Plougoñ / Plogoff: the name of this commune in the Penn-ar-bed / Finistère department in northwestern Brittany has become a symbol of the anti-nuclear struggle and an important reference in Brittany as the emblematic struggle of ‘des pierres contre des fusils’ [stones against rifles], as encapsulated in the title of Nicole Le Garrec’s 1980 documentary about the movement. This anti-nuclear struggle was spearheaded by women and mobilized the inhabitants of Plogoff from 1974 until 1981, when the project to build a nuclear power plant in the area (as part of France’s intensification of its nuclear energy production after the 1973 oil spill) was abandoned by the newly elected socialist president François Mitterrand.
Plogoff is a struggle that contributed to the emergence and consolidation of political ecology in Brittany and that also powerfully reactivated Breton identity or ‘Bretonness’ (Simon 2010: 342), the mobilization becoming a symbol of standing up to the centralized French State as an apparatus of repression. Plogoff took place in a context where, since the 1960s, this ‘invisible nation’ (Gemie 2007) was reinventing itself through the intertwinement of culture and politics, as the Emsav (Breton cultural and political movement) definitively shifted to the left and articulated its discourse around the idea of internal decolonization, as epitomized by the title of the UDB’s (Union Démocratique Bretonne) mission statement ‘Bretagne=colonie’ [Brittany=colony] (1972) (on anticolonialism in the Emsav since the start of the twentieth century see notably Williams 2007: 128–29). The significance of Plogoff therefore lies in part in its articulation of environmental activism in the context of a minoritized culture and of unequal power relations with the State, in its denunciation of the ecological dimensions of political and cultural centralization and peripheralization.
As political scientist Tudi Kernalegenn has shown (2014), the anti-nuclear struggle in Plogoff is part of a history of ecological mobilization in contemporary Brittany, whose environment had been transformed by remembrement [land consolidation] campaigns in the post-WW2 context, and whose coasts had been repeatedly hit by oil spills (the Torrey Canyon in 1967, Olympic Bravery and Böhlen in 1976, and Amoco Cadiz in 1978). The Torrey Canyon spill had been the world’s worst environmental tanker disaster in 1967, and the sinking of the Amoco Cadiz in 1978 resulted in the world’s worst maritime oil spill and largest loss of marine life to that date. Activists made a parallel between anti-oil spill and anti-nuclear struggles with the slogan ‘Mazoutés aujourd’hui, radioactifs demain’ [covered in oil today, radioactive tomorrow]. This is evoked for instance in the documentary comic Plogoff, by Alexis Horellou and Delphine Le Lay, in a scene where inhabitants in Plogoff watch a news report on mobilizations against the oil spill (2013: 46-47). Two women who are taking part in a demonstration voice their anger at the French State’s treatment of Brittany, which is cast as an environmental issue: ‘la Bretagne est la poubelle de la France. Quel avenir on a en Bretagne ?’ [Brittany is France’s trash bin. What future do we have in Brittany?]. This televised interview is being watched by Plogoff inhabitants, whose conversation, panel after panel, breaks down the impossibility to disentangle society from nature: oil spills are due to economic concerns for profitability, authorities care neither about dead fish and birds nor the fisherman that ‘vont crever’ [are going to die] due to the repercussions on their trade, and the double page ends on the slogan ‘mazoutés aujourd’hui, radioactifs demain’ [covered in oil today, radioactive tomorrow], which refuses to distinguish between human and nonhuman bodies in toxic ecologies.
Plogoff entangled the environmental, social, political and cultural; it is also, importantly, a struggle in which women held a prominent and mediatic place. As explored by historian Vincent Porhel in his study of the conflict, this makes it a fruitful case study for ‘[les] ambivalences de la lecture du genre dans l’environnement’ [the ambiguities of gendered readings of the environment] (2018). Women’s involvement in the Plogoff affair is hardly surprising given that, as one interviewee in the oral history book Femmes de Plogoff puts it, ‘ici, ce sont des femmes en majorité; à part quelques vieux, les hommes ne sont pas là’ (Conan and Laurent 2010: 63) [here, there is a majority of women; apart from a few old ones, the men aren’t here]. Most of these women were housewives, and many were sailors’ wives, and therefore women with frequently absent husbands, which had already led them to cross conventional gender boundaries in their daily life. If the women of Plogoff’s marital status provides a pragmatic explanation for their involvement in the conflict, their gendered identity as mothers and homemakers was key to the framing of their environmental militantism as stemming from ‘un souci effectivement bien féminin’ [a concern that is indeed feminine] for their children’s future, in the words of socialist councilor Jacqueline Desouches (1978, quoted in Simon 2010: 303). As Gilles Simon notes, the portrayal of Plogoff as a feminine struggle was evidently strategic (2010: 302), and contributed to the wide media coverage of the affair.
Plogoff was indeed highly mediatized, and closely documented in the local press. One significant example is Breton cartoonist Nono’s coverage, which stands as a graphic testimony of the affair, and was discussed as such at a 2015 event organized by the association Memor Stourn Plougoñ / Plogoff, mémoire d’une lutte [memory of a fight]. Plogoff has left a rich visual corpus, some of which can be seen in Gilles Simon’s book (which is available open access), demonstrating the immediacy and creativity of militant aesthetics. In the broader context of a politico-cultural reinvention, visuals of the anti-nuclear struggle are entwined with symbols of Brittany and Breton identity: a skeleton whose shoulders and chest are adorned with a Breton flag (in a drawing by Gautier), or the nation’s map forming a skull (in a drawing by Yves Coriou in La jeune B.D. bretonne [p. 10], a collective publication that is testament to the significance and vibrancy of text-image creation in Brittany).
To stay with the comics medium, the significance of Plogoff as a key Breton environmental struggle is seen also notably in Claude Auclair and Alain Deschamps’ graphic narrative Bran Ruz, an adaptation of the legend of the flooded city of Ker-Is, used here as a trope to denounce the drowning of minoritised cultures by the French nation state. Flooding and resurfacing are seized upon as metaphors through which to read Franco-Breton relations. This is articulated in particular through a reference to Plogoff, as the host of the fest-noz [night party] that frames the retelling of the legend compares engulfed Ker-Is with ‘skinet’ [irradiated] Brittany (1981: 184). The social mobilisation in Plogoff is understood as part of a process of resurgence, and Bretonness is here articulated in terms of revolt. The cultural significance of the mobilization has continued since the 1980s, as seen notably with the 2008 musical, dance and theatre performance Plogoff, An Arvest! by the Celtic circle Korriged, and documentaries released for the 40th anniversary of the Plogoff victory in 2021 have also contributed to re-activating the memory of the struggle.
Plogoff stands as a symbol of Brittany’s capacity to resist – and succeed – against the French State, and is emblematic of the entanglements of the environmental with the social, political and cultural in the context of minoritized cultures, often shaped by unequal power relations – thus echoing for instance the Galician context, as seen in this lexicon’s entries on Chapapote (by Ana Carballal) and terra (by David Miranda Barreiro). Beyond its symbolic significance, Plogoff has left a heritage of activism against later plans to build nuclear power plants as well as a radioactive waste storage site in Brittany. The association Memor Stourm Plougoñ / Plogoff mémoire d’une lutte, which was created in 2014, has been key in maintaining and developing the memory of Plogoff in Brittany (and beyond), in highlighting its significance not only for environmental history but also for the present, in – as stated in their mission statement – contributing to the ecological energy transition for the future.
Collective, La Jeune B.D. bretonne (Saint-Brieuc: Presses Populaires de Bretagne, 1981).
Conan, Renée and Annie Laurent, Femmes de Plogoff (Baye: La Digitale , 2010).
Gemie, Sharif, Brittany, 1750–1950: The Invisible Nation (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007).
Kernalegenn, Tudi, Histoire de l’écologie en Bretagne (Rennes: Goater, 2014).
Simon, Gilles, Plogoff: L’Apprentissage de la mobilisation sociale (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2000).
Williams, Heather, Postcolonial Brittany: Literature between Languages (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007)