector, over which politicians have historically had only limited influence. Typically, major policy decisions in this area are delegated to expert panels and large technical bodies that act as gatekeepers of legitimate expertise.  [4] This depoliticizing logic also rests on a form of truncated political debate, in which a particular discursive device, the realm of necessity,  [5] has become quite pervasive. The message is that there are no viable alternatives to nuclear energy, and its effect is to erase all but the very faintest differences between the positions of the major parties.  [6] Hollande’s pledge was made against the backdrop of a progressive (re)politicization and mediatization of debates surrounding energy policy, including nuclear power.  [7] By studying it, we can assess the real outcome of a political attempt to claw these issues back, at least to some degree.

2However, our primary goal in examining the (non)fulfillment of the promise to close Fessenheim is to test this special issue’s central hypothesis, i.e., that “the outcome of a campaign promise is determined by both the capacity (technical, institutional, and political) of political leaders to deliver on that promise and their incentives (political, ideological, and electoral) to leverage their resources in order to do so.”  [8] The aim is to explain how and why such a symbolic, public, and specific promise  [9] has given rise to a singularly ambiguous process whereby, with the passing of the presidential baton between François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron, the Fessenheim plant remains in operation. This paper sets out two main arguments.

3First, we argue that the nature of the promise, and the circumstances in which it was made, are crucial to identifying the dynamics at work in subsequent efforts to fulfill it. In this respect, Hollande’s motivation to keep his word had less to do with the role of the nuclear issue in his political vision and ideological grounding than with certain strategic concerns that arose in the context of the 2012 election cycle. Indeed, Hollande did not have the advantage of a credible sense of “issue ownership,”  [10] in the areas of energy and the environment, which had never been core parts of the Socialist Party’s policy framework.  [11] The emergence of this promise can largely be explained by his desire to strike a deal with the French green party, Europe Écologie—Les Verts (EELV), which was intended to help him win the election. Committing to close the Fessenheim plant was the move of a candidate focused on maximizing his vote share and getting elected, rather than on pursuing this particular policy. In other words, Hollande’s was a “vote- and office-seeking” strategy, not a “policy-seeking” one.  [12] This helped raise the profile of the pledge, which attracted all the more media attention during the campaign as it came less than a year after a major nuclear disaster at Fukushima and at a time when issues surrounding nuclear power were becoming increasingly politicized.  [13] An inquiry into the (non)closure of Fessenheim can help us understand how the realities of working within an asymmetric coalition structure, both before and after election, shape the outcome of commitments agreed among coalition partners.

4Second, we contend that political actors have the power to “modulate” their capacity to keep their promises, even if certain aspects of that capacity are imposed upon them. The contours of the institutional landscape in the nuclear sector, particularly the delegation of certain powers (to the ASN, for example, in safety matters) and the autonomy of commercial stakeholders such as EDF, limit the scope of action available to governmental actors. In this case, the technical feasibility of delivering on the promise was essentially portrayed as a regulatory issue, the central question being whether the state had the legal means to force the closure of a nuclear power station. In financial terms, closing a nuclear power plant does not intuitively seem like a particularly costly promise to deliver. Yet, budgetary restraints quickly took on a crucial importance when EDF, as the operator and principal owner, demanded substantial compensation for the losses it would incur as the result of a closure it had always opposed.

5For the executive, however, these restraints were not only a burden; they could also be invoked strategically to further its interests. In fact, if we consider the nature and institutional framework of the French political system, the executive has a formidable set of political and legal tools at its disposal when it comes to implementing decisions pertaining to energy policy, most aspects of which fall well within the purview of the state. There is no question that the government’s inability to bring about the decommissioning of Fessenheim’s reactors before May 2017 can be partially attributed to pushback from inside the sector. However, the executive’s limited willingness to overcome that obstacle, in order to keep a promise made reluctantly in constraining political and electoral circumstances, also had a large part to play. Although not necessarily anticipated, this resistance from sectoral interests allowed the executive to extend the deadline for closing the plant multiple times, before eventually justifying its failure to honor the pledge or, at least, its reformulation in far less ambitious terms.

6To support these two central arguments—the peculiarities of a promise made in the context of alliance building and the executive’s ability to leverage various sectoral characteristics to delay its fulfillment—the paper draws on a rich textual archive comprising more than 300 newspaper articles  [14] and resources from the gray literature. It is also informed by data collected over the course of some twenty semi-structured interviews, conducted between October 2016 and January 2017 with national policymakers, civil servants, and civil society executives involved in discussions surrounding the closure.

7Part 1 explores the conditions in which the promise to “close the Fessenheim power plant” was made and the way it was presented. This enables us to distinguish a number of causal factors behind the difficulties that arose later, when the government attempted to deliver on that promise. Part 2 outlines the institutional and regulatory constraints imposed by the nuclear energy sector, particularly those linked to the system of delegated powers that governs the process of closing a plant. Finally, we examine the way in which the parliamentary arena—particularly after the passing of the Loi sur la Transition Énergétique pour la Croissance Verte (LTCEV) (Law on Energy Transition for Green Growth or the Energy Transition Law)—seems at first glance to have allowed governmental actors to take control of the Fessenheim closure directly (part 3), while simultaneously watering down the original pledge, making it easier for EDF to continue the delaying tactics it had adopted from the outset (part 4).

A reluctant promise

8Retracing the circumstances in which Hollande promised to close the Fessenheim nuclear power station during his 2012 presidential run sheds light on the subsequent failure of the executive to honor this pledge. By making this commitment, Hollande was following a long-term strategy on the part of the Socialist Party (PS) to modify its initially positive stance on nuclear energy—a strategy that was expedited in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. However, Hollande only broke with his own, more supportive position on the nuclear issue in order to secure a governance pact with the French green party, EELV.

The PS and nuclear power: A slowly turning tide

9At the time of its inception in the 1960s and escalation with the Messmer plan in 1974, France’s civil nuclear program had the PS’s full support. Despite certain criticisms levelled during the 1981 presidential campaign,  [15] this support lasted well into the late 1990s.  [16] With the exception of proposals for a nuclear power plant at Plogoff, shelved promptly upon his 1981 victory, successive socialist governments under François Mitterrand’s presidency upheld the central role of nuclear power in France’s energy policy. It was at the time of the 1997 general election that the PS began to shift its position, promising to close the Superphoenix breeder reactor in a bid to seal an electoral pact with the greens.  [17] However, despite several green party ministers joining the government, France had by no means abandoned its nuclear policy. While Lionel Jospin’s government confirmed the decommissioning of Superphoenix in 1998 and chose not to approve any proposals for further construction, it did not challenge the opening of the Civaux plant in 1997, nor of the Chooz facility in 2002.

10Over the course of the 2000s, the PS, under Hollande’s leadership, chose to occupy the middle ground. This position can partly be explained by the competing incentives created by the party’s new alliance-building strategy: no longer exclusively focused on agreements with the Communist Party, very much in favor of nuclear power, but also on partnerships with the greens, unequivocally against.  [18] This intermediate standpoint was reflected in the PS’s 2007 general election manifesto, with nuclear power presented as a “high-quality sector,” imperative in the fight against climate change. Yet, at the same time, the party also promised to “reduce our dependence on nuclear power by boosting renewable energy to 20 percent of final energy consumption by 2020 and 50 percent in the longer term.”  [19] The candidate selected for the first round of the 2007 election, Ségolène Royal, went further still, declaring her support for shutting down the country’s oldest nuclear power stations,  [20] including Fessenheim,  [21] on several occasions over the course of the campaign. This stance provoked strong reactions within the PS, particularly among those known to take a favorable view of nuclear energy, such as Christian Bataille and Bernard Cazeneuve.  [22] Consequently, Royal’s presidential manifesto set no quantitative objectives or time frames for reducing the role of nuclear power in France’s energy mix.  [23] The PS has continued to chart this middle course ever since. In early 2010, a national conference was held, “for a new model of economic, social, and ecological development.” In the conference summary, nuclear power is described as “unavoidable in today’s world,” even though the party hoped to ensure its role was “progressively reduced, thanks to the growth of renewable energy and energy efficiency.” In this way, the socialists once again showcased their aspiration to reduce the contribution of nuclear power to the energy mix, while refraining from specifying any concrete measures in that direction.  [24]

11The Fukushima disaster was a game-changer, reigniting the debate within the PS. This “focusing event”  [25] prompted the party secretary, Martine Aubry, to reassess her position in a radical way. Ten days after the accident, on the set of Canal+’s Grand Journal, the touted presidential candidate for 2012 declared: “I think we need to move away from nuclear power.”  [26] The message was later echoed by several party officials. Nevertheless, the majority of the PS’s leadership remained hostile to the idea of abandoning nuclear power altogether. When the issue was put to a vote on May 19, 2011, the party therefore stuck to the line adopted in 2007, framing the “total” shift away from nuclear power as an aspiration and committing to cut its contribution to the energy mix.  [27] During the campaign for the PS presidential primary in the run-up to the 2012 election, candidates took clear and distinctive positions on the nuclear issue. Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry spoke out in favor of ceasing all nuclear power production within a relatively short time frame. François Hollande and Arnaud Montebourg followed the official party line, arguing only for a reduced reliance on nuclear power, without specifying which facilities might have to close in order to achieve that goal.  [28] Hollande’s ultimate victory in the primary seemed to point to a continuation of the status quo and to deepen, on this as on so many issues, the rift between party policy and the candidate’s own views.  [29] This “status quo,” however, would evolve in the course of the PS’s negotiations with the green party, EELV.

Closing Fessenheim: A concession issue in negotiations with the EELV

12Negotiations between the PS and the EELV, which began in early summer 2011, were aimed at reaching an agreement on a joint governance program and on the allocation of constituencies ahead of the general election. While discussions on electoral matters were always “cordial,”  [30] given that “both sides had an interest in a good outcome,” policy talks proved more difficult. Nuclear power in particular emerged as “one of the main sticking points.”  [31]

13Historically, the greens had always advocated a clean break, and felt that a future leftist government, of which they intended to be part, should make a start in this direction by shutting down several reactors. A number of names kept cropping up in discussions, particularly Tricastin, Bugey, and Fessenheim. The antinuclear movement was especially focused on Fessenheim for several reasons. First, dating from 1977, it is the oldest nuclear power station in France. Second, its location makes it particularly vulnerable to natural hazards, chiefly earthquakes and flooding; the plant was built in a seismic zone, nine meters below the Grand Canal d’Alsace. Third, the plant’s “core catcher” (the concrete slab on which the reactors rest, designed to slow down the corium, the core of the nuclear fusion reactor, in the event of an accident or loss of cooling) is shallower than that of other facilities.  [32]

14Despite the arguments put forward by detractors, the ASN had given Fessenheim’s Reactor 1 the green light to continue operations following its ten-year inspection on July 4, 2011. Consequently, most negotiators on the PS side refused to countenance including a specific reference to Fessenheim in the text of the agreement with the EELV. These tensions were exacerbated after the PS primary, when supporters of Martine Aubry, who had chosen a more moderate stance, were supplanted in the negotiations with the EELV by Hollande’s team, who were determined to take a harder line. The Fessenheim question became a key focus of the discussions, but the PS found it difficult not to yield to the EELV’s demands on what was a powerfully symbolic issue for them. Six months before the first round of the presidential election, opinion polls were pointing to a deep hostility towards nuclear power among French voters, with a large majority of PS supporters even stating that they would like to see nuclear power stations close.  [33] Moreover, the EELV candidate, Eva Joly, could still count on a respectable number of votes,  [34] threatening to prevent Hollande from taking the lead in the first round and jeopardizing his chances of overall victory.

15Given the circumstances, there is every indication that the promise to close the plant was ultimately approved by Hollande after Michel Sapin, who had taken the driver’s seat in the negotiations, asked that the talks be adjourned at the final stage in order to seek confirmation from the candidate.  [35] This episode highlights Hollande’s concern with maximizing his prospects of success, even if it meant accepting certain compromises over his governance agenda.  [36] It also confirms the conclusions of studies on pre-election coalition building, which suggest that major parties are more inclined to give ground to smaller ones over public policy issues than over seats.  [37] Indeed, when Cécile Duflot and Martine Aubry signed the governance agreement on behalf of their two parties on November 15, 2011, the closure of Fessenheim was explicitly mentioned in the text.  [38]

16This is not to say that every issue surrounding nuclear power had been resolved, as is clear from the frank acknowledgement of a disagreement over the construction of the EPR  [39] at Flamanville.  [40] Still, once national headquarters had approved the agreement, the PS issued a statement aimed at the press containing an abridged version of the final text. This document omitted a provision on abandoning the MOX path, which would only be reinstated after a day of vacillation.  [41] It therefore seems quite clear that the promise to close Fessenheim, as it would eventually appear in Hollande’s 60 Proposals, was extracted from the candidate with some difficulty in the context of negotiations with his coalition partners, the EELV, the outcome of which he hoped would be to secure maximum support in the second round of the presidential election. The fraught circumstances in which the commitment was made were recognized by the primary stakeholders, some of whom foresaw the possibility that Hollande would go back on his word. This was true, for example, of Éric Straumann, MP and president of the Haut-Rhin Departmental Council, who was against the closure: “It was a political promise. It was purely political, intended to placate the greens. At the same time, nobody was particularly worried. Not us, the politicians, nor the unions, nor the plant’s employees.”  [42]

17Hollande’s first public remarks after negotiations concluded seem to confirm Straumann’s analysis. As early as the end of November, when asked if he would implement all of the measures set out in the agreement, he made his position very clear: “No. I will implement those measures that seem to me most fundamental.” When pressed to clarify his views, on nuclear power in particular, Hollande replied: “I am not in favor of abandoning nuclear power [...] We have power stations in place and an industry around them, and that industry must remain productive.”  [43]

18Hollande’s bid to distance himself from the EELV­PS agreement would also be apparent in his debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, between the two rounds of the presidential election, although on that occasion he did reaffirm his promise to shut down the Fessenheim plant: “Just one plant will close: Fessenheim [...] It’s the oldest in France and it’s in a seismic zone next to the Alsace Canal. I understand the viewpoint of the workers who want to keep it open, but no jobs will be lost [...] Furthermore, I am not tied to the greens’ position on this issue because I did not recognize the section on nuclear power in the agreement that was passed.”

19Thus, the pledge got a lot of media exposure over the course of the presidential campaign.  [44] Symbolic, precise, and therefore easy to identify and track, it seemed like a fairly straightforward commitment to keep; it would not unduly strain the public purse, nor did it entail a radical break with existing energy policy. However, it was also very much improvised. Its appearance in the presidential manifesto, written by a team led by Michel Sapin, was ultimately the result of a combination of crisis dynamics—in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster—and the electoral and political exigences of the presidential race.

20Moreover, while the promise had been made in the context of a pre-electoral coalition, the low vote share for the EELV’s Eva Joly and, especially, the outcome of the general election (17 seats for the EELV, 295 for the PS, an absolute majority) would significantly weaken the green party’s powers to insist on the closure of Fessenheim. As a general rule, junior partners in any coalition have only limited influence on the substance of public policies brought forward,  [45] but the imbalance is even more pronounced in the event of a surplus coalition.  [46]

A promise hamstrung by the logic of delegation: Formal limits to the scope of executive power

21Proffered in a context where participants were essentially ad-libbing,  [47] the promise to close Fessenheim very soon came up against a series of obstacles—the full magnitude of which did not seem to dawn on the executive until it was time to act: “What we hadn’t anticipated was that we would have no regulatory means of forcing Fessenheim to close.”  [48] One of the main stumbling blocks derived from the institutional separation of safety, economic viability, and policy matters in the French nuclear sector. In October 2012, in the wake of the first environmental conference and just after President Hollande had reaffirmed his commitment to closing the plant before the end of 2016, the lawyer Arnaud Gossement, a specialist in environmental issues, alluded to these difficulties: “Does the legislation on nuclear power allow for a decision to decommission a basic nuclear facility for reasons other than those strictly related to safety? Based on the current form of the applicable provisions of nuclear law, it must be concluded that the answer is assuredly no.”  [49]

22So, the question that arose was the extent to which political actors had the power to close a nuclear power station, bearing in mind that there were two alternative pathways for this process, each the preserve of a different independent actor: the ASN (safety) and EDF (profitability). The sense that closing Fessenheim was beyond politicians’ reach can also be understood in terms of the “principal­agent” model:  [50] the logic of the delegation system inevitably leads to ever-greater autonomy for “agents,” which in turn allows them to “drift” further and further from the choices of the “principals” (here, governmental political actors).  [51]

The delegation of safety and political backtracking

23Although safety concerns figured among the grounds initially advanced to support the closure, they were only ever raised in an indirect way (in the form of a reference to the plant’s age or to seismic activity in the area) and were later dropped completely by the political actors involved. By January 2013, the government was insisting that “the decision to close [Fessenheim], taken with a view to our long-term energy mix, was not prompted by any immediate safety concerns. We have total confidence in the current safety of the site; the ASN has made it quite clear that there is no reason to close the facility as a matter of urgency.”  [52]

24This repositioning was partially attributable to regulatory constraints. Since the Law of July 13, 2006, on Transparency and Security in the Nuclear Field (the TSN law) came into effect, responsibility for monitoring nuclear safety has effectively been placed under the sole jurisdiction of the ASN, an independent administrative authority.  [53] The TSN law establishes the competences of the ASN and the ministers responsible for nuclear safety (i.e., the Ministry of Ecology) in relation to the construction, operation, and decommissioning of a nuclear power station. As shown in Table 1 below, the ASN can only legally intervene in the decommissioning process in an advisory capacity, through a preliminary recommendation. However, it would be politically unthinkable for the various political actors to make a decision that went against the agency’s view, even to insist on tighter safety standards.  [54]

Table 1. Grounds provided in the Environmental Code for decommissioning a nuclear power station or suspending operations

EffectRegulatory instrumentCauseActor
“Suspension of operations for the period required to implement measures to eliminate these serious risks” (article L.593­21)Order (Arrêté)“Serious risk to the interests set out in article L.593­1”Minister responsible for nuclear safetyBarring an emergency, a preliminary recommendation is sought from the ASN.
“Interim precautionary suspension” (article L.593­22)Imminent and serious dangerASN
Decommissioning and dismantlement (article L.593­23)Decree of the Council of StateSerious risk to the interests set out in article L.593­1 “which cannot be prevented or sufficiently mitigated by the measures provided in the current chapter and in chapter 6”Not specified in the article: relevant ministry, ministers responsible for nuclear safety (article 35, decree 2007­1557)Input from the operator, prefect, and local information committee (article 35, decree 2007­1557), followed by an ASN recommendation within a maximum period of two months (article 35, decree 2007­1557)

Table 1. Grounds provided in the Environmental Code for decommissioning a nuclear power station or suspending operations

25Nevertheless, this division of roles can give rise to varying interpretations among actors, and it opens the door to blame-avoidance strategies.  [55] When asked about Fessenheim’s future, the former minister of ecology, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, stated that she was “awaiting the results of the post-Fukushima audit before drawing any conclusions on Fessenheim,”  [56] which implies that the ministry would have the deciding vote. In contrast, in autumn 2014 the new ecology minister, Ségolène Royal, was contemplating the closure of other plants. Faced with controversy over the way Hollande’s promise was being reassessed, Royal left it to the ASN to decide which reactors to close, despite the fact that it had just authorized the continued operation of all French nuclear facilities, subject to certain safety improvements in light of the post-Fukushima audit.  [57] This understanding of the situation was challenged by several actors who were in favor of closing the Fessenheim site, on two grounds. First, there were claims that the safety and security issues were far more complex than the ASN had acknowledged: “We’re fighting because of the risk, not for the reasons that government authorities later came up with to justify closing the plant.”  [58]?Second, these actors believed that from a regulatory perspective the government still had the final say if safety was at stake.  [59]

26Meanwhile, the ASN, as an independent administrative authority, was particularly keen to demonstrate its independence with regard to new political agendas. Following the election of François Hollande, the ASN initially confined itself to reminding the government of the time frame for closure. By February 2013, it was already pointing out that the lead time for examining a request to decommission a nuclear reactor is five years.  [60] Later, it worked with the executive during the drafting of provisions in the LTCEV relating to dismantlement procedures.  [61] The ASN also conveyed disquiet over the standardization of France’s energy infrastructure as a whole; if the current means of electricity production (nuclear or otherwise) were not replaced, this would lead to “an undue conflict between energy supply and safety.”  [62]?However, the emergence of new safety concerns over the course of 2015 would prompt the ASN to order a temporary suspension of Fessenheim’s two reactors in October 2016. It argued that a precautionary halt to production at Reactor 2 was justified on safety grounds, rather than referring to claims that parts manufacturer Areva had falsified certain documents in order to meet quality specifications.  [63] Despite this measure, the ASN was criticized on all sides—some denounced its timidity, while others disapproved of its “attitude shift” and “alarmist statements,” taking the view that the organization should confine its role to the “strictly technical.”  [64]

27While the ASN consistently stressed that governmental decisions were paramount, the executive seemed to have given up on finding a legal mechanism that would allow it to close a nuclear facility on the grounds of “serious risk.” It could find no way to substantiate these risks without getting drawn into a conflict with the authority to which it had relinquished all claim to expertise.

EDF: The only stakeholder entitled to judge the economic rationale for closure

28Now that the safety argument had been quickly rebuffed, the only way for the government to keep its promise and close Fessenheim was to compel EDF to lodge a request for decommissioning. Indeed, this second pathway for closing a nuclear facility—governed by article 29 of the TSN law and article 593­25 of the Environmental Code—requires a prior request for authorization on the part of the operator. In other words, if EDF wanted to close one of its plants, especially for profitability reasons, it would need to comply with this procedure by lodging a request. This request would then be formalized by decree following consultation with the ASN. However, EDF had absolutely no intention of closing the Fessenheim plant, and had been against Hollande’s plan from the outset. The company was critical of what it saw as an inconsistent decision with regard to safety, pointing to the operating licenses granted by the ASN, and one that would be both economically and socially damaging. The closure would also pose technical challenges, since it would create problems with electricity supply and the balance of the grid.

29From this point on, each actor began to mobilize all available resources (legal, discursive, and relational) to argue for its preferred outcome. On September 15, 2012, the government announced that an interministerial delegate would be appointed to oversee the decommissioning and redevelopment of the Fessenheim nuclear power station. On December 12, 2012, this role was assigned to Francis Rol-Tanguy,  [65] who was tasked with negotiating a memorandum of understanding with EDF on behalf of the minister responsible for energy and in conjunction with the ASN.

30It has often been suggested that Rol-Tanguy’s connections to a well-known communist resistor, his past membership of the French Communist Party (PCF), and his insight into negotiation processes in social conflicts (e.g. the truckers’ strikes of 1984 and 1997 and the 1998 Air France pilots’ strike) worked in his favor, as the government was keen to placate the powerful CGT trade union. Nevertheless, it would appear that the choice was a spontaneous one, settled just before the September 2012 environmental conference. Rol-Tanguy himself has said that the government did not have “the slightest idea of how to broach the subject” when it came to setting out the planned stages towards closing the plant, and so opted to “bring in a celebrity.” After initially refusing the post in October 2012, and after overtures to other candidates failed, in December Rol-Tanguy eventually agreed to accept, in his capacity as haut-fonctionnaire (senior civil servant), acknowledging that he had no particular background or connections in the energy sector. Although both EDF’s president and EELV officials generally welcomed the move, the strategy of appeasing the CGT failed, with the union sensing a “political game.”  [66]

31Meanwhile, EDF developed a “legalistic” discursive strategy (thus displaying its respect for laws and procedures) but remained firmly opposed to the closure of Fessenheim. The company was fairly united in this stance, including the unions, despite divisions over other issues.  [67] EDF enjoys considerable latitude: With its privileged hold over legitimate technoeconomic expertise, it wields substantial influence over French nuclear policy and has done for quite some time, particularly through discussions and direct negotiations between its CEO and the head of state.  [68] Moreover, Henri Proglio (CEO of EDF until November 2014) had managed to convince the entire executive committee to oppose the closure.  [69] He had even asked his staff to cease all contact with the interministerial delegate for the closure of Fessenheim: Francis Rol-Tanguy. This situation continued for three months, until Emmanuel Macron, then deputy secretary-general of the Elysée, was given the task of smoothing things over with Proglio.  [70]

32The company’s strategy was to accentuate a series of technical, economic, and social arguments aimed at securing the highest possible compensation in the event that the impending power struggle ended in victory for the executive. The issue took on a social dimension that proved persuasive with Rol-Tanguy and captured media attention at the start of a new presidential term. A coalition of actors quickly formed around local Alsatian politicians, union representatives, and senior figures at EDF, whose aim was to “demonstrate that closing a reactor [...] creates social conflict.”  [71] In February 2012, EDF’s Comité central d’entreprise (CCE) (Central Works Council) commissioned a socioeconomic impact study of closing the plant (carried out by SYNDEX) and a technoeconomic study of continued operation (conducted by IED). Significantly, SYNDEX’s study estimated that almost 2,200 jobs would be put at risk if the facility was shut down (between direct, indirect, and induced losses), a figure that then became part of the public and media discourse surrounding the closure.  [72]

33Another problem was that the legitimacy of Roy-Tanguy’s role was not recognized by local stakeholders, who wanted to deal with the minister of ecology directly. Consequently, on his first visit to Fessenheim just two days after his appointment, the interministerial delegate’s access to the site was blocked by employees. A short time later, in February 2013, Fessenheim’s Interunion Committee lodged an appeal against the decree that had created the post (this was rejected by the Council of State on July 30, 2014). According to a representative from CGT Fessenheim: “There was no question of entering into a discussion with him, because we did not recognize his office [...] When [Jean-Michel] Malerba [the third interministerial delegate] arrived, he tried to establish a dialogue with us. We declined, again for the same reason; specifically and rationally, why would you want to close Fessenheim? We have never got an answer, so we are not going to discuss it.”  [73]

34The situation on the ground did not shift until 2016. No redevelopment proposal had been officially discussed by the unions or local MPs, who wanted the plant to remain in operation.

35As well as framing the closure as a social issue, EDF also managed to justify its rejection of the plan by invoking financial and budgetary restraints. As early as October 2012, Proglio had given his response to Hollande’s confirmation of his campaign promise: if Fessenheim was decommissioned early, EDF would demand several billion euros. The company argued that this sum reflected its loss of income, the need to repay investments made since June 2012 for safety improvements (required by the ASN and so non-negotiable and usually not up for political debate), and compensation for the plant’s other owners (Swiss and German, each holding a one-third interest). The sums mooted in early 2013 ranged between five and eight billion euros, although no official confirmation was forthcoming from EDF.  [74] Compensation now became the interministerial delegate’s primary concern: “Redevelopment was naturally controversial, particularly locally. But my main worry was that if the compensation was going to be four or five billion, it would never close. In these fiscally straitened times, we simply can’t say, `we’re going to pour five billion into closing Fessenheim.’”  [75]

36The government’s inability to force the closure on agents with delegated authority over the civil nuclear program (in matters of safety or economic viability) is one potential factor explaining why this campaign promise was so difficult to deliver. Faced with this apparent technical handicap, the government turned its attention to creating a legislative “operative event”  [76] that would compel EDF to begin the decommissioning process while keeping the compensation it could claim to a minimum.

Reframing the promise to postpone its fulfillment

37The closure of Fessenheim was not only discussed in a technical and economic context, nor was the discussion limited to private forums and conversations. The parliamentary arena provided various opportunities to publicize and politicize the issue. This applies particularly to the Law on Energy Transition for Green Growth (LTCEV), announced during the presidential campaign and eventually adopted in August 2015, following a long and difficult legislative process. Informed by preparatory work including a series of environmental conferences, followed by a national debate on the energy transition, the new law was intended to link together the various environmental commitments made by Hollande during his run. As far as Fessenheim was concerned, this process was above all an opportunity to regain the upper hand. The law provided the government with new legal and political tools to deliver on its promise to voters before the end of the presidential term, while reducing the financial cost of doing so. The executive’s strategy hinged on a dual dynamic of politicization and technicization/depoliticization, seeking respectively to bring decisions delegated to technical or economic actors back into the political domain, and to pull off an “implementation trick”  [77] by surreptitiously modifying the technical procedures pertaining to the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear power stations. However, this strategy only heightened the uncertainty surrounding the actual closure of the facility, by allowing the commitment to be “watered down.”

The LTCEV: Missed opportunities

38In May 2013, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault stated that the closure of Fessenheim would be addressed in the statement of the LTCEV;  [78] however, the legislative session turned out to be more complex than anticipated.

39The first issue confronting the government was how to escape the regulatory impasse discussed above, wherein the authority to begin the process of shutting down the reactors rested with the ASN and EDF. The executive’s desire to take back control of the energy mix was declared in Hollande’s opening speech at the second environmental conference on September 20, 2013.  [79] It was confirmed a few months later by Jean-Michel Malerba, the new interministerial delegate for the closure of Fessenheim, just a few days after his appointment: “Until now, decommissioning decisions could only be made by the ASN on safety grounds or the operator for economic reasons, but there is a third potential criterion, energy policy, that is a matter for the state.”  [80]

40In this respect, there had been suggestions that a new procedure should be introduced for issuing operating licenses to power stations more than forty years old. EDF would be obliged to follow this procedure to ensure the continued operation of a plant (at present, operating licenses have no expiry date). Included in drafts right up until the day before the conference, this measure was not ultimately mentioned in Hollande’s speech. It would resurface, fruitlessly,  [81] in debates surrounding the LTCEV in September 2014, six months after the EELV had left government, at which point much of the incentive for honoring the pledge evaporated. This episode indicates the government’s considerable reluctance to strengthen its own powers to force the Fessenheim plant to close.

41This third pathway is not explicitly set out in the LTCEV, but the general idea can be seen to underpin several of its articles. Article 1 establishes the objective of “reduc[ing] the contribution of nuclear power to electricity production to 50% by 2025”; article 55 modifies article L.311­5­5 of the Energy Code, stipulating that a license to operate a power station may not be granted if this would push the nuclear sector’s total authorized electricity production capacity above the cap of 63.2 gigawatts (GW). This figure, corresponding to the current level of nuclear energy production, allows for the introduction of an absolute limit on nuclear production capacity, rather than a percentage limit.

42However, the LTCEV does not specify which mechanisms the government envisaged using to achieve this goal. These were to be outlined in the Multiannual Energy Program (PPE), a strategic document introduced by article 176 of the LTCEV, intended to determine “the priorities for action in relation to the management of all forms of energy in metropolitan France, in order to achieve the national objectives established by law.” However, this plan took longer than expected to put together. Given the delay in determining the substantive content of the government’s energy policies, many suspected that Hollande’s campaign promise would be abandoned. The former leader of the EELV, Cécile Duflot, says:

43During the debate on the LTCEV, I realized that the promise to close Fessenheim would not be honored when, during the final reading, the government introduced an amendment relating to the PPE, replacing the words “adopted before December 31, 2015” with “debated.” I voted in favor of the LTCEV regardless, because there were other things, because the process was already under way, because Baupin had secured a lot of concessions... But deep down, it was clear to me that [the issue of] Fessenheim was dead.  [82]?

44This quotation clearly demonstrates the EELV’s relative powerlessness to put pressure on the government to deliver on Hollande’s promise. Diminished within the majority coalition following the resignations of two of their ministers, Cécile Duflot and Pascal Canfin, in March 2014, and having lost a good part of their vote share in the midterm elections (particularly the European election), the EELV were struggling to make their voice heard. To complicate matters, the executive never officially shelved the closure of Fessenheim, and seemed intent on humoring its partners in the majority. The first PPE, approved by decree on October 27, 2016, stated that “the decree to revoke the operating license for the two reactors at the Fessenheim power station” would be “published in 2016.”  [83] However, the plan also referred to the 63.2 GW cap on the country’s nuclear capacity, which amounts to a proviso that one or more currently active reactors must close before any new nuclear power station can commence production. The objective was clear: to tie the commissioning of the Flamanville EPR (with a potential capacity of 1,630 megawatts [MW]) to the closure of Fessenheim’s two reactors (each generating 900 MW).  [84]

The Fessenheim­Flamanville trade-off

45The cap on nuclear production capacity offered a way to circumvent regulatory obstacles, but also introduced further uncertainty over the fulfillment of the campaign pledge. First, the fact that no individual power station was named in the law opened it up to every conceivable interpretation; in effect, EDF could decide to close any reactor it chose. Energy Minister Ségolène Royal may have declared that “when Flamanville opens, Fessenheim will have to close,”  [85] but EDF had no qualms about muddying the waters further by suggesting the possibility of a different choice. At the same time, preserving the Fessenheim name, apart from any financial considerations, would allow EDF to fulfill its obligations towards local actors and employees.  [86]

46The second source of uncertainty relates to the timetable. Construction work on the Flamanville EPR had been drastically delayed (something of which the government was already aware in 2013)  [87] and the reactor was not expected to enter production before 2018. By tying the closure of Fessenheim to the new EPR, the executive forced itself to reformulate Hollande’s campaign promise. It was no longer a question of closing Fessenheim before the government left office, but of triggering a supposedly irreversible chain of events that would lead to electricity production at the plant ceasing at some point in 2018. This new narrative, backed more or less by consensus, can be seen in the words of Ségolène Royal: “As soon as two new reactors are ready to open, two old reactors will have to close by the 2018 deadline, which effectively means that this process will need to begin next year [2016] in order to respect the needs of individuals and local areas [...] It will be irreversible by the end of the five-year term, that is for certain.”  [88]

47Hollande, too, directly invoked this trade-off when asked about the 2016 deadline: “Not in 2016, no, because work on the EPR at Flamanville (Manche) has been significantly delayed [editor’s note: it is currently scheduled to begin production in 2022]. What matters though is to set everything in motion for the closure of Fessenheim. That’s what we’re doing. In that sense, you could call it irreversible.”  [89]

48This strategy of hinging the commissioning of the Flamanville EPR on the closure of the Fessenheim plant offered a number of advantages. Most obviously, it strengthened the government’s hand in its negotiations with EDF, which was placed under heightened pressure to begin the decommissioning process. In the meantime, the order authorizing the construction of the EPR actually expired, and the government would need to extend it. Politically speaking, this solution also benefited from solid support within the executive. At the same time, it had the effect of, if not clouding the message, then at least watering down the commitment. Reformulating the promise in this way made it easier to claim that it had been fulfilled or, at worst, was in the process of being fulfilled. Still, two problematic issues remained: adhering to the timetable and ensuring the irreversibility of the process, as emphasized by the executive. These problems would be addressed in the LTCEV through a discrete amendment to the procedures for decommissioning a basic nuclear facility.

Uncoupling decommissioning and dismantlement in pursuit of “irreversibility”

49The steps involved in decommissioning and dismantling a nuclear power station required a detailed plan, a public inquiry, and a directive from the ASN. Unless this process was reformed, it would therefore be impossible to fully deliver on the promise to close Fessenheim, even in its new guise, within the stated time frame. Indeed, ASN estimated that “five years must be allowed from the point when the operator begins work on its plan to the decree of authorization.”  [90] So, the government’s latest maneuver was to establish a separation in the administrative process, between the operator’s announcement of the decision to decommission the plant and the filing of the dismantlement request. When the subject was raised in January 2014, the Ministry of Ecology claimed that “the decommissioning decision can be settled even if the request for dismantlement is still under examination.”  [91] The challenge, then, was to set the right wheels in motion to make a reversal of the decision impossible, thus dissuading the operator from making any attempt to recommence production in the event of a change of government in 2017.  [92] A press release issued by the Ministry for Ecology on January 15 states:

50[In] the context of deliberations in relation to the draft planning law on the energy transition, the ASN has called on Minister Philippe Martin to include certain procedural amendments to the decommissioning and dismantlement process, in order to ensure that, as a general rule, dismantlement can begin “as early as possible.” These amendments will be taken into account. In their modified form, these procedures will allow the planned timetable for the Fessenheim power station to be respected, with decommissioning taking place at the end of 2016 and dismantlement beginning in 2018­2019.  [93]

51This gambit was presented as a response to a more general request from the ASN for a review of decommissioning procedures. Most importantly, it allowed the executive to take control of the timetable, to modify the procedures of a “defensive nuclear plant”—that were “making things difficult and undermining political authority”  [94]—and, ostensibly, to keep its word. The next step would therefore be to bring forward a series of measures before the end of the presidential term that would facilitate the plant’s closure, even if it remained in operation for the time being. The government was particularly anxious to obtain a written decommissioning request from EDF, as this would allow it to publish a decree before its time in office ran out.  [95] The reactors would not actually cease production until much later, once the probable appeals lodged with the Council of State had been dealt with.

52While in theory the LTCEV gave the state new legal and political tools for upping the pressure on EDF, it still did not allow the executive to deliver on its campaign promise, even in its revised form. This was due both to the watered-down version of the commitment enshrined in the text and to the state’s powerlessness to impose that commitment and its timetable on EDF.

Why the state cannot impose its will on EDF

53EDF took no action towards closing Fessenheim except on two occasions: first, when the company was legally required to request an extension to the decree authorizing the construction of the Flamanville EPR, and second, when Ségolène Royal proposed a compensation figure several orders of magnitude below those bandied about in the press and suggested in a parliamentary report.  [96] Otherwise, EDF’s stalling tactics proved extremely effective, aided by the company’s decision-making process and the fact that the government’s own course of action was not easy to fathom. What logic explains the state’s inability to force EDF to comply with its decision, despite being the majority shareholder with an 85% stake in the company’s capital, and its unwillingness to engage in a direct confrontation (by revoking the decree authorizing further construction at Flamanville, for example)?

EDF’s stalling tactics

54EDF only committed to “concentrate solely on the closure of Fessenheim” in October 2015 (i.e., more than three years after President Hollande took office), when required to ask the government to extend the decree authorizing the construction of the Flamanville EPR. In doing so, the company made full use of the statutory periods available to it. The original decree, valid for ten years, was due to expire on April 10, 2017. Article 187 of the LTCEV provides that any application for an operating license must be made at least eighteen months before the decree authorizing construction expires. After ASN rejected EDF’s application for an operating license in March 2015, the company lodged a request with the government for an extension to the EPR commissioning deadline only on October 9, 2015. In other words, it waited until the very last minute. A new government decree was subsequently issued, setting a new time frame of thirty-six months, i.e., up to April 2020. It stipulated that an application for an operating license must be submitted by October 10, 2018, at the latest. These new deadlines correspond exactly to the delays announced by EDF in September 2015, according to which the EPR would not become operational until late 2018.

55In May 2016, Ségolène Royal wrote to the CEO of EDF, Jean-Barnard Lévy, proposing compensation of 100 million euros. She ended by urging the company to begin practical discussions on closing the plant:

56The dialogue between EDF and the government only really began with Royal’s letter, which cited a compensation figure of 80 to 100 million euros [...] At that point, the board decided to set up an ad hoc group of directors that would act as prospective advisers and determine the sum that EDF considered adequate compensation for its losses [...] The letter was intended to force EDF, finally, to come up with proposals toward decommissioning Fessenheim.  [97]

57From that moment on, the request to revoke Fessenheim’s operating license (known as an AAE) began to appear on the CCE’s agenda. While both EDF and the unions emphasized the “standard” time frame needed to prepare documentation for the CCE,  [98] Royal’s correspondence conveys her surprise that procedures were not yet under way.

58EDF’s tactic here was to turn the various time scales and procedures to its strategic advantage, so as to delay its request to cease production at Fessenheim until after the 2017 election. The issue was included in the CCE’s agenda for June 2016: “[E]verything was pushed back so that the decision would be made in December” (by a vote taken among the board of directors).  [99] However, when the CCE met on September 14, 2016, the elected members voted for an external expert review of the plan to close Fessenheim. In light of the October 29 deadline, on October 5 they also requested an interim order to extend the time available for consultation.

59On October 14, EDF’s senior management team passed the supporting documentation to the CCE and began to obstruct consultation with the Committee for Health, Safety, and Working Conditions (CHSCT). On November 10, the court examined the CCE’s request and decided to extend the consultation period by two months. The board of directors would therefore be unable to make a decision on Fessenheim before January 2017: right in the middle of the next presidential campaign. One of the individuals involved in this process sums up the situation as follows: “Jean-Barnard Levy, in more or less tacit collaboration with the unions, made sure that the extension was as long as possible so that no decision could be taken before the next election.”  [100]

EDF corporate governance: A spanner in the works

60While the CCE’s procedures allowed EDF to pursue this temporizing strategy, the board of directors was another key source of institutional resistance to the Fessenheim closure. The board was made up of eighteen members:  [101] six employee representatives (who would argue against the closure); six government representatives appointed by decree (very unlikely to vote on the issue of compensation due to conflict of interest);  [102] and six independent directors proposed by the state and elected during the general shareholders’ meeting. The latter group have a variable voting record. While put forward by the state and retaining certain connections to ministerial offices, they tend to vote along sectoral lines and will always protect the financial interests of their company. Laurence Parisot, former president of MEDEF (the largest French employers’ association) spoke out against the proposals for a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point in the UK at the board’s July 2016 meeting, siding with staff representatives against the government.

Table 2. Chronology of the key official correspondence between EDF and the government

January 13, 2015 (before the final vote on the LTCEV)Government → EDFLetter of intent: “You will submit a proposal to the board of directors setting out the procedure for shutting down the reactor in compliance with the production cap of 63.2 GW established in the LTCEV.”  [103]?
October 9, 2015EDF → GovernmentLetter: request to extend the decree authorizing the construction of Flamanville 3
October 15, 2015Government → EDFLetter: the AAE request must be filed by the end of June 2016.
February 22, 2016Government → EDFLetter: the AAE request must be filed by the end of June 2016.
March 2, 2016EDF → GovernmentFiling of the AAE request subject to approval by the board of directors, following consultation with the CCE
May 4, 2016Government → EDFLetter: request to refer the matter to the CCE, and further details on the compensation payable

Table 2. Chronology of the key official correspondence between EDF and the government

61Moreover, the CEO appears to play a decisive role in the independent group’s voting decisions. According to one EDF director: “If Jean-Barnard Levy was involved in negotiations with the state, which he has been, and managed to reach a modus vivendi [...] [the rest] would depend on the extent to which he was willing to use his powers of persuasion with the other independent directors to get them to vote in one direction or another.”  [104]

62Here, it is worth noting the very close relationships between board members, the civil service, and the broader nuclear industry, which could contribute to the inertia against the closure of a reactor. In 2016, EDF’s independent directors were: the chair of the board at Vallourec, 100% owner of Valinox, the market leader in the manufacture of certain nuclear reactor components; Philippe Varin (until May 2016), chair of the board at Areva; and Colette Lewiner, who had worked for EDF for twelve years. Their closeness hardened the board’s opposition to a pledge that, in their view, risked opening a Pandora’s box by raising direct questions about the cost of dismantling a 900 MW reactor and how the fuels and waste products would be dealt with.

63The government’s efforts to provide guidelines to EDF management were being shot down as soon as the matter appeared on the board’s agenda. It was mainly to overcome this obstacle that the Ministry of Ecology made sure that its representative on the EDF board of directors—Pierre-Marie Abadie, energy director at the Directorate-General for Energy and Climate (DGEC)—was appointed as a government commissioner. This change was intended to “reinforce the place of the state in corporate governance [...] putting it in a position where it was able to get an item on the agenda.”  [105] However, this move still did not allow the government to get the closure of Fessenheim on the board’s agenda until June 2016.

64Furthermore, to date neither the EDF board of directors nor the National Assembly’s parliamentary commission have been given access to data that would allow the plant’s profitability to be quantified. So, despite the state’s efforts to strengthen its influence inside EDF, it was in no better a position to impose its will and timetable on the company: “The state is not involved in management. The state is not the one that writes the reports; we haven’t even seen the plans. EDF controls everything; it’s up to the company to prepare the paperwork.”  [106] This lack of agency was not, however, solely attributable to EDF’s strategic maneuvers. It also stemmed from a certain frailty in the government’s position, given that its aims were less solid and coherent than the company’s.

A fragmented executive with disparate goals

65Officially, no government minister can contravene a pledge made by the president. However, that is not to say that all governmental actors attach the same importance to that pledge, nor that they share the president’s view. Such misalignment between the head of state (who had expressed his desire to keep his promise on multiple occasions) and his government became apparent, for example, during discussions surrounding the appointment of EDF’s new CEO. Although the relevant ministries had approved the reappointment of Henri Proglio, the chief architect of the persistent campaign to frustrate decisions relating to nuclear power, Hollande ultimately argued against it, the sole dissenter. This provides further evidence of his intention to repoliticize the energy sector.  [107] Within the government, two successive economy ministers, Arnaud Montebourg and Emmanuel Macron, were clearly much less invested in this issue than the president,  [108] or, for that matter, the ecology ministers, particularly Ségolène Royal, who was eventually put in charge of negotiations with EDF.

66This made the state’s position even more precarious, and compromised the government’s attempts to issue guidelines to EDF, an exchange generally conducted through the Ministry for the Economy in Bercy. While letters of intent addressed to EDF were signed by three ministers, directives from the Ministry for the Economy (responsible to shareholders) take precedence over those from the Ministry of Ecology (responsible for sectoral interests), in accordance with EDF’s structure as a société anonyme (public limited company).  [109] Consequently, instructions to government representatives on the EDF board were issued by the French Government Shareholding Agency (APE), which reports to the Ministry for the Economy. By mid-2016, only one APE briefing had been sent to these board members ahead of the vote. On subsequent conference calls, “the Minister for Energy [was] invited just like all the other directors but was not a co-organizer [...] Viriginie Schwarz, the commissioner to the government, was there, and someone from the DGEC was also invited. But it was Bercy [i.e., the Ministry for the Economy] running the meeting.”  [110]

67In addition to these unequal power relations between ministries, various internal conflicts worked to undermine the government’s ability to build a consensus behind the closure. First, there was the dual role of the Ministry for the Economy, split between the Government Shareholding Agency—represented on EDF’s board of directors and predominantly concerned with the company’s dividend payments—and the Finance Ministry, responsible for ensuring that the promised compensation would not overstrain the government’s budget. The ministry was therefore “the one that writes the check, and who would rather that check wasn’t too large, and the one that will cash it in the form of dividends, all the while making sure that EDF is not left penniless.”  [111] This dichotomy can also be observed in statements made by Ségolène Royal. While responsible for working to achieve the legal objective of reducing reliance on nuclear power to 50%, Royal approved a proposal that power stations should be depreciated over fifty years, to deny EDF the prospect of claiming compensation after decommissioning. For its part, EDF was fully aware of these tensions. Against a backdrop of safety scares and falling electricity prices, it may be in the company’s own interest to close certain reactors while attempting to shift the financial burden onto the state, on the pretext that such decisions are “political.”  [112]

68The understanding reached between the Ministry of Ecology and the APE/Ministry for the Economy over the mechanism for capping nuclear production capacity,  [113] in addition to the agreement eventually struck in August 2016 between EDF and the government, seemed to give political actors what Kent R. Weaver would call a new “blame avoidance” tool—namely, the strategy of “passing the buck,” whereby a decision is postponed and the associated costs (political or economic) are passed on to successors.  [114] The compensation protocol, set by negotiation at 446 million euros, stipulates that the state will pay EDF a first installment of 100 million euros when the plant is decommissioned in 2019, with a second installment (of around 300 million euros) released the following year.  [115]

69Nevertheless, the agreement did not allow the government to bring the matter to a close, nor to keep its promise to the electorate, even in its amended form, because it would always come up against resistance from EDF. Admittedly, EDF’s board of directors did eventually approve the protocol on January 24, 2017, despite a contrary advisory opinion passed earlier by the CCE. Ségolène Royal was therefore able to congratulate herself on a “fair and balanced decision,” “within the established time frame and with a deadline coinciding with the opening of Flamanville.”  [116]?However, it is difficult to conclude that the pledge was truly fulfilled, and the ambiguity introduced by its new formulation bears all the signs of a stalemate that refuses to end. For one thing, EDF reinforced the link between the closure of the Fessenheim plant and the EPR at Flamanville, thus making the timetable for decommissioning Fessenheim contingent on the commencement of production at the new reactor in Normandy. For another, at the last minute the company added an additional demand: the resumed operation of a reactor at the Paluel facility, stalled since 2015 amid safety concerns.  [117] With Reactor 1 closed for maintenance since July 23, 2017, and Reactor 2 on shutdown following a malfunction, the Fessenheim plant was due to recommence production in Spring 2018, a year after François Hollande left office.

70By retracing the origins of the commitment to close the Fessenheim nuclear power station, and the difficulties that the executive encountered in attempting to do so, this paper confirms the importance of a thorough analysis of the conditions in which a campaign promise is made if we are to understand the logics influencing its fulfillment.

71First, the pledge came about as the result of strategic positioning and electoral calculation on the part of a presidential candidate bound by recent events within his party. It allowed François Hollande to rally a broad coalition behind him, by facilitating an agreement with the French green party, EELV, during pre-election negotiations. This agreement put him in a stronger position to benefit from vote transfers in the second round. The commitment is therefore better understood as a “vote- and office-seeking” tactic rather than a “policy-seeking” one. The media exposure that Hollande’s promise attracted during the campaign seems to have taken on a life of its own. The promise itself was not particularly consistent with his initial stated aspirations as president, nor with those of the majority of his government. Moreover, the EELV, as partners in the majority coalition, lacked the necessary institutional and political capacity to hold the executive to its word. Their influence was weakened further by their resignation from government halfway through the term. All indications suggest that the incentives created by Hollande’s strategic decision to push for the closure were too short-lived for the promise to be kept.

72Consequently, it is not as surprising as it might first appear that the executive found itself powerless to order a company, a société anonyme in which the state is the majority shareholder, to decommission the “oldest nuclear power station in France.” The government’s inability to deliver on its commitment was exacerbated by conflicting logics and time scales in the electoral and public policy spheres, with the latter ultimately prevailing. In its efforts to fulfill the promise, the executive quickly came up against resistance from dominant economic and technical actors within a public policy arena where sectoral autonomy has become something of an obsession. As far as energy is concerned, especially nuclear energy, political institutions seem to hold little sway in the face of strictly independent sectoral bodies like the ASN and EDF.

73Nonetheless, the fact that the executive gave up on getting its way was not merely the result of an institutional division of labor. It can also be attributed to the way the government leveraged the obstacles in its path to delay the prospect of closing the plant, to put forward a significantly reformulated version of the pledge over the course of its term in office, and, ultimately, to justify its failure to keep its word. The executive’s capacity to implement policy decisions, particularly in an institutional respect, is largely determined by governance arrangements in the relevant sector. However, the limitations on that capacity are not as rigid, clear-cut, and extrinsic as political leaders would have us believe—even when those leaders fail to keep their promises.

74By studying the non-fulfillment of a campaign promise, we can learn a great deal about the criteria for realization of these promises. First, it gives us a deeper understanding of the role of coalitions in the success (or failure) of this process. Up until now, this question has primarily been considered in terms of the institutional constraints that coalitions impose. Coalitions have generally been understood only as a limiting factor on the capacity of the leader of the executive to keep their promises. This paper demonstrates however that participating in a coalition, particularly when this requires pre-electoral discussions on policy matters, is an equally powerful influence when it comes to honoring political promises. There is a qualitative difference between a promise made as a concession to a coalition partner and one that derives from the core policy objectives of a candidate and his or her party. Accounting for this fundamental difference seems like a promising line of inquiry for future studies.

75This paper also offers a reminder that the institutional capacity to keep promises is a valid variable for analysis, and an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the literature on promise keeping. Much variation in this capacity depends on the sector to which a policy applies, and so we cannot assume that a substantial majority in government will translate into strong institutional capacity in every case. It is also a function of politicians’ strategies, which can expand or reduce their own scope of action, including in regulatory and institutional matters. This conclusion urges us to pay very close attention to the reality of these institutional constraints, and to draw a distinction between what is effectively a sectoral constraint and the avoidance and blame-shifting strategies employed by politicians.  [118]


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    While the document outlining these 60 commitments does not mention a time frame, at the first environmental conference Hollande specified that the closure would take place before the end of 2016.
  • [2]
    Commitment 41 reiterates a number of pledges in connection to energy policy: “I will preserve France’s independence while diversifying our energy sources. I will begin the task of reducing the contribution of nuclear power to electricity production from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, while guaranteeing the optimal safety of our power stations and working to modernize our nuclear industry. I will encourage a step up in renewable energy production capacity by supporting the creation and development of industry clusters in this sector. France will honor its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. In this respect, I will close the Fessenheim power station and pursue the completion of work at Flamanville (EPR).” François Hollande, Changement C’est Maintenant: Mes 60 Engagements pour la France, Paris, Parti Socialiste, 2012, 28. Note that the closure of Fessenheim is mentioned in the same sentence as the opening of the Flamanville EPR, even though there had been no suggestion of a trade-off between the two promises at this stage.
  • [3]
    Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material are our own.
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    Philippe Simonnot, Les nucléocrates, Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1978; Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1998; Yannick Barthe, Le pouvoir d’indécision. La mise en politique des déchets nucléaires, Paris, Economica, 2006; Sezin Topçu, La France nucléaire. L’art de gouverner une technologie contestée, Paris, Seuil, 2013.
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    Colin Hay, Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017.
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    Dorothy Nelkin and Michael Pollack, The Atom Besieged: Extraparliamentary Dissent in France and Germany, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1981; Herbert Kitschelt, “Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protest: Anti-Nuclear Movements in Four Democracies,” British Journal of Political Science 16(1), 1986, 57-85; Dieter Rucht, “The Anti-Nuclear Power Movement and the State in France” in Helena Flam (ed.), States and Anti-Nuclear Movements, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1994, pp. 129-62; Sylvain Brouard and Isabelle Guinaudeau, “Policy beyond Politics? Public Opinion, Party Politics and the French Pro-Nuclear Energy Policy,” Journal of Public Policy 35(1), 2015, 137-70.
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    Barthe, Le pouvoir d’indécision; Markku Lehtonen, “Deliberative Decision-Making on Radioactive Waste Management in Finland, France and the UK: Influence of Mixed Forms of Deliberation in the Macro Discursive Context,” Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences 7(3), 2010, 175-96; Aurélien Evrard, Contre vents et marées. Politiques des énergies renouvelables en Europe, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2013.
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    Isabelle Guinaudeau, “Toward a Conditional Model of Partisanship in Policymaking,” French Politics, 12(3), 2014, 265-81. The introduction to this special issue offers a more detailed summary of the theoretical literature on which this conjecture is based.
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    The pressure to honor this commitment may also have been intensified by the fact that the promised outcome (closing a power station) had to be delivered within a relatively short time frame (the duration of a single presidential term). This gave it a particular prominence and lucidity and may, at first glance, have limited the potential scope of interpretation (or reinterpretation).
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    John R. Petrocik, “Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections, with a 1980 Case Study,” American Journal of Political Science 40(3), 1996, 825-50.
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    Guillaume Sainteny, “Le Parti socialiste face à l’écologisme: de l’exclusion d’un enjeu aux tentatives de subordination d’un intrus,” Revue francaise de science politique 44(3), 1994, 424-61; Simon Persico, “Un clivage, des enjeux: une étude comparée de la réaction des grands partis de gouvernement face à l’écologie,” PhD diss., Sciences Po Paris, 2014.
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    Wolfgang C. Müller and Kaare Strøm, Policy, Office, or Votes? How Political Parties in Western Europe Make Hard Decisions, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
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    Sylvain Brouard, Florent Gougou, Isabelle Guinaudeau, and Simon Persico, “Un effet de campagne: le déclin de l’opposition des Français au nucléaire en 2011-2012,” Revue française de science politique 63(6), 2013, 1051-79.
  • [14]
    The compilation of press articles used in this paper was put together in a similar way to others on which this special issue is based, by searching for certain keywords (“nuclear + Fessenheim“) in twenty-three French national and regional daily newspapers using the Factiva search engine.
  • [15]
    The proposals were: tighter controls over nuclear power stations; a halt to the nuclear program beyond those facilities already under construction until a referendum could be held; and new framework legislation to ensure citizen oversight, particularly in relation to issues of safety involving nuclear power. Cf. Parti socialiste. “110 propositions pour la France” in Manifeste du Parti socialiste, Paris, 1981.
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    Timothée Duverger, Le Parti socialiste et l’écologie, 1968-2011, Paris, Fondation Jean Jaurès, 2011.
  • [17]
    Parti socialiste, Changeons d’avenir. Nos engagements pour la France, Paris, 1997, Socialist Party Manifesto for 1997 election.
  • [18]
    Brouard and Guinaudeau, “Policy beyond Politics?“
  • [19]
    Parti socialiste, Programme du Parti socialiste pour les élections législatives des 10 et 17 juin 2007, Paris, 2007.
  • [20]
    Gaëlle Dupont and Isabelle Mandraud, “Mme Royal propose ‘extinction des centrales nucléaires anciennes,’” Le Monde, 24 January 2007.
  • [21]
    In a letter to the president of the Stop Fessenheim campaign group, the candidate states that it is “feasible and desirable to move as quickly as possible toward decommissioning the two reactors at the Fessenheim plant.” (“Lettre de Mme Ségolène Royal, députée PS et candidate à l’élection présidentielle de 2007, à la présidente de Stop Fessenheim, sur ses intentions en matière de politique énergétique, et notamment sur sa décision de fermer la centrale nucléaire de Fessenheim, le 15 janvier 2007,”, available at:
  • [22]
    Myriam Lévy, “Nucléaire: les propos de Ségolène Royal froissent Jean-Pierre Chevènement et Jean-Marie Bockel,” Le Figaro, 25 January 2007.
  • [23]
    Ségolène Royal, Le pacte présidentiel, Paris, 2007.
  • [24]
    Ibid., 13.
  • [25]
    Thomas A. Birkland, After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events, Washington D.C., Georgetown University Press, 1997.
  • [26]
    Christophe Caresche, Jean-Paul Chanteguet, Aurélie Filippetti, and Géraud Guibert, “Sortons du nucléaire,” Le Monde, 8 April 2011.
  • [27]
    Parti socialiste, Le changement. Projet socialiste 2012, Paris, 2012.
  • [28]
    Samuel Laurent, “Comment Hollande, Aubry, Royal et Montebourg se positionnent sur le nucléaire,” Le Monde, 1 June 2011.
  • [29]
    Rafael Cos, “Le projet socialiste (dé)saisi par les primaires: procédures ‘rénovatrices’ et production programmatique” in Rémi Lefebvre and Éric Treille (eds), Les primaires ouvertes en France, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016, pp. 163-80.
  • [30]
    Interview with David Cormand, EELV’s election officer in 2011 and leader of the electoral negotiations with the PS, Paris, November 2016. The titles indicated are correct for the time at which these events took place.
  • [31]
    Interview with Sandrine Rousseau, member of the EELV’s executive committee in 2011 and leader of the policy negotiations with the PS, Paris, November 2016.
  • [32]
    Audrey Garric and Marie-Béatrice Baudet, “Pourquoi la centrale de Fessenheim est-elle ciblée?” Le Monde, 18 March 2014; “Fiche Fessenheim,” Greenpeace, available at:
  • [33]
    Brouard et al., “Un effet de campagne.“
  • [34]
    Between 4.5% and 7% of the electorate, according to the ten polls carried out between October and November 2011.
  • [35]
    Interview with Cécile Duflot, EELV national secretary, Paris, December 2016.
  • [36]
    Müller and Strøm, Policy, Office or Votes?
  • [37]
    Sona Nadenichek Golder, “Pre-Electoral Coalitions in Comparative Perspectives. A Test of Existing Hypotheses,” Electoral Studies 24(4), 2005, 643-63; Sona Nadenichek Golder, “Pre-Electoral Coalition Formation in Parliamentary Democracies,” British Journal of Political Science 36(2), 2006, 193-212.
  • [38]
    The paragraph pertaining to nuclear power reads as follows: “We will reduce the contribution of nuclear power to electricity production from 75 percent today to 50 percent by 2025, and we will embark upon: — A plan for the future use of existing nuclear infrastructure, with a view to reducing production capacity by one third by progressively deactivating twenty-four reactors, beginning with the immediate decommissioning of Fessenheim, followed by those sites that are particularly vulnerable due to the risk of seismic activity or flooding, age, and the cost of measures needed to ensure optimal safety.” Cf. Europe Écologie—Les Verts and Parti socialiste, “2012-2017: socialistes et écologistes ensemble pour combattre la crise et bâtir un autre modèle de vivre-ensemble,” 2011.
  • [39]
    European Pressurized Reactor, later Evolutionary Power Reactor.
  • [40]
    “Le PS et EELV trouvent un accord a minima pour les législatives,” Le Monde, 15 November 2011.
  • [41]
    Anne-Sophie Mercier and Samuel Laurent, “La curieuse disparition du ‘MOX’ de l’accord Verts-PS,” Le Monde, 16 November 2011. Here we recall the game of bluff between François Hollande and Cécile Duflot on two successive TV news programs, following which Hollande agreed to reinstate the paragraph on MOX.
  • [42]
    Interview with Éric Straumann, president of the Haut-Rhin Departmental Council, by video conference, November 2016.
  • [43]
    “Nucléaire: Hollande prend ses distances avec l’accord PS-EELV,” Libération, 28 November 2011.
  • [44]
    Brouard et al., “Un effet de campagne.“
  • [45]
    Lanny W. Martin and Georg Vanberg, “Coalition Policymaking and Legislative Review,” American Political Science Review 99(1), 2001, 93-106; Kai Oppermann and Klaus Brummer, “Patterns of Junior Partner Influence on the Foreign Policy of Coalition Governments,” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 16(4), 2014, 555-71.
  • [46]
    Michael Laver and Norman Schofield, Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1998; Wolfgang C. Müller and Kaare Strøm, eds, Coalition Governments in Western Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • [47]
    “I think that, when it came down to it, we weren’t completely ready to act straight away [.. . ] it’s possible that there were some calculations and projections that were not entirely well founded,” interview with Michel Sapin, minister for the economy and finance, Paris, January 2017.
  • [48]
    Advisor to the executive branch, quoted in Le Figaro, 14 September 2016.
  • [49]
    Arnaud Gossement, 10 October 2012. “Le président de la République a-t-il le droit de fermer la centrale de Fessenheim?” Gossement Avocats, available at:ƒ
  • [50]
    Mark A. Pollack, “Delegation, Agency, and Agenda Setting in the European Community,” International Organization 51(1), 99-134; Mark A. Pollack, The Engines of European Integration: Delegation, Agency, and Agenda Setting in the EU, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003; Robert Elgie, “The Politics of the European Central Bank: Principal-Agent Theory and the Democratic Deficit,” Journal of European Public Policy 9(2), 2002, 186-200.
  • [51]
    Sébastien Guigner, “Pour un usage heuristique du néo-institutionnalisme: application à la ‘directive temps de travail’,” Gouvernement et action publique 3(3), 2012, 7-29.
  • [52]
    Government Press Office. 2013. “Le point sur la fermeture de la centrale nucléaire de Fessenheim,” January 30.
  • [53]
    This previously fell under the jurisdiction of the General Directorate for Nuclear Safety and Radiological Protection, overseen by three different ministers (environment, industry, and health). This contrasts with the oversight structures in place for other industries, which were delegated to the General Directorate for Risk Prevention. Interview with Bernard Laponche, energy consultant at Association Global Chance, Paris, 14 November 2016.
  • [54]
    Interview with Pierre Cunéo, chief of staff to Delphine Batho, Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, by telephone, 9 December 2016: “Both politically and in terms of security, I can’t see the minister or myself taking the risk of saying, ‘we are going to override the ASN’s recommendation,’ particularly since its authority derives mainly from the fact that its opinions and recommendations are followed.“
  • [55]
    Kent R. Weaver, “The Politics of Blame Avoidance,” Journal of Public Policy 6(4), 1986, 371-98; Christopher Hood, “The Risk Game and the Blame Game,” Government and Opposition 37(1), 2002, 15-37.
  • [56]
    “Fermeture de Fessenheim ‘pas exclue, mais pas annoncée à ce stade,’” Libération, 15 December 2012.
  • [57]
    Jean Michel Gradt, “Nouveau cafouillage autour de la fermeture de Fessenheim,” Les Échos, 17 October 2014.
  • [58]
    Interview with André Hatz, Association Stop-Fessenheim, by telephone, 17 November 2016.
  • [59]
    A recommendation from the Council of State dated 22 February 2016 appears to confirm that the technical precautions set by the ASN (vis-a-vis the requirement that a reactor at the Bugey nuclear power station be inspected every ten years) did not constitute “an implicit decision that production should be allowed to continue [.. . ] for another ten years.“
  • [60]
    “Centrale de Fessenheim: pas de fermeture possible avant cinq ans, selon l’ASN,” Le Parisien, 15 January 2013.
  • [61]
    Interview with Pierre-Franck Chevet, president of the ASN, Montrouge, 21 November 2016.
  • [62]
    Interview with Philippe Jamet, ASN commissioner, Paris, 21 November 2016.
  • [63]
    Interview with Yves Marignac, energy consultant at Wise-Paris, Paris, 14 November 2016. The ASN concluded that “this situation jeopardizes the protection of the interests set out in article L.593-1 of the Environmental Code,” (ASN, Decision No. CODEP-CLG-2016-02945 of July 18, 2016). Cf. “Fessenheim: le document qu’EDF préférerait oublier,” Mediapart, 30 January 2017.
  • [64]
    Interview with Michel Habig, president of the Fessenheim Local Information Commission, Paris, 28 November 2016.
  • [65]
    Francis Rol-Tanguy was a senior civil servant with more expertise in transport than in the energy sector. An engineer educated at the École nationale des ponts et chaussées, he was a technical advisor to numerous ministerial offices before being recruited to head up the Ministry for Transport under Jean-Claude Gayssot (1997-99). He later served as deputy director general of freight at SNCF (2000-03) and director of the Atelier parisien d’urbanisme (APUR) (2008-12).
  • [66]
    Interviews with Francis Rol-Tanguy, interministerial delegate for the closure of Fessenheim, Paris, 4 January 2017, by telephone, 26 September 2017.
  • [67]
    Interview with P. Cunéo, as above.
  • [68]
    Frédérique de Gravelaine and Sylvie O’Dy, L’État EDF, Paris, A. Moreau, 1978; Michel Wieviorka and Sylvie Trinh, Le modèle EDF. Essai de sociologie des organisations, Paris, La Découverte, 1989.
  • [69]
    Interview with P. Cunéo, as above.
  • [70]
    Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [71]
    Interview with Gérard Magnin, government representative on EDF’s board of directors, by telephone, 29 November 2016.
  • [72]
    “Fessenheim: le début de la fin,” Les Échos, 28 November 2012; “Fermer Fessenheim affecterait 2000 emplois,” Le Figaro, 1 July 2014.
  • [73]
    Interview with Laurent Raynault, CGT representative at the Fessenheim nuclear power station, Paris, by telephone, 16 November 2016.
  • [74]
    Matthieu Pechberty, “Cinq à huit milliards pour fermer Fessenheim,” Le Journal du dimanche, 5 May 2013.
  • [75]
    Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [76]
    Interview with Pierre-Marie Abadie, energy director at the General Directorate for Energy and Climate and government commissioner on EDF’s board of directors, by telephone, 21 December 2016.
  • [77]
    Here we borrow an expression used by Vincent Dubois in “Politique au guichet, politiques du guichet” in Olivier Borraz and Virginie Guiraudon (eds), Politiques publiques 2. Des politiques pour changer la société, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2010. English translation: p. 7.
  • [78]
    “Ayrault: la fermeture de Fessenheim dans le projet de loi transition énergétique,” Agence France-Presse, 30 May 2013.
  • [79]
    “From now on, I want the state to be able to guarantee the implementation of our country’s energy strategy. It is not a question of changing operators, but of overseeing the diversification of electricity production in France in accordance with the goals that we, as a sovereign nation, have chosen.“
  • [80]
    “Le délégué à la fermeture de Fessenheim invoque un nouveau motif pour arrêter la centrale,” Le Monde, 21 January 2014.
  • [81]
    “A second regulation was put forward: extending the life of certain reactors beyond forty years, subject to certain rules; we called it the 40+20 regulation. It was not mentioned at the 2013 environmental conference. Discussions started up again in spring 2014, but ultimately these regulations were not incorporated into the text of the draft law.” Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [82]
    Interview with C. Duflot, 2016, as above.
  • [83]
    Ministry for the Environment and the Sea, Programmation pluriannuelle de l’énergie, October 2016.
  • [84]
    “What Royal’s law does is cap France’s nuclear production capacity at its current level, i.e., 63.2 gigawatts. When EDF starts up the new plant at Flamanville, two other reactors will need to be shut down to keep us within that limit.” Le Figaro, 14 September 2016.
  • [85]
    Ségolène Royal, Le Monde, 9 March 2015.
  • [86]
    “Of course they held on to Fessenheim, because in their dealings with the unions it gave the impression that EDF’s senior management had nothing to do with it.” Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [87]
    Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [88]
    Ségolène Royal, Le Monde, 9 September 2015.
  • [89]
    Interview granted to the newspaper Le Parisien, 24 September 2015.
  • [90]
    “Le stratagème du gouvernement pour fermer la centrale de Fessenheim,” Le Monde, 16 January 2014.
  • [91]
  • [92]
    “There was one aspect of the timetable we didn’t stick to; the plan for dismantlement, which has to be approved by the ASN, was a precondition to decommissioning. Until it is approved, we have a problem. It’s also to do with the fact that, in terms of the law, the goalposts have been shifted.” Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [93]
    Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, “Philippe Martin met with the new interministerial delegate for the closure and redevelopment of the Fessenheim nuclear power station,” 15 January 2015.
  • [94]
    Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [95]
    Le Figaro, 14 September 2016.
  • [96]
    Marc Goua and Hervé Mariton, Rapport d’information sur le coût de la fermeture anticipée de réacteurs nucléaires: l’exemple de Fessenheim, Assemblée nationale, no. 2,233, 30 September 2014.
  • [97]
    Interview with G. Magnin, as above.
  • [98]
    Interview with L. Raynault, as above.
  • [99]
    Interview with G. Magnin, as above.
  • [100]
  • [101]
  • [102]
    Directive no. 2014-948 on corporate governance and capital transactions of state-owned companies significantly modified the composition of EDF’s board of directors, by abolishing the category of directors representing the state. There is now only one state representative (the current director of the APE, appointed by decree) plus eleven directors nominated at the general shareholders meeting. However, the state can still propose the nomination of these eleven directors, who therefore represent “the interests of the state in its capacity as shareholder.” In reality, therefore, the relationship between the state and the EDF’s board of directors has not changed.
  • [103]
    Interview with P.M. Abadie, as above. Cf. also: Bertille Bayart, “Fessenheim, un dossier politiquement radioactif,” Le Figaro, 13 September 2016.
  • [104]
    Interview with G. Magnin, as above.
  • [105]
    Interview with P. Cunéo, as above.
  • [106]
  • [107]
    Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [108]
    Macron privately expressed his skepticism of this pledge, most notably to nuclear industry employees: “They know what I think. It makes no sense and there’s no industrial coherence.” (Le Figaro, 14 September 2016.)
  • [109]
    André Delion, “De l’État tuteur à l’État actionnaire,” Revue française d’administration publique, numéro thématique ‘L’État actionnaire,’ 124, 2007, 537-72.
  • [110]
    Interview with G. Magnin, as above.
  • [111]
    Interview with P. Cunéo, as above.
  • [112]
    Interview with B. Laponche, 2016, as above; interview with G. Magnin, as above.
  • [113]
    Interview with F. Rol-Tanguy, as above.
  • [114]
    Weaver, “The Politics of Blame Avoidance,” 386.
  • [115]
    “EDF et l’État trouvent un accord à 400 millions d’euros pour fermer Fessenheim,” Le Monde, 24 August 2016.
  • [116]
    Ségolène Royal, press release dated 24 January 2017.
  • [117]
    Véronique Le Billon, “Fessenheim, cinq ans de débats et toujours autant d’incertitudes,” Les Échos, 24 January 2017.
  • [118]
    Our inquiry would not have been possible without the support of the French National Research Agency’s Partipol project (with funding from the ANR Young Researchers Program, project no. ANR-13-JSH1-0002-01, supervised by Isabell Guinaudeau). The authors would also like to express their sincere thanks to the publication’s anonymous evaluators for their comments and suggestions.

This article analyses the (non-)implementation of a campaign promise to shut down the Fessenheim nuclear power plant during President François Hollande’s term. This case study allows us to test the central hypothesis of this issue, namely that the fulfilment (or not) of an election pledge depends on both the capacity and incentives that political leaders have to honour their promises. Two main arguments are proposed. First, the nature of a promise and the circumstances under which it is made condition its fulfilment. Second, political actors can modulate their ability to keep promises. While, in this case, the executive branch was quickly faced with unanticipated sectoral constraints, it was able to exploit these constraints to reformulate and postpone an electoral promise that had been made reluctantly.


  • nuclear
  • Fessenheim
  • energy policy
  • electoral pledges
  • campaign promises
  • public policy
  • France
Eva Deront
Eva Deront is a doctor in political science from the Pacte laboratory in Grenoble and a visiting scholar at CEVIPOL/Institute for European Studies, Brussels. Her current research concentrates on the development of European nuclear policy, the implementation of Germany’s nuclear power phase-out, and energy insecurity in Belgium. (Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Sciences Po Grenoble, Pacte, 38000 Grenoble).
Aurélien Evrard
Aurélien Evrard is a lecturer in political science at the University of Nantes and a researcher at the Law and Social Change Laboratory (Laboratoire DCS). His work explores changes in government action in Europe, with a particular focus on energy and environmental policy. His publications include: Contre vents et marées. Politiques des énergies renouvelables en Europe (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2013); and (with Pierre Bocquillon) “Rattraper ou devancer l’Europe? Politiques françaises des énergies renouvelables et dynamiques d’européanisation,” Politique européenne 52 (2016): 32­56. Along with Stefan Aykut and Sezin Topçu, he was a coordinating editor of a special issue of Revue internationale de politique comparée, entitled “Transitions énergétiques et changements politiques,” [Energy Transitions and Political Change] 24, nos. 1­2 (2017). (Université de Nantes, UFR de droit et sciences politiques, Chemin de la Censive du Tertre, BP 81307, 44313 Nantes Cedex 3).
Simon Persico
Simon Persico is a professor at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Grenoble), associated with the PACTE Social Sciences Research Center. His work focuses on the impact of parties on public policies, changing party systems, and environmental politics. He has published (with Florent Gougou) “A New Party System in the Making? The French 2017 Presidential Election,” French Politics 15, no. 3 (2017): 303­321; (with Christophe Bouillaud and Isabelle Guinaudeau) “Parole tenue: une étude de la trajectoire des promesses du président Nicolas Sarkozy (2007­2012),” Gouvernement et action publique 3, no. 3 (2017): 85­113; “`Déclarer qu’on va protéger la planète, ça ne coûte rien.’ Les droites françaises et l’écologie, 1975­2015,” Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques 44, no. 2 (2016): 157­186. (Grenoble Alpes University, CNRS, Sciences Po Grenoble, Pacte, 38000 Grenoble).
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