On 22 February, when the 16-year-old Swedish student turned climate activist Greta Thunberg went to Paris to march for the environment, French president Emmanuel Macron held a meeting with her at the Élysée Palace. But the invitation had not originated from him – Thunberg had asked to meet Macron.
Considering his immense talent for symbolic gestures and self-promotion, it was unusual for the French president not to seize a golden PR opportunity by inviting Thunberg himself. Isn’t she, after all, the voice of the young generation, who could embody his glorious campaign pledge to “make our planet great again”? For Macron to merely acquiesce to her request, instead of initiating the meeting, was rather off-brand.
Listening to the poised, determined young woman – who declared after beginning her school strike: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future” – you quickly understand why. On 18 February, Thunberg told the French digital title Brut that her movement aims to make politicians “accountable for the mess they have created”. She had yet to meet Macron at the time, and addressed him on video in these terms: “Dear Mr Macron, you need to take action now, not just talking about taking action. Because if you keep on going like this, ‘business as usual’, you are going to fail. And if you fail, you are going to be seen as one of the worst villains in human history.”
There’s no bullshit with Greta Thunberg and that’s a problem for Macron. The young activist was right to try and engage with the French president. Theoretically, he’s a perfect ally: he rose to power with campaign pledges to address climate change and wants to #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain (a hashtag he has used dozens of times on Twitter). But in reality, Macron is far from living up to his green hype.
He has continuously disappointed ecologists, including his own environment minister Nicolas Hulot, a heavyweight in the French green movement, who resigned in disillusionment last September, declaring that he “couldn’t lie to himself anymore” and that he felt “alone” in a cabinet that only took insufficient, “tiny steps” to tackle environmental challenges. Hulot took the measure of Macron’s green-adorned but ultimately meaningless politics: “Have we started to reduce our CO2 emissions? No. Have we started to reduce our use of pesticides? No. To prevent the erosion of our biodiversity? No.”
Since Hulot stepped down, Macron has shown no sign of changing direction. He famously angered French voters by increasing the country’s fuel tax, which led to the gilets jaunes crisis, but at no point did the president offer to tax the real, biggest carbon emission sources – such as fuel companies and other major polluters.
Instead, Macron backtracked on the fuel tax rise altogether, postponing it for at least a year, and in doing so threatening his promise to make France carbon neutral by 2050. He has abandoned plans to close nuclear reactors, postponing the deadline to 2035 (beyond the end of any second term), thus ensuring that the next president will likely impose further delays.
He has retreated on his promise to ban glyphosate, a highly dangerous herbicide used in agriculture, within the next three years. He has endangered France’s biodiversity by extending the lawful period for bird hunting. Indeed, he has given way to the pro-hun lobby at every turn, a situation that Hulot denounced when he resigned. A January 2019 assessment of Macron’s green policies by Le Monde concluded: “Since his election, Emmanuel Macron has multiplied environmental initiatives, but often stopped before completing them.”
Thunberg saw straight through the French president: he’s not making our planet great again, he’s just talking about it.
Little is known about her meeting with Macron, other than that she was accompanied by several other young activists. François de Rugy, the current environment minister and a staunch Macronist, said that the exchange was “very interesting, very direct”, which might suggest Macron was told he’s a climate baddie. De Rugy reported the French president asking for Thunberg’s help to mobilise the youth: “We must lead, inspire, I can do it but I need your help.”
It remains unclear exactly how Thunberg can help Macron implement his own green policies. Her view has always been that as a teenager, her range of action is limited – that’s why she’s calling on the adults to wake from their slumber. It’s time for Macron, an adult in charge, to stop pretending simply not to understand.
Like most men drunk on power, Macron loves a challenge. So here’s one. “Dear Mr President, you claim to want to make our planet great again, but are on course to fail. Greta Thunberg warned you. I trust you won’t listen. Please prove us wrong.”