A climate of repression: how France undermined human rights at the G7

Emmanuel Macron’s liberal image is at odds with his record on climate change and civil liberties. 

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As French president Emmanuel Macron welcomed international leaders, including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, to a seaside G7 summit in Biarritz, southwestern France, thousands marched on 24 August in neighbouring cities Bayonne and Hendaye to protest against the meeting. The G7’s stated ambition to “fight inequalities”, they said, was merely a facade.

French trade unions, activists, environmentalists, human rights NGOs, such as Oxfam and ATTAC, and yellow vests comprised a diverse group defined by their opposition to the “capitalist and pyromaniac” elite gathering at the G7. Macron was there, too, at least in one sense: climate protesters paraded hundreds of upside-down official portraits of the French president which have been taken down in recent months by green activists denouncing the government’s “climate inaction”.

The G7, the march’s organisers said, promotes policies that have “widened social inequalities, reinforced divisions and domination due to racism and patriarchy, organised the industrialisation of agriculture, fed into the armament industry, accelerated environmental crises, climate malfunctions and the loss of biodiversity”. The organiser of the “portraits march”, an action dubbed “take down Macron”, added: “We want to show that while Emmanuel Macron plays the role of the climate’s superhero on the international stage at his G7 summit, green activists are mobilising in his country”.

Macron’s stance on the climate is indeed ambivalent at best. The French president rightly spoke out over the fires ravaging the Amazon rainforest, tweeting: “Our house is on fire. Literally. (...) It is an international crisis” and calling for an international agreement to tackle the fires. But while he was branding himself as the planet’s saviour (“champion of the earth” is the title he was awarded by the UN’s environmental programme last year), Macron forgot to say that environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and WWF boycotted the summit in protest at their accreditations being cut by 75 per cent. The 32 NGOs of Climate Action Network denounced a decision that “created a dangerous precedent” and represented a “violation of civil society’s freedom of expression”. 

This somewhat undermined the French government’s aggressive PR campaign which painted the G7 as a “sustainable, eco-friendly” summit. These “green” intentions also conflict with the meeting's vast carbon footprint — the French defence minister hopping on a plane from Paris to Biarritz, a journey which takes around four hours by train, wasn’t a good look either. That the G7 chose ENGIE (whose “green energy” offer was judged “really bad” by Greenpeace) as a sponsor and invited fashion retailers such as H&M and Zara (cited in “dirty fashion” reports) vindicated the protesters’ narrative and exposed the organisation's double standards. The G7 has introduced a sustainable fashion act but has yet to provide a concrete solution to the fires devastating what’s left of the Amazon (the agreed $20m firefighting fund — rejected by Brazil — would likely not have been enough). 

Macron’s dual discourse at the G7 was matched by his ambiguous vision of freedom of speech. He promised unprecedented levels of security for the summit, which led to the city morphing into a bunker, with deserted streets and more than 13,000 police officers mobilised. Protests were banned in an “enlarged perimeter” including neighbouring cities like Bayonne (the march was held nonetheless, with some clashes with the police). French interior minister Christophe Castaner said that the protests would be “neutralised” if violent, and Macron warned against “violent groups from France and abroad, that meet at every G7 and G20”. 

But these security measures raised concerns as controversial arrests multiplied. A German radio journalist who was supposed to cover the G7 was arrested ahead of the summit and expelled from France until 29 August because he is a known left-wing activist (his lawyer denounced this as “state paranoia”). At the demonstration in Bayonne, journalists were banned from filming and some had material confiscated despite being accredited. International reporters had to hand over their cameras. “Isn’t the press free in your country?” a journalist from Al-Jazeera asked. Representatives from Amnesty International were blocked from covering the event while others from the French Human Rights League (LDH) were arrested. The LDH has condemned attempts to “intimidate” human rights workers. 

Macron emerged from the G7 as a successful diplomat, praised for holding emergency meetings on the Amazon fires and arranging possible negotiations between Trump and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The French president contains multitudes. Heads, he’s the champion of the earth; tails, a leader with repressive tendencies — and good PR.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.