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Recreating the Rhone:
Nature and Technology in France Since World War II

Sara B. Pritchard
Stanford University
May 2001

Between 1945 and 1986, the Rhone River underwent a radical technological and environmental transformation at the hands of politicians and state engineers eager to reconstruct and modernize France after World War II. In examining this history, my dissertation explores interactions among the French state, nature, and technology during the second half of the twentieth century. My research demonstrates that contemporary debates about "environmental problems" are not limited to technical or scientific issues, but reach far into the core of citizens' daily lives, values, and identities.

Recent cultural and political historians have shown how the nation and national identity do not emerge inherently from the land or a political territory, but rather are defined by a variety of cultural, political, social, and economic factors. Historians have not considered, however, how the natural environment -- the literal nature of the nation -- becomes incorporated into the state. My research illustrates how the transformation of nature through the construction of technological systems both reflected and carried out nation-building and the formation of national identity for, in this case, post-World War II France.

Based largely on untapped archives, the dissertation is organized around the histories of several multi-purpose projects, which included hydroelectric dams, locks, and irrigation networks, built on the Rhone River during this era: from debates over their purposes and design to their eventual construction and use. In particular, I examine one project from the immediate post-World War II period and several from the 1970s and 1980s. In exploring the technological changes that took place since 1945, I am interested in how different French groups, primarily engineers, politicians, writers, and citizens, have conceptualized the relationship between nature and nation over time. My research demonstrates that conceptions of national identity and the processes of state-building in postwar France were closely intertwined with conceptions of nature and the process of enacting environmental change. These new, extensive technological systems literally redefined and transformed the natural environment as the French sought to redefine and transform their nation and national identity in the wake of a debilitating war.

After tracing the history of the river's development before World War II and offering an institutional history of the agency that eventually developed the river, the Compagnie Nationale du Rhone (Rhone River Authority, or CNR), I explain why state politicians and engineers prioritized the hydroelectric development of the Rhone. I then show how conceptions of nature and technology between 1945 and 1968 illustrate how these technical, political, and intellectual elites tied the renovation of France to the transformation of the natural environment. A broad postwar coalition justified the development of the river by naturalizing the CNR's projects and invoking history, thereby portraying the agency's projects as an inevitable, central step in the restoration of the nation.

The ideal project to "tame" and "harness" an unruly Rhone became challenged, however, when the CNR faced the process of translating this abstract objective into a practical program. Examining the history of the design of Donzere-Mondragon, the first project constructed by the CNR after World War II, demonstrates, for instance, how state agencies often had quite different objectives for the river. Environmental consequences associated with the project further undermined the coupling of nature and nation. Moreover, the completion of projects like Donzere-Mondragon did not end conflicts among state agencies over the purposes of the river. The state's development of nuclear power soon further complicated the CNR's continued development of the river. Eventually, atomic needs were met before any others. By conceding to these changes in its management of the Rhone, the CNR helped to create an atomic river that at once depended upon and threatened the integrity of the agency's own projects.

After the late 1960s, both development advocates and critics reworked the connections between nature and nation that had been articulated during the first two decades after the war. Proponents of development now connected the continued development of the Rhone to either European integration or to regional economic development rather than to the nation. Meanwhile, a coalition of activists, academics, locals, and scientists linked the nation to the preservation of nature, not its transformation. Rather than serving as emblem of the nation, this coalition suggested that technology served as a sign of all that was wrong in France. As the CNR began construction of its final projects during the late 1970s through mid-1980s, these new conceptions of the river altered the agency's development of it, eventually leading to the cancellation of the CNR's final project for the Rhone. However, the new objective to "preserve" the Rhone introduced tensions among these various constituencies over the purposes of the "saved" river.

Placing nature and technology at the center of my analysis illuminates how the French defined the modern nation and national identity first through the transformation of nature and, later, through its preservation. My dissertation thus raises broader questions about the evolving relationship between the state and nature. In addition, this research suggests how historical perspectives help to illuminate environmental management practices as well as contemporary environmental problems.