Can Hulot deliver for France’s green economy?

The appointment of the famed ecologist has been welcomed by green businesses, but as Alasdair MacEwen explains, he faces significant challenges as he enters the French cabinet

France’s newly appointed ‘Minister for Ecological Transition and Solidarity’ says his ambition for the world is “restoring the true meaning of progress for human kind”. Nicolas Hulot, the most famous and well-liked ecologist in France, now has the portfolio previously occupied by Ségolène Royal, and will be number three in President Emmanuel Macron’s new cabinet. So who is Nicolas Hulot, what does the appointment really mean for France and for green investors?

A former presenter, journalist and producer of the French nature documentary series ‘Ushuaia’ which has run for almost 30 years, the 62-year-old Hulot has long been a prominent environmental activist and campaigner in France. Equivalent in stature to a David Attenborough and with the looks of a French Melvyn Bragg, he is well known to the French public.

In politics, whilst starting his own successful environmental campaign group “La Fondation Nicolas Hulot” in the 90s, he is best known for providing discreet and influential advice to French politicians. He has often iterated that he is neither right or left wing and denies is he interested in a political career: “I’m not made for that… it’s not in my DNA”.

He played a key role in the lead up and successful conclusion of the Paris Agreement, and served as a close advisor to Francois Hollande on both the agreement and on France’s innovative law on energy and green growth.

Despite his claim to be beyond politics and ideology, Hulot has strong views and Piketty-like instincts on the dangers of growing wealth inequality — he has not been afraid to voice these in the past and has strongly supported Pope Francis’s recent encyclical. He is known to dislike open conflict with others, and this was one of the reasons given for his unsuccessful attempt to become the Ecologist candidate at the 2012 presidential election.

His appointment is something of a surprise and is a public relations coup for Emmanuel Macron. During the last two decades Hulot has rejected ministerial posts in Chirac, Sarkozy and — most recently — Hollande governments. Hulot’s acceptance may be an indication of Macron’s powers of persuasion and also his willingness to trust those with expertise in particular areas by appointing them to specialised ministries. Macron had not shown much interest in ecological issues prior to his election campaign, nor does he have any governmental or private sector experience in the area.

The appointment has been welcomed by green activists, even though doubts have been expressed about his room for manoeuvre, and his arrival should also comfort green-minded businesses and investors in the low carbon sector. Macron has pledged to continue the path set out by the Hollande government: ensuring Paris Agreement objectives are met and projects set in train by the energy and green growth law are developed.

Hulot is likely to press the French government to take a more radical approach to energy and environmental issues — a ramping up its ecological programme, and integrating ecological considerations in more policy areas.

Although he has previously supported nuclear as a low carbon fuel, his enthusiasm for it has waned since Fukushima, and the French government may reaffirm its challenging commitment to reduce it use of nuclear from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by the mid-2020s. EDF almost certainly believes that if this target is met the security of electricity supply will be difficult to guarantee and the firm probably hoped for a François Fillon victory — Fillon’s manifesto was said to have been strongly influenced by EDF — and shares in the company fell when Hulot’s appointment was announced.

The confidence of renewable energy businesses is bolstered by the near certainty that Hulot will back incentives to promote further growth of renewables and the introduction of regulatory and fiscal incentives to promote “eco-responsibility”.

French businesses centred around circular economy principles and sustainable development goals, such as Veolia and Danone, can also be optimistic about Hulot’s arrival. In addition, the world of corporate sustainability expertise — hitherto a field where the UK was a leader — has moved ahead rapidly in France, and will be further encouraged by an ecologist in government.

Success, and Hulot’s political manoeuvrability and power to implement his ideas, will depend on the outcome of the French legislative elections in June and in particular whether ‘La République en Marche’ wins a parliamentary majority.

There may also be significant battles for Hulot in the Cabinet. New Prime Minister Édouard Philippe voted against the previous energy and green growth law — interestingly Philippe has been director of Public Affairs in the nuclear company Areva — and Hulot’s robust views on banning pesticides may create friction with the agriculture minister.

Future discord could arise from the controversial development of the Notre Dame des Landes Airport in Western France, which Hulot has criticised, but Macron and others in the new government have favoured. Hulot will be likely to push for France to become a leader in green finance, and this may be an area where he can readily reach agreement with centre right economy minister, Bruno Le Maire. Interesting inter-ministerial arguments may also be provoked by Hulot’s mistrust of international trade deals which Emmanuel Macron and Édouard Philippe favour. Hulot recently asked France’s Constitutional Court to reject ratification of the EU- Canada trade deal (CETA), which he said would “lower social and environmental standards”.

With many such potential disputes, how long Nicolas Hulot will last as a minister has been questioned. French constitutional analyst Oliver Duhamel argues that “the most spectacular arrivals in governments, are always the first to leave” and that “if Hulot lasts beyond the legislative elections in June, that will be a record”. But Hulot’s past successes are based on determination and on pragmatism; his foundation and his campaigning have grown whilst keeping good relations with business. Duhamel’s forecast could therefore be overly gloomy.

In the longer term, problems come from the hugely challenging reforms which President Macron regards as essential, particularly in the labour market and in the civil service, as well as the need for deregulation of certain economic activities. A brand new centrist political party with a slim majority will have difficulty confronting even minor political challenges to its authority. The Macron cabinet is made up of politicians and ‘experts’ from the centre left and right, and should the centrist experiment be seen to fail, then France’s voters, without obvious alternatives in the centre ground, may be tempted to look to the political extremes. Even more important than the expectations centred on Nicolas Hulot, there is immense pressure for a Macron government to succeed.

Alasdair MacEwen is a political analyst and a director of Culmer Raphael. He is a dual British/French national.

This article was first published in Business Green on 22 May 2017.