‘Greenwashing’: Is Macron really committed to the environmental cause?

Emmanuel Macron nominated France's most famous environmentalist as minister but 12 months on Nicolas Hulot just looks like a cover for a government that is not really committed to the cause.

'Greenwashing': Is Macron really committed to the environmental cause?
(Place de la Republique in Paris goes green to raise environmental issues. AFP)

Joining the government of President Emmanuel Macron in May last year, celebrity environmental activist Nicolas Hulot (pictured with Macron below) made clear he was unsure whether he would have much of an impact.

The star, France's best-known environmentalist as the face of the Ushuaia TV programme, had hesitated about joining the ministerial team, having refused similar offers from previous French leaders.

“The urgency of the situation requires me to try everything to help a new societal model emerge,” he said in a statement after finally committing.

For Macron, recruiting Hulot was a political coup, giving the new centrist leader instant environmental credentials after an election campaign focused on economic growth.

But 12 months later, many campaigners fear that Hulot, the minister of environmental transition, amounts to little more than political “greenwashing” — eco-friendly cover for a government that is not really committed to the cause.

A succession of French government decisions have come under fire from environmentalists, fuelling reports that Hulot was chafing at being accused of “retreats” from his agenda and getting ready to throw in the towel.

Yet he has signalled recently that he will stay on for now.

“Every day we make compromises, because we're not living in a fairy tale,” Hulot said on French radio Wednesday.

“I'm here for the middle and the long term.”

Scaling back ambitions

His departure would be a major blow for Macron, who has positioned himself as a global leader committed to tackling global warming as he seeks to 
compensate for US President Donald Trump's policy of climate change denial.

In December, Macron hosted 50 world leaders at the “One Planet Summit”, talking of jump-starting the transition to a greener economy two years after the historic Paris agreement to limit climate change.

Having declared “Make our planet great again” after Trump pulled out of the Paris accord last year, Macron followed up with a new catchphrase in front of the US Congress in April. 

“There is no Planet B,” he told American lawmakers. 

But behind the international grandstanding, critics point to a series of disappointments in France, where Hulot has lost out and powerful farming and industrial lobbies are seen by some to have prevailed.

Last December, France backed a new EU plan to combat endocrine disruptors — chemicals which can cause tumours, birth defects and other hormonal disorders — which was criticised as too weak by many scientists and NGOs.

(Place de la Republique in Paris goes green to raise environmental issues. AFP)

Environmentalists had battled for a much stricter definition to help limit the dangers from disruptors such as PCBs and pesticides found in food, 
make-up, toys, paint and many other household items.

Macron had also promised that Paris would ban the widely used but controversial pesticide glyphosate within three years after the EU renewed its 
licence last November. 

But in the end, the government has left it to industry bodies to self-regulate and phase out the chemical, produced by US agro-industrial giant 
Monsanto, by 2021.

These examples highlight “the gap between what (the president) says and what he does,” noted political scientist Simon Persico in a highly critical 
recent column in Le Monde newspaper.

“Emmanuel Macron can declare 'Make the planet great again', but such publicity-seeking statements are not followed by any proper reform,” Persico wrote.

France in reverse?

Eric Andrieu, a Socialist lawmaker in the European parliament and chairman of a pesticide commission, said the glyphosate licence renewal was “a patent failure” for Macron.

He highlighted what he saw as the “lack of coherence” in the approach of France's various ministries — between the economy, agriculture, health and ecology.

“France talks big but acts little. There are grand announcements which end in minimal decisions,” Andrieu said.

A target to reduce France's reliance on nuclear power for electricity to 50 percent from 75 percent has also been put aside until after 2025 — though Macron maintains this is necessary to ensure France meets its emissions targets.

The president's defenders argue that he is being pragmatic on the environment, providing political backing for green causes while favouring 
gradual steps towards achieving his goals.

On glyphosate, for example, farmer groups had lobbied hard to maintain access to the product, arguing that there is no comparable replacement 
pesticide on the market at the moment.

Macron's supporters also point to his backing for organic farming and investment in renewable energy, as well as a law passed last year that bans 
the issue of licences for new oil and gas extraction projects on French territory.

The government also scrapped a new airport project near the city of Nantes in western France last year, a victory for Hulot and other environmentalists who had campaigned against it. 

Such arguments have failed to convince former environment minister Corinne Lepage, who backed Macron in 2017.

She said recently that the country had “gone backwards.”

If Hulot were to quit his post, others fear it might retreat further.

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France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).