What can green businesses expect from Emmanuel Macron?

In December Francois Fillon was the firm favourite to become France’s next president. Incumbent Francois Hollande had wisely pulled out of attempting a second mandate, and Emmanuel Macron, with his newly formed party ‘En Marche’ looked improbable as a prospect to face Marine le Pen in a second-round showdown. Today, former Socialist Economy minister Macron is topping first-round polls, beating Le Pen in surveys for the runoff and Fillon’s tarnished crusade looks over. With the elections a few months away, much could still happen as campaigning intensifies but without doubt the smooth, energetic and untried Macron is now a serious presidential contender.

So, what is the candidate’s environmental vision for France? Macron has no track record in this policy area, nor has he previously expressed any enthusiasm for environmental issues. As economy minister he was subject to much criticism from ecologists for liberalising France’s bus network, and thus favouring road transport over rail. Attempting to counter criticism that he has so far been vague on his environmental objectives, he has given a slick policy presentation to WWF, the central theme of which affirms continuation of the green growth agenda begun by Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal (now a potential supporter). Sensing the doubts around him on the environment, he has put his relative silence on these issues down to his never having held a ministerial portfolio in this area.

To the satisfaction of French green campaigners like Nicolas Hulot and perhaps conscious of some public anxiety around nuclear power, Macron is explicit that if elected president he will pursue the ambitious goal of reducing France’s dependence on nuclear power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025. Many French nuclear plants are in poor condition and Macron adds that by 2018 he will decide which should be closed. “Nobody knows the real cost of nuclear energy,” he says, “but what’s certain is that we shouldn’t throw away everything we have.”

He has also said that he will phase out coal power stations, accelerate renewable investment by guaranteeing £30bn of private investment (aligned with public investment guarantees) and simplify the regulatory climate for renewable energy.

Macron sees quick wins to be made from a large-scale energy efficiency programme in buildings — they represent half of France’s energy use. The retrofitting strategy begun last year is underperforming, with 100,00 buildings fitted a year, but Macron thinks 500,000 a year can be reached quickly, by streamlining incentives and increasing public subsidy.

Fully aware of the political importance of the French agricultural lobby, Macron promises a billion Euros of investment a year to shift France towards more sustainable farming and production. He would carry on the ban on noenicitinoids, increase the share of organic food in public catering to 50 per cent and help farmers generate and profit from more renewable electricity on their land with 200m euros of support.

On transport, Macron offers €1,000 incentives to move away from diesel vehicles towards hybrids or electric vehicles and he wants to accelerate the deployment of electric charging infrastructure. He values further investment in hydrogen both for transport and for household energy use.

For green investors, the signs are good, in that what is offered most from Macron’s green vision is continuity coupled to — if he is to meet his ambitious pledges — much more government investment. Macron is undoubtedly business-friendly, aided perhaps by his previous ministerial background and his brief but reportedly impressive career in investment banking. Nuclear investors may be less cheered by the continued target to reduce its use, but many French experts are doubtful that the nuclear reduction targets can be met within such a short timeframe.

These various green policies were backed up last week by an eye-catching public appeal to US climate scientists unnerved by the Trump administration to ‘please, come to France’.

The French election campaign differs from, say, the US or even British politics in that even the far-right and Marine Le Pen have publicly accepted the realities of man-made climate change. For example, despite a Trump-like, nationalist and protectionist economic agenda, the National Front’s policy is generally supportive of the Paris Agreement, and instead pushes for its French implementation to be focused around fewer imports of foreign goods.

Undeniably, France’s hosting of COP21 has invigorated French environmental politics and campaigning, and has arguably given campaigners — like Nicolas Hulot, who has been surprisingly influential over the electoral candidates from left to right — greater political power. A campaign with a few more twists and turns left to run will determine if the polls are right and Macron gets to put his green vision into practice.

Alasdair MacEwen is a political analyst and a director of Culmer Raphael.