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26th Sep 2020

Minister's resignation impugns Macron's green image

  • Nicolas Hulot (l) and French president Emmanuel Macron were at odds on nuclear electricy and other issues (Photo: Ecologique Solidaire/flickr)

"Make the planet great again," French president Emmanuel Macron said last year when his US counterpart Donald Trump decided to pull out from the Paris climate agreement.



Since his election a few weeks earlier, Macron has put environmental issues at the centre of his claim for EU leadership, along with eurozone integration, migration, and the digital economy.


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Speaking to French ambassadors on Monday (27 August), he insisted that the "struggle for the planet will remain at the heart of our foreign policy".

"This environmental diplomacy is crucial to address the great disruption of the world," he said.

"It is crucial because it characterises the French and European commitment in this issue, because it allows us to build up alliances, in particular with China and several other great powers, and therefore build up a new kind of international cooperation."

But on Tuesday morning, Macron's leadership ambitions suffered a blow when his environment minister Nicolas Hulot resigned.

Hulot, a former TV presenter and environment activist, was third in the government hierarchy.

He announced his resignation in an interview on France Inter radio, without first informing Macron or prime minister Edouard Philippe, in what seemed to be a spontaneous decision.

"I don't want to lie to myself anymore," he said after being asked if he was happy about the government's environmental record.

"I don't want to give the illusion that my presence in the government means that we are up to the challenges," he said. 



Hulot admitted that under Macron, France has failed so far to reduce CO2 emissions and the use of pesticides, to stop the "erosion of biodiversity", and to stop the artificialisation of land.

He also explained that he felt alone against the agriculture minister, Stephane Travert, who is considered to be a defender of intensive farming and glyphosate, a weedkiller.

Hulot's resignation took the government by surprise, but Macron, during a visit to Copenhagen told journalists that he respected Hulot's "freedom".

"I think that in 15 months, this government has done more than any other in the same amount of time," he said, adding that he hoped to count on Hulot's commitment "in a different form".

His supporters stressed that the government's record was not as bad a the quitting minister said.

Bitter pills

They argued that French coal plants will all be closed by 2022, that France has decided to stop drilling for oil and gas by 2040, and that a plan for circular economy was launched.

They also insisted that Macron has pledged to ban glyphosate within three years, but they did not specify that MPs did not include the deadline in a law passed earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Hulot's surprise resignation was not entirely unexpected.

The parliament's decision to avoid a binding deadline on glyphosate had been considered as a political defeat for Hulot, a few months only after he pushed for a ban on the weedkiller at EU level.

EU members states had decided to extend the pesticide's authorisation for five years instead of the 15 years originally proposed by the European Commission.

On Monday, the day before his resignation, the environment minister had to swallow another bitter pill when he took part in a meeting where hunters obtained a reduction of their licence fee as well as a plan that could allow them to hunt protected bird species.

But Hulot's main failure was the government's decision last year to postpone a deadline to reduce the production of electricity by nuclear plants.

According to a law passed under president Francois Hollande, France should have reduced the part of nuclear from 75 percent of electricity produced to 50 percent by 2025.

'End of an illusion'

But in November last year, the government said it would not meet the deadline, while failing to give a new one.

"Nuclear is not bad for CO2 emissions," Macron explained last year, insisting that "with renewable energies, it's the most decarbonated way to produce electricity."

Hulot, for his part, repeated on Tuesday that nuclear energy was "a madness that is economically and technically useless".

The divergences between Macron and his ecology minister reflects the French leader's approach to environment, which is mainly focused on climate change and CO2 emissions at the expense of other challenges like the fight against pollution or the protection of biodiversity.

Macron is "the lobbies' best friend", said MEP Yannick Jadot, who will lead the French Greens list in next year's European elections.

"Nicolas Hulot has tried, it's the end of an illusion," he added.

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