The results of the first round of the French election are “a defeat for the climate and more generally for the environment”, stated Greenpeace France on Twitter. Neither of the two winners, Emmanuel Macron nor Marine Le Pen, were seen by the various NGOs and think tanks that ranked the candidates’ manifestos on their environmental credentials as taking climate change seriously enough.
Yet it would be a serious mistake to dismiss them both as equally poor on this issue. After five years under Macron’s leadership, France is still not doing enough to cut its emissions – but a win for him would at least secure the status quo. In contrast, a Le Pen win would likely have massive, negative implications for climate action far beyond France’s borders.
Both candidates are big supporters of nuclear power and insist the sector is largely France’s clean energy solution. Macron, however, also aims to build a made-in-France renewable energy industry. Le Pen’s manifesto promises a moratorium on all wind farms, on land and at sea, and on solar power. She also rashly proclaimed during her campaign that she would dismantle all existing turbines if elected.
At an EU and international level, Macron has played his part by insisting on the importance of climate action, and supporting the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen’s net zero plans. Le Pen has made it clear she wouldn’t play ball with these bigger plans. Climate “will not be the alpha and omega” of her foreign policy, she said this week. If elected, she would pull France out of the EU Green Deal in favour of national policies and decisions, and France would respond to the commitments of the Paris Agreement at its own pace. However, Le Pen insisted she would not follow Donald Trump’s example and remove France from the Paris Agreement.
This assertion could be seen as a slight softening of her stance on climate – environmental issues received virtually no attention from her during the last election campaign in 2017 – or simply a means of encouraging those who voted for the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round to support her in the run-off on 24 April. But environmentalists remain highly concerned about what her election as the president of France would mean for climate action.
“We would be stuck,” said Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the the Club of Rome, a sustainable development think tank. “We would have a real split in Europe between progressives and non-progressives on climate action… [that] would pose a real headache given that many EU decisions need majority support before they can be put into action.
“Until now, Hungry, Poland and other central and eastern EU countries have been the blockers to climate action. While France and Germany may not always see eye to eye, on climate and energy they have generally backed European Commission plans.”
Le Pen joining the non-progressives would throw a considerable spanner in the works.
“We can complain about Macron; he is not always the man we hoped for,” said Dixson-Declève. But Le Pen is a wholly different proposition, she insisted. “Macron is a European who believes in climate change.” Dixson-Declève believes he, unlike Le Pen is capable of the “creative fiscal thinking and progressive climate policy options” needed to ensure the most vulnerable do not lose out in the transition to a clean energy economy. “We need to shift taxes, introduce incentives and create a just transition.”
For Rachel Coxcoon, a researcher at the University of Lancaster, part of the reason why Le Pen is winning votes is this failure to show that a move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems will not penalise poorer people, especially those in rural areas. Le Pen performed best in isolated communities.
Le Pen’s attitude to climate and energy, like others on the far right, is closely linked to her “nationalist tendencies”, said Coxcoon, who talks of “resource nationalism”, a phenomenon that causes politicians like Le Pen to claim the right to exploit their country’s natural energy resources as much as possible for local gain – for example, by fracking to the max. In energy resource-poor France, “resource nationalism” manifests itself as support for made-in-France energy industries, such as nuclear, she argued.
Nuclear is also seen as a vital source of employment, in particular in communities with few other employment options. Around 6.7 per cent of France’s industrial workforce or 200,000 people is employed in the sector. Wind power fails to be considered a national resource in the same way for various reasons, said Coxcoon. Beyond the engrained myths about the unreliability of wind and other renewable energies, she continued, Le Pen and others oppose it because that fits nicely into the urban/rural divide narrative. People “feel exploited… that their countryside is being used to provide for urban centres. Populist politicians capitalise on this,” she added, and cited her experiences as a Liberal Democrat councillor in the rural Cotswolds.
Coxcoon acknowledged that polls suggest a majority (76 per cent in France) is in favour of wind turbines, even close to their own homes. “But this support often dissolves the moment a project becomes real,” she suggested. “People need to understand the energy demand of their town or village, what energy they could produce to match their own needs and then be encouraged to think about how they could benefit by selling ‘their’ energy to the cities, keeping control local.”
France has been “very late” with community energy projects that involve locals from day one, added Coxcoon. Like other countries, it “needs a huge transfer of power and funding to the local level. People need to feel they have a meaningful say in the decisions on energy that are being made, and a meaningful share of control and benefits locally.” Coxcoon worries that with or without Le Pen at the helm in France, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources in Europe will be an uphill task without such devolution, and could play to the strengths of far-right parties elsewhere.
The French election trail was a moment when such discussions about the action people want on climate and energy could have been brought to the fore, but it was wasted because there “wasn’t a proper election campaign”, said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, who heads the Energy Centre at the Jacques Delors Institute, a Paris-based think tank.
A survey carried out before the war in Ukraine shows climate change and the environment as the third-biggest issue worrying French people. Thirty per cent of voters picked it out as their top concern, just behind healthcare (32 per cent) and the cost of living (51 per cent). However, when voters were asked what candidates most discussed, the Covid pandemic came out top with 56 per cent of voters, followed by immigration (49 per cent) and delinquency (24 per cent). Only 22 per cent thought the presidential candidates focused on the environment.
“Climate is important in the minds of the French people,” said Pellerin-Carlin. “But the campaign was shallow.”