‘Climate action was just too little and too slow for Hulot’: What was behind his shock resignation?

This is an edited version of an article first published in Business Green on 30 August 2018.

“We’re witnessing the gestation of a long-announced tragedy with indifference: the world is now like an oven, its natural resources are running out, biodiversity is in decline… and still the issue is relegated to one of our last priorities… We’re taking small steps — and France is doing a lot more than other countries — but are these steps enough? The answer has to be no.” Nicolas Hulot speaking on France’s efforts in tackling climate change, as he resigned live on French radio last week.

Since being appointed by the Macron Presidency a year ago, the question has always been how long Nicolas Hulot — a celebrity ecological activist and non-career politician- would last in post. Hulot is the charismatic ‘David Attenborough’ of French environmental campaigning and, for someone politically engaged, he maintains uniquely high esteem amongst the French populace. The reasons for his departure are manifold and, despite President Macron’s promise to “make our planet great again” and the self-prophesied unpredictability of Hulot’s tenure, government progress on climate and environmental policy has been insufficient for a campaigner of his high principles, stature, and ambition.

There is profound ambivalence in French society about ecological issues, with on the one hand widespread support for measures against ecological harm but on the other huge conservative resistance against specific policies. For example, the majority of the population are convinced that vehicle pollution is a public health and environmental problem but when specific measures have been taken there has been almighty fuss.

For example, when Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo closed an urban motorway, the Paris region was up in arms against a measure which was allegedly socially and geographically discriminating, and there was an appeal to the administrative courts which was temporarily successful. France’s Green tax on HGVs was opposed on similar grounds and, despite the huge expense that went into the supporting infrastructure, the opposition won. No mobs descended into the streets in support of these ecological policies and this grass roots ambivalence was bound to find political expression.

Frustrated by international policy stagnation and the lack of wider societal and political behaviour change as the Earth visibly heats up, Hulot this week questioned the liberal economic orthodoxy that sustained the idea of continual growth and production, saying “our dominant economic model is to blame” and predicting the government’s economic plans would not lead to adequate change. He is critical of the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, on grounds of its insufficient consideration of climate and environmental impact.

Internal battles between government departments have taken place this year on energy and environmental policy: an enduring conflict with the ministry of agriculture around pesticide use; declining biodiversity; and the inadequate environmental focus of agricultural reforms. Hulot said upon resigning that ministries should be “working together rather than fighting each other”.

He may be justified in feeling “on his own” in tackling climate change and that government was insufficiently aligned to support the most precious of policy goals. There are four offices in the French government with responsibility for overall strategy: the President, the Prime Minister (Edouard Philippe), the minister of Finance and the minister of the Environment. All four have to take an interest in everything because, for them, all policies are inter-related. Hulot has just not had the political clout necessary in terms of allies among the other ministries, nor sufficient leverage or support of an administratively powerful body of civil servants behind him, let alone influential parliamentarians rallying to his support (the ‘Ecologistes’ aren’t taken that seriously and the commitment to the environment in electoral manifestoes by other parties is largely tactical).

As a result, parts of the energy transition were watered down by other ministries and, despite some small policy victories for Hulot in the past year — on vehicle electrification and renewables — there was insufficient political coordination between different ministries nor collective support for change.

Hulot’s final hours in government culminated with a meeting with the President on hunting law reform where he claimed that the chief hunting lobbyist, Thierry Coste, had turned up uninvited. Upon resigning, Hulot complained that “the power of lobbies over government” needed to be re-examined in France. His comments were seen as a direct attack on the hunting lobby — which looks like it may succeed in gaining concessions from government on where and how much it can hunt in France. But Hulot likely also has nuclear energy in mind, where the bold French target to reduce its use of nuclear power from 75 to 50 per cent by 2025 is not on track to be met in time. Hulot thinks that nuclear lobbying, with its strong government links — the Prime Minister was a former public affairs director for Areva and EDF has long held influence in the civil service — has played a strong part in stalling a reduction in nuclear energy reliance.

That said, France is still seen as one of the world’s leaders on tackling climate change and its energy ambitions and plans are still streets ahead of the UK in terms of climate investment and planning. There is still plenty of certainty for green investors, particular compared to the UK’s comparatively modest Clean Growth Strategy. But it says something serious for the world’s fight against climate change if Hulot thinks France, a genuine world leader, is not moving forward quickly enough.

When resigning Hulot complained of hypocrisy around government policy announcements: old policy investments were cast as new and pledges, such as on energy efficiency, weren’t matched with the necessary spending. France pledged in 2015 to insulate 500,000 homes and buildings a year, but Hulot said it was exasperating that there had been “a 50 per cent reduction in government investment since that pledge”.

Hulot’s departure is embarrassing for Macron and could prove politically important. Macron’s strategy, of “ni droite, ni gauche” but a synthesis of both, is damaged because his radical credentials have now been seriously undermined. His policies are regarded as being in the interests of the “haves” and this could cause him electoral damage, damage not compensated for by the chasseurs or farmers who are more likely to vote for more right-wing parties.

Hulot was the only serving government minister with a public profile — the others are very low key: Sarkozy memorably described Bruno Le Maire as having the charisma of an “oyster” and Hulot’s political disinterest was a big plus with the French public who widely regard politicians as “being in it for themselves”.

President Macron relied a lot on Hulot’s energy knowledge and, despite recent rhetoric, energy and climate change was never previously much of a Macron priority or interest. There will now be a big political space to fill.

Macron and Philippe will have difficulty in finding an emblematic replacement: current candidates are either very low profile or arguably carry political baggage, as is arguably the case with Ségolène Royal. However, a seasoned political heavyweight could help improve internal deal making and cohesion between departments, and give energy transition policy a jolt forward.

Hulot’s brief ministerial tenure also highlights the risk of employing non-professional politicians in important cabinet posts. As the Gaullist Eric Woerth said on Hulot’s time as minister “it’s one thing being an expert analyst of an issue but quite another taking expert decisions”. Hulot calculated that he should leave government before the lofty public expectations of him were dashed and that he will be a more effective player outside of government than in. Time will tell if he got that particular calculation right.

Alasdair MacEwen is Director at Culmer Raphael and a dual French/British national