Macron has lost a minister. Has he lost credibility on the environment too? | Pauline Bock

Opinion

Macron has lost a minister. Has he lost credibility on the environment too?

Pauline Bock
Nicolas Hulot’s shock resignation is a heavy blow for the French president. He can save face – but he needs to act
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'I don’t want to lie to myself any more' - French environment minister quits live on air - video

No one knew Nicolas Hulot, the French environment minister, was about to resign when he went on a radio breakfast show yesterday morning – not even himself. But as the live discussion unfolded, focusing on his government’s failures on climate change, it became clear that Hulot had reached a decision.

“I can’t lie to myself any more,” he said. “I don’t want my presence in the government to give the illusion that we’re facing up to such stakes,” he said on public radio France Inter. Explaining how he had felt “alone” in a cabinet that only took insufficient, “tiny steps” to tackle environmental challenges, he announced that he would resign.

In a moment of striking self-awareness, Hulot, a celebrity environmentalist, continued: “Have we started to reduce our CO2 emissions? No. Have we started to reduce our use of pesticides? No. To prevent the erosion of our biodiversity? No.”

Neither the president, Emmanuel Macron, nor the hprime minister, Édouard Philippe, had been made aware of Hulot’s decision before it happened. The French government was taken entirely by surprise: Marlène Schiappa, Macron’s secretary of state for equality, was being interviewed on another radio station when she heard the news, and asked the presenter if he was joking. Hulot had been one of Macron’s most popular ministers, even after he was accused of sexual assault last February, which he denied.

For the French president, it is a heavy blow. On a state visit to Denmark, Macron said he respected Hulot’s “personal decision”, and hoped to still be able to “count on his free and confident engagement” in the future. Yet the surprise resignation complicates things further for the government, who after the mess of this summer’s Benalla scandal was already preparing for a challenging autumn with a much-condemned pensions reform on the agenda.

It was only a year ago that Macron rebuked the US president, Donald Trump, for pulling out of the Paris climate agreement by calling to “make our planet great again” – a slogan he proudly turned into a hashtag to underline his campaign pledge to fully address the impacts of climate change. As his ratings keep falling – dropping to 39%, the lowest of his presidency so far – the former poster boy for global environmental action has now lost his cabinet’s signature green advocate.

And Macron has got only himself to blame: according to Hulot, what drove him over the edge was the presence of a hunting lobbyist at a meeting earlier this week. “It is symptomatic of the presence of lobbyists in circles of power. Who holds the power? Who rules?” Hulot wondered on the radio. (A few months ago, Macron also announced the reintroduction of the traditional presidential hunt). When Hulot asked the president why the lobbyist was there, Macron apparently responded that he “didn’t know how he had got in.” Understandably, Hulot did not appreciate the impudent humour. Political opposition vocally supported his condemnation of lobbyists’ influence. Macron “sucks up” to lobbyists, ecologist Yannick Jadot told Le Monde.

For all the debate around Hulot’s resignation, his wake-up call remains unanswered. “I don’t understand that we are witnessing the gestation of a tragedy with indifference,” Hulot said. “The planet is becoming a sauna, our natural resources are draining, biodiversity is vanishing. And we stubbornly try to revive an economic model that is the cause of all this mess.”

Macron may still save face – but that will take real political courage by living up to his promises on cutting emissions, pesticides bans and wildlife protection. Sucking up to lobbyists won’t make the planet great again, Manu.

Pauline Bock is a French journalist based in Britain. She writes for the New Statesman