The necessity to preserve our planet and create a roadmap for an eco-friendly society has been a constant challenge for Emmanuel Macron. Calls for an environmental revolution were amplified by Greta Thunberg’s movement, when tens of thousands of French citizens marched to demand ecological justice.
Macron’s environmental policy has been in line with the Hollande government, based around European development goals and the Paris Agreements on Climate. The French president plans to move gradually away from fossil and nuclear energies towards renewable energies. To do this, Macron has advocated for increased investment into renewable technologies, while de-incentivizing the usage of fossil fuels on a personal and professional scale. Macron’s environmental project, based on his youth and understanding that an ecological transition is key to the future, is a realistic model within the constraints of the French economy, the progress of other world powers as well as the necessity to meet the European and international sustainable development goals.
Macron’s policies have sometimes been criticized for not being ambitious enough but then, the implementation of a carbon tax in 2018 led to the Gilet-Jaunes movement. Macron’s challenge is to accelerate the French ecological transition, backed by the French youth but within the realities of the French economy. With Covid-19, the environmental project has taken a backseat so that the French president can relaunch the economy.
Controversial Domestic Policies
Macron thought that by the second half of his presidential term, he would have passed his major economic reforms and could move on to concentrate ecological transition with the goal of zero carbon emissions. Although his economic reforms hit major turbulence along the way, by February 2020, the reform of the retirement system was about to be passed and Macron was stepping up action in the environmental field. Pushed by rising popular support of environmentalism, youth activism to protect the planet and political power from the ecologists, Macron participated in a meeting on Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest peak, 4800 metres) which was to outline the government’s next steps in environmental strategy. This meeting outlined further protections for national parks and the future of the French Office for Biodiversity (created in 2019).
However, the French president isn’t only motivated by the electoral necessity of retaining the youth vote, but also by personal conviction. Currently only 42 years old, Macron is part of a new generation of leaders that clearly understands the stakes of preserving the planet, and is dedicated to moving France in the direction of an ecologically safe future. On the domestic side, his environmental policies are in continuation with the Hollande government, although En Marche! has sought to attract French ecologists with more ambitious environmental measures.
Currently, Macron’s main hurdle in France to moving to renewable energies is the lack of technology able to efficiently replace fossil fuels or nuclear energy and the constraints of the economy. The French president has attempted to rise above the more extreme calls from environmental activists who expect massive change immediately, and instead create a realistic, long term strategy/timeline for an environmentally friendly society. Nevertheless, he has been criticized for promising many improvements, but backing away or failing to implement them.
Macron’s environmental policy aims to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels, notably coal, petrol and gas. By 2022, he wanted to close all coal mines in France, stop emitting permits to exploit fossil fuels, and create a carbon tax to de-incentivize the use of fossil fuels. The coal mines are anticipated to close in the near future, but the state cannot directly close them due to labour unions and the loss of jobs. France continues to issue permits to exploit fossil fuels/hydro fuels and still grants fiscal exonerations to industries heavily reliant on fossil fuels (trucking, plan fuel…). Here, Macron’s willingness to cut down on fossil fuels is clearly hampered by the necessities of the French economy, and political blowback to the potential loss of thousands of jobs directly dependent on fossil fuels. His inability to follow through on his promises in this sector was heavily criticized by French environmentalists.
The Gilet-Jaunes movement arose out of the planned carbon tax of 2018, as the French population opposed the increase in gas prices, notably in the countryside. This movement led to Macron renouncing the carbon tax, and focusing on other ways to de-incentivize the use of fossil fuels. Notably, the French president has promoted the use of bicycles, especially in French cities (bike lanes, government grants to repair bikes, lowering the speed limit for cars). The French government has also implemented a system of economic grants for individuals buying electric cars, making their purchase more economically attractive for individuals. These measures fit Macron’s view for the ecological transition, which is based on an individual approach: changing the population’s transportation habits by incentivizing them practically and economically to adopt more eco-friendly transportation. These measures were popular amongst the majority of the population and the political class, who saw an efficient and realistic approach to environmental politics.
In order to move towards an environmentally friendly society, Macron wants to increase investment in renewable energies. Indeed, one of the main barriers today in the ecological transition is the efficiency of renewable energies, which are much more expensive and much less efficient than fossil fuels. Following his pro-business approach, Macron has pledged to invest €8 million yearly in renewable energy development/projects. This yearly investment follows another aspect of Macron’s environmental strategy, which promotes the research and development of renewable technologies through the private sector, subsequently creating jobs, attracting skilled labour and putting France at the forefront of the ecological transition. However, an EU commission has found that the new investments are not enough for France to meet the EU’s renewable energy objectives.
Environmentalists in France have been calling for the country to move away from nuclear energy for years now, considering it too dangerous and the radioactive waste impossible to dispose of. However, nuclear energy remains by far the most efficient, eco-friendly and widely available source of energy in France. Thus, until viable solutions in renewable energy can be developed, nuclear energy is one of the best solutions. France does own a couple of nuclear plants that are over 40 years old, and Macron has seen an opportunity to answer environmentalist’s calls for reduced nuclear dependency by closing 2 of these nuclear power plants (notably Fessenheim, 43 years old and the most controversial plant in France). Macron aimed for 50% of France’s energy consumption to come from nuclear energy by the end of his term, down from 75% in 2017.
However, the French president has moved away from this proposition in the short term, now proposing a longer transition over 15 years. Indeed, shutting down part of the nuclear field now would require depending more heavily on fossil fuels, which would be in direct opposition to French environmental interests. This decision was criticized by the opposition on the left and En Marche!’s ecological allies, as they accused him of going back on his promises. However, nuclear energy remains the best option for a mass-produced energy source today, so Macron’s approach is realistic to France’s current energetical situation. The World Nuclear Association explains: “As a result of the 1974 decision (to turn to nuclear energy following the oil shocks), France now claims a substantial level of energy independence and almost the lowest cost electricity in Europe. It also has an extremely low level of carbon dioxide emissions per capita from electricity generation, since over 90% of its electricity is nuclear or hydro.”
European Environment Goals and French Leadership
Macron’s vision for sustainable development also goes through the European Union. As in the political, economic and security aspects, Macron has made environmental cooperation on the European scale a central aspect of his political program. He believes that further European integration should have a project for environmental challenges, while an efficient ecological transition can only be completely effective if it is conducted on the European scale as a whole.
The European Union has set very concrete goals regarding ecological development, such as a decrease in nuclear energy dependency, a decrease in carbon emissions, an increase in sustainable development investment, and an increase in renewable energy usage. France is trying to align itself with these objectives and has been more efficient in some areas than others (notably lacking in its dependence on nuclear energy).
Macron has also outlined ways the EU can be reformed to harmonize environmental protection laws: fixing a fair price for carbon will set a minimum price within EU borders, which will ensure a level playing field between producers and competitors. Macron also wants the EU to invest in clean vehicles and their infrastructure (electric cars, charging stations, improvement of public transport…). Although the French president is eager to position himself as a leader of European environmental cooperation, he must first accelerate France’s environmental transition. Indeed, France is lagging behind European standards in certain sectors, and Macron cannot assume a leadership role if France isn’t a leader in the field. As such, Macron needs to lead by example.
Defending the Paris Agreements on Climate
Lastly, France is committed to environmental protection through the Paris Agreements on Climate, which has become a central aspect of Macron’s foreign policy. The French president knows that an environmental transition cannot be efficient if the world does not act together on the issue, and he has sought to enforce the guidelines set out in Paris. In these Agreements, France notably agreed to lower carbon emissions and transition to renewable energies.
Macron has been very invested in the Paris Agreements, actively trying to change Trump’s mind on exiting the treaty (although unsuccessfully). Macron has proposed creating a set of economic sanctions for signatory countries of the Agreements that are not respecting their promises. He has also blocked the opening of trans-Atlantic EU-US trade talks on the ground that the US was not respecting the Paris Agreements. Most interestingly, Macron has attempted to force countries to abide by the Agreements through public communication.
In 2018, he publicly challenged Trump by exclaiming “Make our Planet Great Again!”, taking on the American president’s “Make America Great Again” electoral slogan. This reformulation of the slogan was widely popular and quickly trended on social media, while Macron’s defiance towards Trump became an inspiration for environmentalism and resisting climate change sceptics. The French president received the UN “Champions of the Earth” award for this statement and his activity to enforce the Paris Agreements on the world stage. Macron’s international success as a defender of environmentalism has not been replicated in France, with many disappointed by his limited action and backtracking on key promises. To continue being a leader of environmentalism on the world stage, Macron has to lead by example in France.