The week President Trump announced the US would pull out of the Paris climate accords in June 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron was making international headlines and appealing to the support of liberals across the world with his promise to “Make Our Planet Great Again.”
The events of the last couple of days have cast a shadow on the French president’s international image as the champion of the environment. On Tuesday President Macron’s environment minister Nicolas Hulot resigned dramatically during a live interview on French radio. A visibly emotional Hulot told journalists that he could no longer “lie to himself” and pretend that the government is “up to standard” on the question of climate change.
Mr Hulot’s on-air resignation is a blow to the government for a number of reasons. While France has seen many dramatic resignations, no minister has ever quit during a live interview. Further, the fact that President Macron was unaware of his minister’s decision has been seen as a stark illustration of the misunderstanding between the two men.
Nicolas Hulot was a popular minister in an unpopular government, and his resignation is adding to the political nightmare that has unfolded over the summer. Increasingly isolated in Europe, President Macron is facing plummeting approval ratings and struggling to recover from the political scandal sparked by footage of his bodyguyard manhandling demonstrators at a political rally in May.
Nicolas Hulot’s resignation has also dealt a blow to President Macron’s desire to revive French political life by bringing members of civil society into government. The 62-year-old green activist made his name as the presentor of a popular nature TV program and is widely credited with bringing the question of climate change into the forefront of French political debate with his 2007 Ecology Pact - a series of recommendations to introduce climate change into politics.
By recruiting Nicolas Hulot into his government in 2017, President Macron achieved the political coup his predecessors had only dreamed of - Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande all unsuccessfully tried to convince Hulot to join their governments - and had a golden opportunity to ascertain his green credentials.
The resignation is all the more damaging as Macron has sought to position himself as a champion in the fight against environmental degradation by defending the Paris climate agreement on the world stage. By resigning, Mr Hulot has shed doubts on President Macron’s commitment to the environment. His claim that he was politically “isolated” and lacked the resources to carry out his work is a clear indictment of the government’s record.
Since President Macron’s call to “Make Our Planet Great Again” little has indeed been achieved. France has not banned the use of glyphosate, the herbicide at the center of Dwayne Johnson’s trial against Monsanto, despite President Macron’s promise to do so and Mr Hulot’s active support for this measure. The government’s target to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power for electricity from 75 to 50% was abandoned in November last year.
Arguably, Mr. Hulot achieved victories during his time in government. Under his influence, the government committed to stopping the commercialisation of diesel cars by 2040, shelved controversial plans to build an airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes (northwestern France) and added the “protection of the environment” to the Republic’s list of duties in the Constitution.
These achievements are nonetheless largely symbolical in nature and have not resulted in immediate changes in policy. Meanwhile, the day before Mr Hulot’s resignation, President Macron had made substantial concessions to the hunting lobby by relaxing restrictions on hunting.
Mr Hulot’s resignation should act as a wake-up call for the French government and encourage President Macron to deliver on his promises to cut carbon emissions, reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear energy and ban pesticides. Prime Minsister Edouard Philippe’s claim that France would see “no change in direction” shows that the government might not be ready to listen.