In many respects, Emmanuel Macron’s first term did not live up to French expectations. Nonetheless, in April he became the first president to be re-elected in France for two decades.
On environmental issues his record has been mixed, and certain stances taken during his re-election campaign have cast doubt on his capacity to put France on a structured and effective trajectory to mitigate climate change during his second term.
It all started positively in 2017, with Macron determined to lead international efforts on climate. One month after his election, he responded to Donald Trump’s decision to take the US out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement by modifying Trump’s famous slogan. He launched the Make Our Planet Great Again initiative, with a website inviting people to join France in taking action against climate change. By the end of 2021, the initiative had spent 30 million euros (US$31.5 million) to help fund the work of 42 foreign researchers. These were the first steps of what many hoped would be the beginning of a new green political era in France.
Under Macron, France pledged it would become carbon neutral by 2050
“During his first term, Macron stepped up several times on climate,” says Sébastien Treyer, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), a thinktank based in Paris. At the international level, Treyer points both to the president’s efforts to breathe new life into the Paris agreement following Trump’s disruptions, and to the launch of the One Planet Summit in 2017 to speed up its implementation. Later editions of the summit, dedicated to biodiversity in 2021 and the ocean in 2022, were also hosted in France.
At the European level, Macron has played a strategic role in advancing Europe’s climate ambitions, especially via the European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives targeting a “climate-neutral” EU by 2050. He has directly promoted environmental actions in Brussels, notably on hastening the introduction of a carbon levy and on combatting imported deforestation.
“But being active politically is not enough,” Treyer says. “Changes must also happen on the ground.”
Many words but few actions
That is how observers frequently summarised Macron’s work on climate during his first term.
There is broad consensus that his government has taken some important decisions, such as definitively cancelling the construction of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport, near Nantes. That project had led to strong opposition and protest camps in the area.
Macron’s team also presented a mobility plan, aiming to encourage cycling and other active means of transport, and to increase their share of overall journeys from 3% to 9% by 2024.
However, Macron’s time in office has also seen the permanent closure of more than 100 train stations across France. Meanwhile, the aviation sector received 17 billion euros (US$17.9 billion) in support early in the Covid-19 pandemic, with no environmental or social safeguards built in; only Air France was convinced to abandon some of its domestic routes.
Such contradictory environmental measures occurred in many French sectors over the past five years. French climate action network Réseau Action Climat describes a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern in a recent report that delivered a harsh assessment on climate and the energy transition during Macron’s first term.
On energy, the government has made progress in closing two coal-fired power stations, in Le Havre and Gardanne, but has elsewhere recorded delays on renewable energy development and energy efficiency. Meanwhile, it has announced that several new nuclear reactors will be built.
On agriculture, financial support has been increased to encourage the wider cultivation of legumes, which have a lower environmental impact than other crops and livestock. However, no measures have been taken around factory farms, while the share of organic food in catering has only reached 6.6%, whereas the goal was to reach 20% by 2022.
Anne Bringault, programmes coordinator at Réseau Action Climat, says that despite Macron launching the 2050 carbon neutrality goal for France in 2019, there have since been “no significant actions taken in our country towards it”.
France has indeed stuttered in delivering on its greenhouse gas commitments. “Due to the delay accumulated by France, the current rate of annual reduction [in emissions] will have to practically double”, warned the High Council for the Climate, an institution set up by Macron himself.
In 2021, the justice system also took the novel step of recognising the responsibility of the French state for the climate emergency – twice. In one of the judgments brought by several NGOs, and known as l’Affaire du Siècle (The Case of the Century), a Paris court found that the state’s failure to comply with its commitments to reduce emissions is causing serious “ecological harm”. The state now has an obligation to act, to respect its commitments and repair the damages done after lost time on climate action.
Citizen proposals watered down
Another squandered opportunity has been the Citizens’ Convention for Climate, a democratic experiment designed to give people a voice in policy. It brought together 150 citizens to define a series of measures aimed at reducing emissions by at least 40% by 2030. “The convention worked on its job for nine months. They developed 150 propositions that Emmanuel Macron promised to bring to the parliament,” recounts Bringault. “But many industrial actors did not respond well to the measures, and the plans changed: almost none of the propositions from the convention have been kept as they were.”
For example, the convention proposed a ban on domestic flights between destinations that could be reached by train in less than four hours. The government ultimately passed a law with this limit reduced to two and half hours – under which almost no flight is impacted. Elsewhere, the convention suggested owner-occupiers and lessors be obliged to pay for energy efficiency measures in their houses – a proposal that has simply been forgotten. It also called for a levy to be imposed on synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers, which are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions. That measure was rejected by the senate and replaced by a non-binding one. The only proposal from the convention that has been kept fully intact is a ban on trailing advertisements behind aircraft.
“It looks like Macron’s governments have not yet understood that the transition needs to start now,” says IDDRI’s Treyer. “Any measures benefiting the environment and the climate seem to be seen as constraints that will cause economic opportunities to be lost. Take pesticides for example… In the end, despite constructive discussions [between NGOs, citizen representatives] and the minister of agriculture, sales of pesticides are now up sharply.”
But what worries Treyer most is that the message sent by the citizens from the convention has not been acknowledged. “The proposed measures had to be understood as a whole – this is how they took on their full meaning and traced a path towards a proper green transformation. By taking them one by one and changing them, they have been emptied of their substance, dragging down the ambitions for change,” he says.
The proposed measures had to be understood as a whole. By taking them one by one and changing them, they have been emptied of their substanceSébastien Treyer, on the proposals made by the Citizens’ Convention for Climate
This poor implementation of citizens’ expectations has generated disappointment, and widened the divide between politicians and the population, a large portion of which is demanding change. The decaying relationship was not helped by the uncovering of the activities of the Cellule Démeter. This arm of the National Gendarmerie was created in 2019 to protect farmers from criminal acts but also to prevent “actions of an ideological nature”. This last aspect, which targeted a number of activists and journalists, was denounced by NGOs as “intimidation” and “serious attacks on freedom of expressions.” Earlier this year, a court found the force’s operation to be partly illegal and asked the government to put an end to its activities.
Moments of truth ahead
Three figures in the new government, picked after Macron’s re-election in April, may hold the key to plotting a greener course for France: Elisabeth Borne, the new prime minister, Amélie de Montchalin, minister for ecological transition, and Agnès Pannier-Runacher, minister for energy transition.
If they are to kickstart the nation’s long-awaited transition, their main mission could well be to rebuild trust between citizens and Parisian political elites from whom many feel increasingly disconnected.
The first signs sent by “Macron 2.0” left Anne Bringault with mixed feelings.
“Before the first round of the election, we fell off our chairs when we found out about Macron’s environmental plans. There was almost nothing, much less than in his 2017 manifesto actually,” she said.
In between the rounds of the election, however, Macron surprised many by adding more environmental focus into his speeches. It was an attempt to attract voters from the left wing, environmentalists, and particularly supporters of La France Insoumise (Insubordinate France) – the populist, democratic socialist party that won nearly 22% of first-round votes. “Whereas he never mentioned climate once during the first round, we could suddenly hear Macron talking about ‘ecological planning’ or ‘food sovereignty’ – terms that he emptied of meaning and took over from his opponent from La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and from the anti-globalisation movement,” Bringault noted.
This move could prove tricky for Macron, says Sébastien Treyer. “It is obvious that Macron repositioned himself on environment before the second round because of electoral concerns. But it would now cost him very dear, politically speaking, to abandon the strong commitments he has made. How will he succeed in reconciling his belief that technologies can fix everything with citizens’ expectations of a real ecological turn?”
The coming months will reveal whether he manages to build a well-defined policy with measurable goals for the future, something his teams have not succeeded in doing so far. “There have been enough talks. What we expect now is a results-oriented policy,” says Bringault. “France has the proper tools and basics, such as an energy sector that is already largely carbon-free. It now needs to get into action and to be transparent about the progress made. We have lost our culture of results and dialogue. It takes more than time to reconnect with them, given the scale of the transformation to be put in place.”
The legislative elections of 12 and 19 June could be decisive for an environmentally driven transition in France. Depending on the seats won by the newly formed coalition of parties close to the presidential majority, called Renaissance, or by the historical grouping of left-wing and ecologist parties – the New Ecologic and Social People’s Union, or NUPES – the cards could be largely reshuffled. Macron could either have a free hand to conduct his own programme, or be forced to take a greener and faster path than he ever planned.
A Chinese translation of this story will be available soon.