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A Comparative Case Study of Collective Action

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The general expectation is that Germany and France would share a similar approach to nuclear energy (Petit, 2013). Germany and France have a high demand for energy. Also, the two industrialized democracies have the capacity, in terms of technology, to develop nuclear energy. The other similarity is that both countries do not have a variety of natural resources to provide alternative sources of energy. For example, neither country has domestic natural gas or oil reserves, though there are domestic coal reserves in Germany. Moreover, from the beginning of the post-war period, Germany and France have collaborated to develop industries that contribute to the production of energy. The partnership of the two countries has its beginnings in the Coal and Steel Community of Europe established in 1952 (Wiliarty, 2013). The agreement aimed to ensure that French industries gain access to coal from Germany. In basic terms, France and Germany share an energy profile, in many ways.

Despite the vast similarities in terms of natural resource availability and energy requirement, Germany and France differ significantly in terms of their approaches to nuclear power. France considers nuclear energy as the primary source of power. The country generates 77.7% of its power supply from nuclear energy (Wiliarty, 2013). This percentage is higher than the nuclear energy proportion of any other country in the world. On the other hand, Germany relies on coal and a variety of other fossil fuels. In 2010, Germany produced 22.4% of its electricity from nuclear power (Wiliarty, 2013). The percentage dropped to 17.8% in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster involving explosion of a nuclear plant. The policy implication of the Fukushima disaster is that Germany has established a policy to shut down all its nuclear plants. France continues to rely on energy production from nuclear energy. France has only attempted to upgrade its reactors, but harbors no plans to close any of them. Although Germany was initially indifferent regarding prolonged use of nuclear power, government of Angela Merkel has reconciled itself to the commitment to nuclear phase-out. Germany now has plans to shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2022. The decision to shut down 30 nuclear power stations by 2022 does not make any scientific or economic sense. So what exactly explains the differences between the German and French approaches to the production of nuclear energy?

Public opinion is a likely factor that could explain why France and Germany differ in the assessment of nuclear power.  In the 1970s, the public opinion in the two countries was similar with respect to nuclear energy. In the 1970s, anti-nuclear protests increased in both countries especially after the Mile Island accident, in the United States. According to Wiliarty (2013), recent data indicate a similarity in the assessment of nuclear between the two countries. Therefore, the difference in public opinion is not sufficient enough to explain the variation in the energy policy of the two countries.

Political opportunity structure is a term developed by students studying social movement to explain the differences in the success of social movements in different jurisdictions (Wiliarty, 2013). The theory seeks to establish the conditions under which social movements defeat the free-rider problem that is inherent to collective action. According to theories of political opportunity structure, if a social movement has a good organization, strong leadership, and adequate resources, the movement’s success or failure depends largely on the broader political opportunity structure. According to the proponents of these theories, political opportunity structure has four components: access to the political system, availability of elite allies, divisions among elites, and the level of state repression. These four conditions influence the ability of a social movement to mobilize and the chance of the movement to influence policy. In the context of the theories of political opportunity structure, social movements can be similar in many aspects but fail to achieve the same results, in terms of influencing policy. The reason is that they face varying political opportunity structures.

Anti-nuclear movements in France and Germany started at around the same time in the 1970s (Kitschelt, 1986). In addition, they have expressed similar goals, i.e. to prevent or slow the construction of nuclear reactors. The other similarity is that the social movements in the two countries started with local actions and faced countries with similar plans. In addition, the social bases of both movements, in the most part, comprise professionals, students, farmers, young radicals, and public service employees. An indication of this is that the differences in outcomes of movements in Germany and France cannot be traced to the variation in the goals, composition, and actions of the two countries.

The answer to the puzzle is that two movements encountered different political opportunity structures. This difference can explain the variation in the development of the nuclear energy in the two countries. For example, France suppressed the anti-nuclear movement. Repression of anti-nuclear movement was not as extreme in Germany as it was in France. The consequence is that the anti-nuclear movement in Germany succeeded in halting the construction of nuclear power generation plants. In France, strong political parties have developed strong ties to the nuclear industry. Although German parties including Social Democrats developed ties with the nuclear industry, there are strong parties such as the Green Party that oppose nuclear energy generation and production of renewable energy. The strength of these parties has tipped Germany’s opinion against nuclear energy generation. Policy is inclined toward renewable energy development. The hypothesis generated from this discussion is that Germany and France vary with respect to state repression of movements.


Kitschelt, H.T. (1986). Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protest: Anti-Nuclear Movements in Four Democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 16: 57-85

Petit, P. (2013). France and Germany Nuclear Energy Policies Revisited. PANOECONOMICS, 5(2013): 687-698

Wiliarty, S.E. (2013). Nuclear power in Germany and France. Polity, 45(2): 281-296

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