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26 April 2022

Will Emmanuel Macron finally turn green rhetoric into radical action?

The French president is making ambitious climate claims. But will his poor track record improve in his second term?

By Philippa Nuttall

Emmanuel Macron declared after winning Sunday’s presidential election that he would “make France a great ecological nation”. The pledge speaks volumes about Macron. But it tells us much less about how he plans to ensure France meets its international climate commitments and stymies the loss of the country’s flora and fauna.

First, the wording. The French president said something very similar five years ago, when newly elected to the Elysée. Responding to Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, Macron recycled the US president’s own slogan and urged the world to “make the planet great again”. However, no environmentalist would agree that he has honoured that ambition in the intervening years. 

Since 2017, France has twice been condemned for its lack of climate action. It is also the only EU country to have missed its binding 2020 renewable energy target, while insisting that nuclear and gas are labelled as green investments under a recently agreed EU taxonomy. Paris has also pushed back against the greening of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, failed to introduce promised bans on certain pesticides, and called for an end to the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to be pushed back to 2040, five years later than the European Commission is proposing.

Even when Macron delivered on his promise to hold a Citizens’ Convention on Climate, he did not fully follow through with the consequences. Created in the wake of the 2018 gilets jaunes protests against fuel tax rises, the group of 150 randomly selected French citizens came up with 150 proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring social justice. However, as many as 146 of the ideas have since been abandoned or watered down.

Secondly, as Macron acknowledged during his victory speech this weekend, many people voted for him in order to prevent the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen from becoming president, not because they backed his candidacy. His emphasis on “ecological” is an olive branch to those who, in the first round of the elections, supported the Greens or left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who also put ecology at the top of his programme. The choice of “nation” rather than “country” is a sop to voters wooed by Le Pen’s highly nationalistic manifesto. 

“Everything” would need to change for France to become a great ecological nation, says Manon Aubry, a member of the European Parliament for Mélenchon’s party La France Insoumise. “Macron is very good at talking about climate change, but bad at acting on climate.” French people and politicians won’t be “fooled again” by his fine words, she suggests.

In a last ditch attempt to win over greener-minded voters, Macron last week adopted Mélenchon’s proposal to put his next prime minister in charge of “environmental planning”, tasked with coordinating long-term measures to decarbonise the economy. How this would work in practice remains to be seen, and much would depend on who gets the job. Incumbent Jean Castex has announced he will step down and speculation about his replacement is rife ahead of the June legislative elections.

Turning any country into an “ecological nation” will be hard work, and particularly in one like France, where agriculture is responsible for around one-fifth of the country’s emissions, and the sector is culturally and economically highly sensitive. It will mean making unpopular decisions — Le Pen’s supporters will fight tooth and nail against any changes to the farming sector and anything considered a French tradition, including attempts to shift land use and diets away from meat and dairy.

“There will be social and economic consequences,” from changes compatible with countering climate change and biodiversity loss, warns Faustine Bas-Defossez, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy in Brussels. But she insists budget can be found to help people transition to jobs in different sectors, highlighting the cash that was found to support businesses through the Covid lockdowns. “When there’s a will, there’s a way,” she comments, though she questions how far Macron is really prepared to go without a push from a green/left-wing majority in the parliament.

“The environment isn’t in Macron’s DNA,” comments Bas-Defossez. “He is too pragmatic, he wants to be realistic, not go to fast. This is not what climate science requires.”

To head off opposition from the far-right — such as on wind turbines, much hated by Le Pen — “more dialogue” with the people impacted is vital, says Lola Vallejo from the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, a Paris-based think tank. Ensuring “the benefits trickle down through citizen-energy projects” and other “innovative” ways of thinking are pursued are also important, she says. Community energy initiatives are few and far between in France.  

Until now, there has been a “lack of political will and umph, especially to change the most contentious policies, such as agriculture” says Vallejo. “It will be interesting to see if this really evolves” especially given that Macron’s room for manoeuvre was certainly bigger in his first term than it is today.

[See also: “Net zero is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” says UN’s greenwashing watchdog]


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