Dr. Bohling of Portland State University explains how France, a country with very limited fossil fuels, became an energy leader. Along the way he dispels myths about France falling in love with nuclear power and their position as a green country.
Hello everyone. Today’s episode is a fascinating conversation I held with Professor Joseph BOLLING. BOLLING is an assistant professor of history at Portland State University and is the author of The Sober Revolution, Appellation Wine and the Transformation of France. While we discuss his first book, this episode primarily addresses the politics of energy, economic growth, and climate change in postwar France, which is the subject of his second book which is still in the process of being written. Storable energy in the form of fossil fuels, nuclear, and green energy is an essential component of virtually every aspect of human life. From the alarm clocks that wake us up, transportation, digital devices, virtually everything about modern life revolves around the accumulation and use of energy. Those nations which have access to energy dominate those that don’t. For France energy has been a particularly pressing problem. First France did not have the coal reserves that Britain did. And after Germany annexed the coal rich Alsace Lorraine it had to import coal. Later France had to import natural gas from Algeria. Oil from the Middle East and uranium from the African colonies. France more than perhaps any other modern nation has struggled to acquire sources of energy. These struggles have often resulted in violent protest as exhibited by the recent Gila shun riots against Macrons taxation of energy usage. But while France has struggled to access energy and drawn much ire from its citizens it also has an environmentally friendly reputation. Through its use of nuclear power and green tech, it produces less CO2 per capita than nearly every other industrialized country. And the Paris climate accord showed that France is one of the world leaders in the fight against climate change. As in many other things France is a country of contradictions. It is a country with few local resources but as an energy leader. It has a reputation as the world leader in green energy.
Yet its capital was racked by protest over supposedly bad energy policies. What follows is a truly fascinating conversation with Dr. bowling about France and power.
Are you are just an energetic person? What do you what keeps you energetic?
I mean energetic in certain spheres of life my friends, getting excited about other things too like baseball or something like that.
Francis definitely a passion of mine.
No, I think it’s definitely good to have passion not just because it bleeds over and other things but I’m of the opinion that in certain professions you can’t just be very good in your area.
You also have to have a certain lifestyle because I’m also not to brag but I’m also a writer, I’m getting my first novel published this coming year.
Congratulations. It’s great.
Thank you. So to be a writer you can’t just be good at writing but you have to live an interesting life.
It’s kind of the same with historians.
I think so, because much of the history that we write is personal and I think there is some level of personal to be right. Absolutely. I was trained by historians in France who told me you can’t just go to the archives in France, you know, I am an archive writer, I love them but you’ve got some of the culture you’ve got know the people. So I think you’re just making really efficient trips to France to do research. I mean no offense to those who do that because I think within those limitations like money and time but it’s best to keep it sort of soak up the culture understand how ordinary French people understand their way of life.
So I think that inherently makes us more interesting. We’re starting to understand their culture better not just their records.
I’m glad you’re breaking the stereotype of the historian who stays inside all day in the archives because historians we really should re brand ourselves.
I think you’re absolutely right.
….as being these well traveled sages.
I know, I think that’s absolutely right.
There is maybe a branding issue within the historical profession more broadly, you know, and I think we do need to find ways to make it more exciting not just for us but also for the people who are listening to us. That’s certainly one way to do it. This is where it gets into another culture. I’ve senior colleagues who I look up to and who I know who clearly have or they seem to have a certain glamorous lifestyle in France. I can think a few, my former mentor Susanne Barrows has now passed away. She could go to France and certainly is very much a part of the (????? 6:05 scene). People like John Merryman who owns a house and then he spends a lot of time in France. I think most of his time in France, there’s certainly senior colleagues that I know of who certainly are exciting and doing more than just even though they’re at such archival prowess I also have other lives in France.
So let’s talk just slightly about you then.
What makes you a well traveled, interesting person that, because you do seem to bleed this energy.
Yeah it’s interesting. I don’t know. I mean, I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up in an agricultural area.
I think there’s often stereotypes about this farmer who still stay tied to the land.
But I was raised by parents who wanted me to travel. When I got to know other parts of the United States and when I became a teenager and graduated from high school became more interested in Europe. Started traveling to France, than had good university professors who also encouraged me to travel. So it’s always been an important part of my life. I know there’s never a summer that goes by that I don’t spend a good part of it in France. So yeah, I think traveling is a very important part of the historical experience of writing and learning about learning about the past.
Well fantastic. You know it might be because you grew up in Iowa, I don’t know if it’s a similar thing but I, growing up in small town Oregon and I definitely had the need to you know get out of this place.
Yeah absolutely. If you grew up in New York City, I mean, that doesn’t mean people from York City aren’t well traveled but I think there’s less of this or that impulse necessarily to go beyond because there’s so much already in New York City. But when you grew up in a small town in Iowa or a small town in Oregon you certainly become very curious about the outside world, learn a lot more about how other people live, think in their lives.
Absolutely. Well thank you for sitting down with us. All right. So let’s get to your work itself. You are working on or have worked on two things that greatly interest me which is alcohol and power. So starting with your first book The Sober Revolution: Appellation Wine and the Transformation of France where you argue that in the 1950’s to 1970s France experienced an anti alcoholism campaign. Can you tell us a little bit about France’s war on wine.
Yeah it’s a very good question. The Sober Revolution looked at how after World War 2 in an age of imperial crisis and European integration the French state set out to transform the French relationship to wine. I think we often think of France as a country of fine wine and a place with discerning taste. I would argue that this is actually a stereotyped. One that’s been cultivated and exported by the wine industry in the French states to serve an important economic and cultural interests. After World War 2 the medical profession grew very concerned about France’s high rate of alcoholism. The public health activists noticed it dramatically and that in the construction trade workers drank as much as three liters of wine a day.
On the job?
On the job. Apparently, a dramatic tale, right. They also sort of observed that there were more drinking establishments than bakeries.
So they were deeply concerned about France’s high rate of alcoholism. At the same time there’s a major shift in paradigms among a public health specialist in the middle decades of the 20th centuries. They move away from the late 19th and early 20th century idea of alcoholism being primarily a moral problem of the individual. They see by the middle decades of the 20th century that alcoholism is a problem of political economy.
So what does this mean.
Doctors blamed alcoholism on wine production and most notably the mass produced wines found in the long enough region of southern France and in Algeria. They blame alcoholism on its wine production but also the parliamentary institutions and the economic protections that Parliament was granting these wine producers Algeria. Remember, this as during the Third Republic, it’s a parliament. This means that local interests are always sort of and in many cases get sort of more legitimacy than sort of the central then the sort of the ideas of the central government.
And at the beginning of the 20th century wine production grew exponentially to the point that there was major surpluses.
And when there’s major surpluses this means that prices fall, when prices fall, this led to great political unrest. For one example in 1907 there was five hundred thousand strong in the streets of Montpelier demanding that the government come to the rescue of these wine growers.
By the 1930s Algeria has become the largest wine exporter in the world. Where are the wines of Algeria going, almost entirely to France, right. So what to do with all this wine. The major initiative on the part of the government was to sell wine as a beneficial drink, something that was healthful and that doctor, said three liters might be too much, but a liter of wine a day was totally ok and so citizens happily abided. So after that after the Second World War there was
this shift in thinking away from the sort of the moral problem with the individual to a problem of political economy. This allows doctors to gain traction, but a lot of other groups have a big problem with the political economy of France. For those who are somewhat unaware of what’s going on in mid century France there is a big push to shift the political economy to open up the economy to the world to make French agriculture and French industry much more competitive.
And so there there’s an interest in sort of attacking these economic protections that have been granted to wine growers and to other groups. Okay, so a number of different groups jump on board, technocrats who are trying to intervene in the economy and all kinds of new ways that they find allies especially in part of the wine industry itself.
The wine industry was undergoing its own transformation in the middle decades of the 20th century. Many of our listeners may be aware of the Appellation d’origins Protgee you could call a regional labelling system the AOC system which is now the sort of major brand of wine in France. It’s based on the idea of terroir. That sort of loose translation is a sense of place.
They were trying to sort of gain market share against all these mass produced wines and along with that in Algeria. So they actually joined this war on alcoholism saying look, people should drink quality wine not quantity. And what did quality mean. It met the expensive wines that the AOC system. And so there’s this sort of this wide sort of coalition that emerges in the context of decolonization and European integration that ultimately will give the AOC system the upper hand on these mass produced wines from the long attack in Algeria. So there was a war on wine but a war on a specific kind of wine. And the result was this this AOC system and its sort of promotion of the idea terroir. I also argued in the book that sort of this was not just about political economy but that it also did important cultural work because the AOC system claimed to sort of promote and protect traditions and went back to the medieval age and even before. And what is the medieval age. This this was a time when things were more local, less capitalistic and certainly less imperialistic. So it had a sort of a better public relations certain image. And so when in 1962 and Algeria finally achieves independence. This AOC system then really begins to take off in France because the Algerian wines are being imported to a far lesser extent. And so with this cultural work that the AOC system does this sort of helps deface the memory of Algeria and it sort of de naturalize the link that had been sown between Algeria and France for over a century. Remember for many people in the early part of the 20th century the claim was that Algeria was an integral part of France. So they did cultural work as well. It helped to create the post-colonial France that we know today.
Wow that’s fascinating. I could spend a whole episode just asking questions on that.
But I’ll ask very quickly, was Algeria still a major wine producer after that.
Absolutely. It takes quite some time for Algeria to figure out how to sort of restructure their, not only their agricultural economy but also their industrial economy and they depend heavily on maintaining that relationship with France. Well, you know, all through the post-colonial period up to the present. So there are going to be continued ties but through sort of agreements between the two countries the level of wine coming into France is going to continue to diminish. They find other buyers of the Soviet Union for a while but ultimately it spells sort of the end of the Algerian wine scene although it’s not totally gone now but it’s sort of it’s certainly not what it once was because of the French presence.
But what’s one thing that is interesting about the continued relation in 1960s is that one deal that the French made is that, OK, we’ll continue to buy your wine as long as you keep the oil flowing.
Oh well that is a fantastic Segway, because essentially I wanted to talk to you about power and France’s energy situation continuing with the talk on alcohol. You have previously done work on how alcohol based energy actually led to a revelation you had regarding France’s energy situation. Can you tell us about that.
Yeah, that’s right. So one way that the alcohol lobby sought to cope with their frequent surplus crises was by promoting an alcohol fuel to be used in automobiles.
And so they begin to fund lots of scientific research. When I was looking at these archives I was actually, I started laughing, and I was totally ridiculous but then I started to think, wait a minute.
People at the time were taking them very very seriously. There is a long fought battle between about 1918 and the end of the Fourth Republic around 1957 and 1958 where the alcohol fuel competed with foreign oil and so I started to think so…
You know, most historians have argued that sort of the, you know, the oil transition of the 20th century. This was primarily a demand phenomenon. That’s to say the automobile and the invention of the internal combustion engine gave legitimacy to oil. And I argue in an article that is forthcoming that this sort of, this link was not inevitable. The oil transition was not inevitable. In fact during this period between about 1918 and the end of the Fourth Republic between 1918 and the early 1950s people were experimenting with different kinds of fuels in different kinds of engine configurations, which many people complain that actually gasoline based on foreign oil didn’t really worked out well it wasn’t very efficient.
And so the alcohol fuel actually had a very good chance of being victorious or at least some mixture of gasoline with this alcohol fuel. So, but in most historical narratives of oil and even coal before that are seen as progressive forces. And anything that competed or any kind of alternative has often been written off as being ridiculous like I thought, or traditional and therefore about to go away. But in fact it looked for a long time as if oil may not have been sort of the thing that it ultimately came to be.
So I started asking questions, you know, the fact that I saw that alcohol the alcohol fuel is sort of ridiculous I thought that was actually pretty telling made me think about how fossil fuel infrastructures come to exist. Why we take them for granted.
So I think we can conclude then that France ran on alcohol…or almost did
…or almost did it almost did right.
I mean, I think, you know, there was, I argue in this in this article that it wasn’t simply because of price, it wasn’t simply because of the efficiency, it wasn’t simply because of technological innovation that the alcohol fuel was defeated. It was defeated because of such a social context and political conflict, primarily the fact that the government was trying to get farmers, trying to reduce the farm population and to deal with the surplus problem which had been sort of a thorn in the side of the government because it paying out lots of money to these producers to continue to produce something that wasn’t needed.
Right. There’s also a joke in there you mentioned mixing alcohol and gasoline.
I’m not going to go there. But in any case let’s get a, I’m not above cheap jokes.
So in addition to this, you are currently pursuing and in the process of writing a book on this fascinating topic which is French society and the adoption and utilization of fossil fuels. As modern historians I think we understand how important the move from animal and human power to machines was, but could you explain to our listeners just how revolutionary this transformation was.
Yeah. The switch from animal and human power to machines and the switch from organic energy to fossil fuels was totally revolutionary.
But I think it’s very important to keep in mind that this transition to fossil fuels was far from inevitable that it was highly contentious, highly contingent, and highly uneven. Not every country adopts fossil fuels to the same extent. And I think oftentimes we use an Anglo American model devouring coal and oil. Not all countries look for, countries like France for example was as enthusiastic about fossil fuels. But ultimately this transformation was impacted every aspect of life in the organic energy regime.
Prior to fossil fuels there were limits to what could be done. So if there was major land and labor constraints.
So if a farmer decided, if people decided to use the land for food it meant that they would have less forest for metallurgy or for all warming a house. Right. So there were serious land constraints in that respect if people use the forests for metallurgy and not warming this can lead to great class conflict. So people were looking for ways to liberate themselves from this kind of organic energy regime. And this is where stored fossil energy did a great service to those who were looking for major economic change. To give you a sense for the revolutionary dimension here, mechanization through fossil fuels raise productivity exponentially in agriculture and industry. It provided more food to fuel, animal and human muscle, fuel steam engines, the internal combustion engine, and all other kinds of machines. So greatly facilitates mobility, improves the standards of living exponentially, it like cities, warm houses, it made the housework easier by electrified modern appliances. So it plays a really central role in the modern capitalist world system. Production raises, is increased about got seven 70 times since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and by this measure the average inhabitant of the planet is today eleven times better off than they were in 1820. In Western Europe they’re 18 times better off. So there’s been major improvement in the standard of living. This does not obviously mean that the world is equal, some people have been better off than others.
Fossil fuels also were important on a political level in the creation of modern nations and empires. Would France have become France without the steam power train, and in the course of the 19th century all the diverse parts of France are integrated. Think about the work, and whether in essence of the Frenchman and the ways in which you entered the role of infrastructure and primarily trains have and sort of bringing the different regions together. All that is thanks to coal. The steam powered ship as well is very important in terms of modern empires. Empires can be forged without steel powered ships to be clear. Think about sailing ships and then back sailing ships were actually more important at the end of the 19th century than they were the beginning in the 19th century so they don’t go away. Which is an important lesson in transitions that the new does not necessarily replace the old. You find sort of a intensification of the old with the new but steam powered ships do enabled the British to be successful in the Opium Wars 1839 to 1842. It certainly facilitates the scramble for Africa and the move in London and on the African continent also. Certainly fossil fuels make modern nation building empire building much easier. Some scholars have provocatively argued that fossil fuels are linked to modern notions of democracy and primarily Timothy Mitchell mentioned here, thinking about sort of at the end of the 19th century. Coal obviously was the most important source of energy in England and this gave the coal miners lots of power. It allowed them a kind of direct political participation that if they didn’t like the wages that they made or their working conditions they could stop mining and this would shut down the entire British society. This gave them lots of power. Mitchell argues quite provocatively, it’s not convincing to everyone, but he says that the switch from coal to oil in large part was a way to deal with labor unrest. That’s to say, oil whereas it found it’s not found in Europe. It’s found in the Middle East that use pipelines instead of actual workers. And if there is labor unrest in say like Syria you can redirect that oil through a different pipeline. And so this deals with the labor question in a big way. The labor problem in a big way. Oil is much more capital intensive much less labor intensive. And so for Timothy Mitchell, the United States kind of engineered a new kind of democracy in the middle of the 20th century away from coal toward oil as a way not only to empower the United States but also to deal with Communism in places in Western Europe.
So it has also been linked to democracy. But also of course as important cultural and social work in the ways that it transforms space and time. It creates more mobility. People are able to leave their villages, people are able to sort of experience freedom through the car for example and these kinds of things.
It also does damage. I think this is an important part of the story that needs to be restored. That there is a progressive narrative. That this is emancipating people. It’s creating better living standards, all these thing, but it also comes at great ecological cost and especially in our age of climate change. We are we’re now looking back, many people are looking back to say the origins of the steam engine was the beginnings of our sort of climate change disaster. And so it’s important to note that the transition to fossil fuels created winners and losers and it created new new opportunities at the same time that it brought destruction.
So much there, that was really fantastic.
Your expertise is on 20th century and it’s specifically mid 20th century if I’m correct.
That’s correct yes.
So, I have one more question that will do away with the early origins of the Industrial Revolution and get us right to what your expertise is. When the Industrial Revolution is taught in schools. It’s inevitably about Britain but recent scholarship most notably by Jeff Horn and his book The Path Not Taken argues that France didn’t fail to industrialize but only did so more gradually. So, while Britain peaked early and then entered a long slump in the latter 19th century, France kept growing. Do you agree with this?
Yeah, I mean, without getting into the specifics of his argument I do agree with Horn that the French path was different.
There is definitely an unfortunate trend in the economic history modern France of comparing the French past to the Anglo American path in order to explain what went wrong in France. The historian often ask why did great Britain succeed. Why did France fail. In my view in my mind failure in the French cases is a strong word, because it assumes that some other group is doing things the right way.
It’s too normative for my taste. Obviously Great Britain became very prosperous and very industrial. This was also the land of great class conflict and the dark satanic mills and so not everyone would necessarily want to take that part. So the way I see it that is the French path wasn’t a failure. It was just different.
I wouldn’t even say that the French path was a special path. It was just a variation on the industrialization theme.
What interests me is sort of the energy factor in all of this. The economic history really went through a boom period in the middle of the 20th century and this is really where we start to get into my new my new book project. In the middle of the 20th century people had become fascinated with economic growth and in part the role of fossil fuels and that economic growth.
Both economic historians in England and the United States and in France after 1945, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s started to look at France’s path in the 19th century toward industrialization. They saw it to be, that really their interpretation was primarily one of stagnation. That France somehow was backward.
Why couldn’t they keep up with the British. There was a number of different factors cited there but one of them was that France had a resource endowment problem.
It just didn’t have a lot of coal like England and not only did it not have a lot of coal but it lacked the kind of entrepreneurial spirit, the lack of innovation, to kind of deal with that problem.
So, unfortunately in the 1950s and 1960s there was a very like Anglo American sort of lens through which people are understanding France’s 19th century industrialization.
You know, this is also the age of modernization during the United States, so also there’s sort of this idea that people need to be more like the United States and France is grappling with, to what extent we should become more American.
There was a major shift in thinking among economic historians in the 1970s and 1980s which I think is rather interesting. After 1973 this economic miracle comes to it comes to an end. This is the age of the oil crisis. How at this time do economic historians begin to look at 19th century French industrialization. Well, they start to see it in a much better light. For one they had just experienced economic miracle. Clearly French people could do great things in terms of economic growth, but also with the oil crisis…
People started to think differently about energy in the 19th century. (Name..28:49 France ???) and other economic historians start to look at the fuel saving technologies that France had used in the 19th century to deal with its coal scarcity. And the fact that water power would fuel the Industrial Revolution in France. It wasn’t coal, right. It was primarily water, water power through turbines and wheels, that the great increase in textile output in the early 19th century, mid 19th century was the result of water. So there was other sort of pathways that one could take to industrialize.
And so this is why I really have trouble with this sort of narrative, of the sort of, fossil fuels being inevitably indispensable anyway to the foundations of not only modern France but the modern world. There was other ways in which people could grow their economies and the French economy grows differently. And it doesn’t really need, coal certainly by the late 19th century as the primary energy source found in France. But even then people are using water power, horses are continued to be used to a great degree. Wind power, all these things continue to be very viable in the late 19th century and far from obsolete. In fact these technologies, the last wood that be shipped to Paris like the 1923. So just to give you a sense for how long these these organic energies persist.
All right. That’s fantastic. I think you’ve done a good job of showing not just the obstacles that France face but also how they adapted with them and the 20th century appears to be full of situations like that.
France was an importer of coal from Germany in the early 20th century in part because Germany seized Alsace Lorraine which had quite a bit of coal and helped fuel their industrial revolution.
Or at least the latter part of it. Not only that but then France became an importer of natural gas from Algeria in the USSR and then oil from the Middle East much of which was part of the empire or a former member of the Empire depending on the time period. Because of this French fossil fuels could not be divided from geopolitical concerns. Can you explain how this affected France.
Yes, you’re absolutely right that in France because of its fossil fuel scarcity there is no way to sort of divorce fossil fuels from geopolitics.
That’s exactly one reason why there’s such a long drawn out fight to stay away from fossil fuels and threats. But nevertheless some very powerful people in France, primarily because they need these engineers that come out of the eco Polytechnic, a very prestigious group of engineers and geologists have have an interest in coal and oil and then ultimately uranium in Africa. And so it’s very very difficult to think about fossil fuels without this sort of geopolitical concern. Tony Judt in the 1990s was very skeptical about European integration, in part because after World War Two France obviously was the spearhead of that movement to integrate Europe.
But Judt saw was really, as he saw this in a cynical way that France really didn’t care about integration. They didn’t care about this is sort of this discourse of peace and prosperity for the future of Europe. Was really masking the fact that France needed coal to industrialize right after World War 2. And it’s true that right after World War Two France is a country that’s desperately trying to reconstruct its economy.
It’s definitely trying to modernize and become a great economic power and it needs at that time it sees that coal is the only way to do that and therefore become, it because it takes a very big interest in the European integration process. But historians have also shown going back to the 19th century France had these great grand designs on the world. And we saw in the German coal areas as a way to deal with their own economic development. They also had to deal with coal of course, many of which coming from England. Which is a country that could be an ally but also be a big rival. And so they had to sort of, you know, France first policymakers were really having to grapple with this question, is how do we industrialize how do we become internationally competitive if we have to deal with sort of energy insecure, right, to industrialize and be competitive. You need, most likely you need to have cheap energy and that is a very difficult situation. France is in a very tough situation there. So coal leads to new ideas of European integration. Obviously oil after World War 2 also becomes important. For the listeners who are unaware of this the French Empire didn’t yield much oil, not least not early on right so coming out of the first world war there’s new ideas about how oil might be used in the future. This is the time with the end of the Ottoman Empire when the Middle East is being redrawn. Oil plays a big part in all of that. And France is trying to have an influence in the Middle East.
It ultimately will sort of lose to both the British and the Americans but they do nevertheless maintain some presence that, the French Empire becomes more interesting in the mid 1950s when they find big oil supplies in the Sahara, in southern Algeria, and in Gabon. Right. But what is 1956 different the French state. This is the age of decolonization. So it is sort of, you know, the contingent events and history can be very interesting. So there’s been lots of interpretations of France’s sort of hold on Algeria as being mostly cultural and we we need to maintain France because it’s dear to our hearts.
It’s who we are. I think those certainly resonate are very important. But there’s also the oil factor writing in 1956 they find oil they think this is going to be able to liberate France from the what they call the Anglo American trust. You know the seven sisters who dominate the world petroleum economy and they think that Algeria is going to be this way out. in Gabon as well.
Can you claim what the Seven Sisters are?
These are the seven oil companies that basically dominate the world, that they are integrated industries that sort of do prospect, mine, and refine the oil sell it at the price that they determine. So this is sort of, this isn’t a free market by any means with the exception of the Dutch they’re all British and American. So feeding into fears about the Americanization of France and the world. The French would also like our oil actually is coming from the United States. I don’t want to get to walking into policy details but the way that France addresses this early on before finding oil in the Sahara is that they create a kind of quota system and they demand that oil imported into France has to be refined within France. Crude oil is cheaper than refined oil and so one way that they can deal with this oil dependency to the United States and Britain is by making it the seven sisters actually refine their oil in France.
And so this is a major problem and France is going to continue to do work in the Middle East to find oil through big oil companies in the middle of the 20th century to kind of fight just raced around the world looking for different oil deposits and these kinds of things. And part of the deal with independence is that France would continue to allow its oil companies, but the newly independent state would allow these French oil companies to continue to do work that would change pretty abruptly in the early 1970s. 1971 Algerian nationalize its oil, 1973 there is a quadrupling price of oil as a result of policies.
And so France’s relationship to Africa has been, there has been a strong sort of, oil tie right, in ideas of France-Afric. The oil is certainly linked there. They helped a guy named Omar Bongo become the president of Gabon in 1967, I believe. He was very supportive of the French oil companies working in Gabon. Bongo famously quipped that ‘Africa without France is a car without a driver. France without Africa is like a car without gas.’
That’s an overstatement.
France continued to depend mostly on oil from the Middle East but the oil that it was finding in places like Gabon and (??? 37:05) that definitely served, it was political leverage for France if there was a shortage as there was in 1956 during the Suez crisis or when there was problems in 1973 and 1970s is that oil prices go up. That serves as sort of a sort of an outlet or a stock of oil if they can draw from a time of crisis.
So, you talk about the actions of policymakers and of the state.
I know that your book is still in the process of being made but do you look at the general public opinion of people and how ideas like decolonization and the environmental movement pushed the general populace in certain directions?
Yeah, I mean absolutely. I think public opinion and the environmental movement to are very important factors. I have not looked much at public opinion on oil in the 1950s and 1960s yet I should add, one interesting thing about public opinion and oil it tends to be pretty quiet, whereas where public opinion becomes very against government policy is with the nuclear program of the 1970s and 1980s.
Oil tends to be something the environmental groups certainly take an interest in, oil spills and sort of, the refinery pollution of the refineries. These kinds of things, but the general populace seems to be less less conflicted about oil. In part because I think it’s sort of allowing them to be, during the age when people want material prosperity. This provides French people with the good life, the way they see they would like to be. So public opinion on oil I’ve not seen a lot of sort of polls in comparison to nuclear energy. The environmental groups though as I’ve said they they certainly were critical. I think it’s important to underline that the environmental groups don’t just sort of, there’s not some great awakening in the 1970s. Those go back to the 19th century. Coal was protested, oil was protested, because of these being, because they polluted the earth. And one thing ultimately that the nuclear lobby will do in France is to say, look like, you know, generate electricity generate from nuclear powers. This is actually clean right and this is sort of this isn’t the same kind of problem.
Coal and oil are.
So that is a perfect jumping point to the next thing that I want to talk about because it seems like France solved its energy crisis using nuclear energy. Now in a previous e-mail correspondence before actually setting up this interview you corrected me on the figures that I had read that as of today France is the number one country in the world for nuclear power with over 70 percent of its energy coming from nuclear reactors. Whereas by comparison Ukraine was second at 55 percent and the United States at 20 percent. Do you want to correct me and then tell us how France fell in love with nuclear energy?
I’ll correct you
So,75 percent of electricity is generated from nuclear power. Right.
I think it’s about 42 percent of the energy mix is nuclear.
30 percent I believe is oil then it drops off to renewables and natural gas and coal.
Also you’re including the like car power right all. OK.
And then the entire energy mix which includes things that fuel the automobile. Right. That would be 40. So it’s just electricity production for factories and for the home. And these kinds of things.
All right. Thanks for that clarification. That definitely explains why oil is still so prevalent and absolutely powerful in France but at the same time seventy five percent of electricity. That’s pretty enormous. Tell us how that came about?
Can you make a point about oil and then get into the nuclear. Because I think it’s one important thing. This is an area of French people tell themselves and one that’s been perpetuated by people outside of France is that somehow, I mean it goes back to sort of a misconception about what energy transitions are. There’s a simplistic idea especially among renewable energy activist today is that you could sort of depart from one energy system and sort of build a completely new one. Create a rupture which is never the case energy transitions are highly complex. The old lives within the new. And I think the new so-called nuclear transition of the 1970s is very interesting. Most policymakers in the 70s say the nuclear transition will ultimately be a culminating success for oil because these things were intimately connected. In part one way that France continued to secure oil in the 1970s was by selling nuclear technology to the Middle East. And so it continues to get a pretty good deal for Middle East in terms of oil because it has all this build up, this great nuclear technology and sort of exports it to the least.
Can you tell us which countries specifically?
Iraq being an important ally especially in selling arms and nuclear technology but they’re also selling this stuff to Iran which becomes interesting in the 1980s. Where does France sit in this whole geopolitical mess. And so to your nuclear question, I think what you’ve done here you’ve echoed kind of the way French people perceive this. I think other people too. One the story goes that France fell in love with nuclear power, and two that France is a nuclear nation which I think both are myths, right. First I think a lot of powerful people in France fell in love with nuclear power and public opinion tend to be rather reserved about it. Polls show that they tend to be rather reserved about it and because of the continuing the persistence of oil in France as an oil country to 30 percent of their energy mix as oil it’s not just a nuclear country that they’re thinking about energy in a more heterogeneous kind of way.
And they’re not there is slogans in the 70s you know all nuclear. France is going all nuclear which is far from the truth. Right. So I think really what we see in France is not so much a love affair but a sort of a top down kind of imposition of nuclear energy on two grounds. One, try to maintain economic growth and employment. And then there was an environmental argument already the 1970s. We think climate change means something. In the 1990s they weren’t using the word climate change but they were talking about atmospheric pollution in a big way in the 1970s and how nuclear would keep that problem at bay. That said, nuclear energy policy in France has been remarkably coherent and I think this is for several different reasons. One going back to our fossil fuel discussion. There’s a scarcity of fossil fuels. France was looking before the nuclear project got underway in the 1940s and 1950s. They were already looking for all kinds of alternatives to deal with this fossil fuel scarcity. The question continued to be how could France grow its economy without fossil fuels.
So that fact combined with France’s, I think, fascination with big technological projects it’s important to keep in mind that the nuclear program came on board at the same time they had the idea that the Concorde had become a future way of getting around the world. The Concorde being a supersonic jet which failed miserably. Three, I think it’s important, something that oftentimes historians and other scholars sort of don’t look much at is the role of big corporate interest in building the nuclear reactors. There was a lot of money going into this and so if a lot of money is being invested by big corporations like (French electric company name—44:38)and EDF which is the electric utility in France, lots of money is going into building the reactors. If you can imagine if all this money is going in you’re sort of locked. Reactors for the last 40 years in some cases they’re going to last longer and people want to get their profit, to get their money back plus profit, right. And so this means that once you’ve sort of committed to nuclear, people with a lot of power, economic power, are going to demand that they see the nuclear program through. There’s also another factor in creating such a remarkably coherent policy around nuclear in France is the fact, is the weight of the state apparatus. I’ve mentioned already that the (Cour de mean??? 45:18) that might also include the (French ???) the bridges, and roads, engineering corps. In America might be very difficult for us to understand just how powerful these technocrats are. They’re making most decisions in secret, behind closed doors. But there is very little parliamentary debate when it comes to energy policy because what these technocrats have done over time is to make energy into a technical problem that can be solved only by technocrats in other kinds of experts. Right. So what that does is sort of marginalize any kind of political discussion. And so decisions have been made without any kind of democratic input. Could also add another factor, would be the relative political of the Fifth Republic know the revolutionary sort of fervor of the 19th century and even though sort of the instability of the early 20th century is not an issue by the 1970s and 1980s, not at least in the same kind of way. There’s sort of a new trend by the 70s and 80s where the environmental movement and the anti-nuclear movement these are going to be very very very feisty movements in France. But they’re basically not going to be able to accomplish much. I think it’s maybe one of the tragedies of the late 20th century is how democracy has been closed off to the people and that mostly in France but also elsewhere technocrats and government experts increasingly have taken control of the policy arena especially when it comes to energy. A couple more factors in this sort of coherency and sort of the nuclear policy one would be that the political parties have been pro nuclear right from them from the left to the right. Right the communists have been pro nuclear and the Gaullist parties were pro nuclear or even Macron our new president has, he’s made claims that they’re going to reduce the nuclear share in the energy mix but it’s not clear that’s ultimately what he’s going to do because he’s also made clear that he’s pro nuclear. It’s good to combat climate change. And so the political parties with the exception of the Green Party have been mostly on board with nuclear energy which means that the political process that does exist is pro nuclear and the Green Party has not had the same kind of power in France that we might find in Germany. Along with that the trade unions have been very pro nuclear. With the exception of the CCFDT in part because the nuclear lobby has made very convincing arguments about how important nuclear is to France’s future economic growth and to add to employment. I don’t know. Personally I’m convinced but I think people in France have been convinced by these arguments. In 1981 when the French nuclear kilowatt hour cost 45 percent less in France than it did in Germany. So electricity costs prices are lower in France and they aren’t even Germany and other places. In 1983 the CGT was one of the powerful trade unions in France said that any break on nuclear power constitutes an obstacle to growth. So this productivity mentality continues to persist in France that was born during the post-war years in the 1950s and 1960s. One other factor in this coherence could have to do with the fact that where uranium is located, right, oil located in the Middle East which has become increasingly unstable, investments and and at times less friendly to France. Uranium comes from where? From mostly Western countries, Southern France but also Canada and in Africa and in Francophone Africa and places like Gabon and Niger, Gabriel(french name..48:50) South Africa as well, you know, France through its uranium policy sort of help to sort of, uphold the sort of the racist kind of segregation that existed in South Africa for a long time so the stories that oftentimes get lost in nuclear it’s been promoted as is national energy but it’s also, you know, it’s being mined in Africa in very unsafe situation for the workers in the mines.
I have never been told that I was wrong for 15 minutes straight and so eloquently. This is one for the record books, I thank you.
I’m gonna have to induct you into some kind of hall of fame. So, I hate to bring up America and I hate to especially bring up modern politics because every time I do someone says all this is of history and all your bias I do want to ask one question though which is you, and we’re not gonna get too sidetracked by this, but maybe just if you could weigh in a little bit. You said that France and the domination of the technocrats is something that Americans might not even be able to relate to because it’s so closed doors, so powerful. Can you compare that a little bit to the American situation because when I look at, for example the last Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Was previously the head of Exxon Mobil
And then of course there’s all the controversies in the Iraq war with Halliburton getting no bid contracts. In my mind it seems like the Americans…
I wouldn’t disagree. The difference may be a degree that I think in the United States, certainly I mean, I think Mitchell is shown there’s been sort of a rise of technocracy across the 20th century and most Western industrialized nations.
France has a deep history of that going back before the French Revolution even. But by the Fifth Republic that was installed in 1958. They have much more legitimacy and power than does parliament.
Also the situation is not totally different. There’s is a revolving door in France, right. These public energy enterprise, something we haven’t talked much about, is very importantly in 1945. All of the energy sector except with the exception of one of the oil companies is nationalized. Which means it’s owned by the state and so you get these companies and the state bureaucracy you find these engineers and geologists recording (????? 51:15) they’re moving back and forth. So it’s very hard to sort of separate corporate policy from state policy. Everywhere we go. And so it’s just I think, it is a question of intensity. But it’s not something it’s certainly not unique to France. Let me be the historian for a moment and also let me be a political activist or a citizen, I actually… this is open to debate and historians think differently about these things. But I think history is always political right, and there’s no I think it’s important that we try to be as objective as we possibly can. But we have the questions that we ask, the topics that we choose, our survey group that concerns that we have about the present.
And so it’s very hard for us to completely divorce ourselves from our politics or from our contemporary concerns.
Right to be a good historian.
We have to be objective but to be a good citizen it’s the exact opposite.
It’s a tricky gap. Absolutely. You’re absolutely right. So, as a historian I think this is something where I depart from a lot of the historians of nuclear power and France is that I would argue that there tends to be a with an anti-nuclear position that they take.
That’s beside the point whether I’m pro or anti-nuclear. I wouldn’t defend the technocrats to a certain degree. Would you want to sort of, a ordinary citizen to have control over a nuclear reactor. There’s a reason why they’re there. And I think they’re not as cynical and they are self-interested, they are after their own power most certainly but it’s more complicated than that. They are negotiating lots of different interests. They aren’t blind to environmental concerns. They’re thinking about how they can manage to reconcile economic growth with economic protection that might, you know, whether there’s a tension there. But it’s not irreconcilable.
And so there is complexity in the story that needs to be restored and I think historians, there’s some wonderful histories of nuclear power in France and none of them really I think treat that has come with complexity enough. On the other hand, as a citizen I’m deeply concerned that experts have taken over energy policy to the degree that they have not democratic debate and debate needs to be restored. It seems to be, you know, energy is not simply technical and I think this is something where one of the reasons I came to energy is because there’s a energy transition literature that’s dominated by engineers and economists, who see energy transitions as primarily the result of prices, efficiency and technology. And that’s just simply not true. Right.
I mean, I’m thinking of music in great and great scholars like (Vaclav smell 53:44) and Wrigley and others who have done done history this way I historians are now coming energy transitions to show that energy transitions are social, they’re political, right, and I think we need to restore the social the political, have more democratic input because as things currently stand it’s not looking so good to the future.
And so therefore, we need to look about how we got to this place where public opposition has been sidelined.
That reminds me of something Noam Chomsky said because he was criticizing capitalism.,
Someone asked him. Well capitalism provides all of these different options. And he made the point that well, you can buy so many different kinds of cars under capitalism but at the same time what if I want to use public transportation. We actually have far less than that.
Absolutely. I mean, I would I wouldn’t agree with Chomsky on everything. Certainly I agree with this. That capitalism opens up some up some possibilities and closes down others. But my job in a story is to see how those alternatives have been closed down across the 19th and 20th centuries and restore them to show that political conflict exists in these transitions.
So, you’ve talked a bit about the opposition to nuclear power.
And I want to ask how is that transformed, say in the past 30 years or so with the rise of green energy as an alternative and also in relation to nuclear disasters most notably Fukushima.
Yeah, this is a very good question. I think in some ways it’s interesting to put Fukushima in the context of the two big catastrophes of the late 20th century and 1979 Three Mile Island in 1986 with Chernobyl. How does France respond to these to these crises. After Three Mile Island this provided a great opportunity, because the Socialist party had to gain popularity it was putting a big challenge to discard and staying and being the center party in France and they use nuclear as a way to sort of try to gain a lot of following and they win over the ecologists and the environmental movement, the Green Party and these kinds of things so it created an opportunity for a great public, one of the great public debates in France. In fact the socialist promised if they get put in power that in 1981 that they would allow for a great parliamentary debate about the future of energy policy in France. Well this helped a bit. They brought into power in part with the support of the Green Party. They come into power they have this parliamentary debate. They shut down one reactor, the building of one reactor and plug those in Britain. But apart from that they promised moratoriums and all these kinds of things. But their nuclear policy persists right. So despite some public opinion poll and many public opinion polls showing that the average French person is against nuclear power they persist in part because of the trade unions and the political parties are generally supporting nuclear energy. In 1979 as well you go in the context what else is going on in 1979 as the Iranian crisis. Oil prices skyrocket. So this also gave some legitimacy to power. And so, despite the socialist coming into power 1981 and they come into power with this sort of promise of creating a completely new energy pathway, one that was more decentralized, one that was more democratic. Very little changes. In 1986 Chernobyl which has become now very popular as a result of HBO. Chernobyl as well was a great opportunity for a great public debate. But the government very quickly shuts down any possible debate. They say Chernobyl was basically, you know, this was a budget of bunch of bad science in the Soviet Union. This clearly could not happen in France where are our scientists are brilliant. And so, very quickly the state bureaucracy and primarily these technocrats take control over the catastrophe. They frame the way in which it’s being discussed and they bring in, they allow a little bit more alternative views on science and into the sort of the government discussion, but very little again changes. You’d think, with those two cases in mind, where there was an opportunity here for some sort of rethinking about the nuclear pathway. Fukushima became also has become also an opportunity. But it also like the first two seems to be going nowhere. In part, it may be explained by the fact that in the late night in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century nuclear kind of had a bit of a renaissance.
Why? Well climate change had become a big part of international discussions and France’s claim was, look at it us, we don’t emit as much carbons. Climate change is essentially a problem of the Anglo sphere and statistics show this. Right. My new book though the working title currently is The Low Carbon Republic provocatively in the sense, not that France didn’t have a productive mentality and didn’t want to grow their economy rapidly but they had to do this with fossil fuel constraints and so therefore the French pathway looks kind of good here and it gives a strong argument to the state energy enterprises and the president of the Republic to really not do much because look climate change. We’re not the primary culprit here. And so what happens after Fukushima in France is in France and elsewhere right internationally. This led to such a major phase out of nuclear energy, right, in Germany being one example.
Other countries as well, but in France this doesn’t go as far. When Francois Hollande was in office he had made a promise that he was going to reduce the sort of the electricity share of nuclear from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025. He leaves office macro income comes in and he says well that will work it’s gonna be 20-35 and so they keep pushing things off.
They keep getting postponed.
Only time will tell where things go. EDF the major electricity utility in 2012 stated that a reduction from 75 percent to 50 percent and nuclear energy share of electricity production by 2030 would raise electricity prices by 75 percent. Increase greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and force a substantial increase in fossil fuel imports. Is that argument wrong. Maybe not. So this is where they’re able to kind of maintain a solid argument. I think ultimately the answer to the question will depend on whether enough people believe that using nuclear power to curb climate change is worth the risks of a nuclear catastrophe.
I just read in the New York Review rather recently, there’s been a number of nuclear activists and scholars in the United States, that obviously after Fukushima. The argument that nuclear power can be a way to solve the climate change problem is just not it’s not a very convincing argument. And so there’s been a backlash to sort of the nuclear solution to our climate problem.
So now that takes us to the modern era and green energy. So even if France isn’t necessarily as green as it likes to say that it is. It certainly has this stereotype of being a very green country in part because it has hosted these large climate conferences. Most recently being the Paris Climate Accords which got virtually every country in the world to agree to reduce carbon emissions with the exception being the United States which is currently, has not left but is in the process of leaving. What implications does France’s position as a leader in green energy have for its global political standing? And also I suppose I should expand the question out a little bit. How does that impact France because you’ve talked a lot about how France likes to pride itself on certain things that maybe it doesn’t actually do. So can you possibly enlighten us about the impact of green energy on France and France in the world?
This is an interesting set of questions. I would say that increasingly supporting green energy, however defined, certainly makes it appear that the country is on the right side of history and Macron is exploited this opportunity even though Macron seems to be more talk than action. It’s true. On the one hand the Macron has promised to make this planet great again. Which I don’t know if that means through nuclear power or through solar or what. It’s not exactly clear. He has pledged to shift France to green energy and has promised to cut carbon emissions by 2050. These are good things, right, but it is still a lot of talk. Who knows how much action. More recently in 2018 at the end of 2018 he raised taxes on gasoline with the idea that the money would go to renewable infrastructure energy and infrastructure and these kinds of things. I think this is a great that was a great moment in showing that there are winners and losers in energy transitions and he he was unable to sort of find a way to distribute those more equally. For at least the (French…1:02) their movement Macron was making the burden fall on poor people. Right. And so the question will continue to remain that if we are going to carry out this renewable energy transition who’s going to have to pay for it. And it seems difficult to make poor people or even most struggling middle class people make these the primary sort of actors in that story. So he’s made promises, and I think obviously when you compare that to Donald Trump that seems like at least it’s a promise. It’s acknowledging the problem which is going a lot farther than some people wish. Thank you for that. But I’ve been rather skeptical of the Paris Climate Accords ever since it happened and not to get too provocative here. But it was, it was a lot of talk, right, and I went What are we actually going to do to solve that problem? And like I said this was a step in the right direction that is, it was a mini step and not the kind of step that we ultimately need to take.
Wasn’t it Honduras that didn’t sign because it didn’t go far enough.
I think so.
I should know.
I think maybe Honduras, we could look that up.
But so Macron has spoken these grand gestures, right. He speaks the right kind of language. But it’s also true, I think important, some people forgot this especially, is the (…… movement really took off. Is that Nico Not Lulu.1:04) Who is this minister of the environment. He resigned. Why? Because he argued that Macron was all talk and not much action. At one point he complained that he was trying to get meetings with Macron and Macron would not even see him without the oil companies in the room.
Right. And so you know he was frustrated. I think that should be a sign and Lula was not a I don’t know I wouldn’t call him a great radical environmentalist. He was certainly an activist and certainly wanting to make changes now. I wouldn’t say that he’s the most radical in the political spectrum but even for (1:04:50), Macrons not enough. I said he’s made promises about reducing the share of nuclear energy and electricity production that continues to get postponed.
He sort of made statements that nuclear energy really is the way to deal with climate change. So right.
So green energy, what does that mean? For Macron it might mean the inclusion of green energy in combating climate change.
So everything that you said I just want to say is absolutely fascinating.
It’s really blow me away. I had a feeling that this was going to be a good interview. But this has been, a dare I say spectacular. You talked about how the research in this field has largely been dominated by engineers and economists and now you are one of the first historians looking into this multiple energy revolution. And I imagine that your methodology is pretty fascinating. Do you want to tell us a bit about that.
I mean, first I wouldn’t take credit for being the first. I’ve certainly been inspired by work that is being done currently. I think Timothy Mitchell’s work and (french name 1:06:05) I don’t see myself as a neo Marxist. I think they would say that they are neo Marxist. I don’t I don’t use that kind of lens but it has provided us with some new ways of thinking about energy. (French name 1:06:17) sort of look at the transition from water to coal, Mitchell’s, to look at the transition from coal to oil showed that it was never really about prices it was always a social question. That I think is a very important point and one that has inspired me. Christopher Jones work on the 19th century mid Atlantic. Stephen Grosz who’s currently working on the German energy transition in the last third of the 20th century. All these people have inspired me so I’m certainly not the first but I do think there is something what might be called a new energy history that is being sort of promoted by a number of historians now to show the social and political context in which these energy transitions occur. Transitions are certainly never just about price and efficiency and technology. They’re always social political and therefore full of human drama, agency conflict, conflict complexity. Transitions are never even across the world. They occur in some places more than others. They’re never ruptures. And I think, among activists today, I think that’s one of the great dangers. I mean, if you listen, read the newspapers, usually what people will tell you is that to address climate change and to have a renewable energy transition and you just have to follow the price signals. It’s about technological innovation. But, what about the context in which all that is occurring, right. Prices are never just about the market. They’re political, technological innovations. I mean you can go in many different ways with technology in the window with the choices they can make will impact prices and other dimensions of these transitions. And so I think, to put it most simply, I mean, I’m trying to restore human drama and agency complexity and contingency.
So one last question. Generally speaking I’ve been asking questions that most interest me when it comes to the adoption of fossil fuels and France since you know so much more about the topic. Can you tell us something that we haven’t covered that fascinated or surprised you during your research?
Look, I don’t know this fascinating but it’s frustrating. I’m still very much in the process of doing the research. What’s most frustrating for me at this point has been that the difficulty of accessing the archives, the nuclear archives are highly secretive and hard to access.
I( French….1:08:30) which of these permissions to see the archives. I’m not getting much response from the French government. And so it’s been tricky from that angle. I’m still waiting to get permission for a lot of stuff. But the other thing I think is just the extent to which the archives are technical and presumptuous progress. That people truly believed that to promoting fossil fuels was something that needed to be done in small, tight government circles, and that these were technical problems to be fixed requiring therefore ever more technocrats taking control of the issues.
- But there’s also a social and political world that got completely silenced in those archives and trying to restore those alternative pathways. The alternative outcomes that could have been one of the big challenges and things that keeps me ticking on a day to day basis.
So I imagine that if you go poking around asking for nuclear secrets that’s a good way to end up on the no fly list, right?
That’s actually yeah.
All right. Well thank you very much. This has been an enlightening.
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