By Muriel Boselli
PARIS (Reuters) - France may be forced to rethink its overwhelming dependence on nuclear energy as once solid public support starts to melt away one year before a presidential election.
After Fukushima and Germany's quick decision to quit nuclear
the ruling UMP party repeated its commitment to the carbon-free energy, which France relies on to meet three quarters of its electricity.
A poll published earlier this month showed that three quarters of those interviewed wanted to exit nuclear energy, against 22 percent who back the nuclear expansion program, a stark contrast with pre-Fukushima polls.
"One can see in the results of polls carried out recently that the German precedent is making its way through public opinion in France," said Emmanuel Fages, head of CO2, gas coal and power at the Societe Generale.
The change would probably allow some healthy diversification in the French energy mix, by weakening the strong industrial pro-nuclear lobby in the eyes of policy-makers, he said.
"The position to nuclear is nowhere as passionate than in Germany," Fages said. "But an increasing share of people while not rejecting the technology, now think it is possible to exit it -- eventually."
France first opted for a full blown nuclear energy program with minimal public debate after the first oil crisis in 1974 and continued to support nuclear power even after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Its deep dependence on nuclear makes a dramatic German-style volte-face a massive task.
"Anything is possible but France is coming from such a broad nuclear base that it would be an incredibly bold move if they did," one London-based power trader said.
"They would have to build a lot of gas-fired power plants very quickly," he added.
Gas is the only viable option to replace nuclear as wind or solar power capacity needs to be backed up for periods of unfavorable weather.
France currently uses gas for only 5.4 percent of its power. Fossil fuels produce 11 percent and renewables 15 percent, with hydropower taking the biggest slice of the latter.
French public opinion could also shift again when it becomes clear that the loss of nuclear would result in higher electricity bills.
"The question on whether the French would support an exit to nuclear power with bills 20 percent higher is not being asked," one analyst said.
French electricity prices, which are set by the government, are among the lowest in Europe, partly because of nuclear power.
POLITICAL BATTLE LINES
With a May 2012 presidential election approaching fast, the debate on nuclear energy promises to heat up.
"There will be a bloody debate on nuclear between now and the presidential elections with a divided left party and a right party not fully united on the issue," said Jean-Marie Chevalier, head of Paris Dauphine University's geopolitical energy center.
While the center right UMP party mostly supports the extension of the nuclear program, the opposing socialist party has called for a moratorium on new reactors and promised a national debate on energy transition if elected in 2012.
France's left-leaning green party, Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, which supports an exit from nuclear power, has warned it would not ally with the socialist party if it did not clearly favor an end to nuclear power.
The Greens want a nuclear exit in 20 years so by 2032 and the immediate closure of all the reactors older than 30 years.
The Socialists are leading in early polls and a victory could bring a break with the steadfast support the nuclear program has enjoyed from both right-wing and left-wing governments for the past 40 years.
QUESTION MARK ON FESSENHEIM
In the short-term though, French politicians see the German move as positive because it will boost power exports and will help France close its competitiveness gap with Germany.
Since the start of the year French power exports to Germany have increased by 54 percent and imports dived by 45 percent, French energy Eric Besson said earlier this month.
"In the short-term you might think that the German decision will benefit French utilities as it is already obvious that the idling of 8,400 MW nuclear plants is leading to more power imports from France," Fages added.
The German decision would probably also likely push France to permanently shut down Fessenheim, its oldest nuclear plant located close to German border, analysts said.
France's nuclear watchdog (ASN) said Thursday it would decide at the start of July on whether to extend the lifespan of the Fessenheim 1 reactor.
Analysts also said the missing German nuclear capacity may be an issue for France this summer and next winter when demand for electricity peaks.
While France is a net power exporter, it relies heavily on German imports, which totaled 3 percent of France's 2010 use.
"It's key that the German decision leads to an acceleration of interconnector works at a European level so that we can make supplies more fluid and put in common production tools," Chevalier added.
(Reporting by Muriel Boselli; Editing by William Hardy)