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OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future
French President Emmanuel Macron during a televised interview on September 24, 2023. (Photo by Ian LANGSDON / AFP)

The French President's new plan for a green-ish future reveals the ecological conundrum France faces and that Macron is rightly worried of the danger of pushing voters towards Marine le Pen, writes John Lichfield.

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President Emmanuel Macron's much delayed statement on Monday on planning for an ecologically-friendly 21st century was a curious mixture of courage and evasion.

In comparison with the UK government’s recent lurch towards climate scepticism-lite, Macron boldly confronted the threats, challenges and opportunities of the next decade.

READ MORE: Heat pumps and suburban trains: What's Macron's climate plan for France?

In comparison to a rupture with the past demanded by green activists – and some in his own government – Macron was cautious and vague.

There would, he said, be no refuge in the climate “denialism”, increasingly promoted by the Right and Far Right. Nor would there be the “cure” (shock-treatment) of reduced economic activity, as prescribed by the Greens.

Instead, Macron said, there would be a “French-style ecology”, which would increase “sovereignty”, “control” and “prosperity”.

France would produce a million electric cars in the next three years. State subsidies to allow poorer motorists to lease electric cars for €100 a month will be announced in November. The government would give €700 million towards the €10 billion cost of building or extending new, fast, commuter train networks in 13 French conurbations.

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French carbon emissions would be reduced by five percent a year to reach the target of 270m tonnes by 2030 – half what the country produced in 1990.

To achieve this goal, Macron said, there would need to be a “policy of a general change in behaviour.”  

But he said there would be no question of abandoning or punishing modest households or farmers or people in rural areas dependent on cars or banning household gas boilers. He made no mention of higher taxes on flying or a 110 kph speed limit on motorways – measures to force “changes in behaviour” proposed by moderate climate activists and some voices within government.

This was finally a very political statement – and maybe rightly so. It was a recognition that there is growing risk that the case for radical climate action is being lost on the right and far right of European politics, in the UK, in the Netherlands, in Germany and potentially in France.

Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National sees in a cynical downplaying of climate change a big vote winner – bigger possibly than immigration – in rural and outer-suburban France. Mathilde Androuët, the Rassemblement National spokeswoman on ecology, says that Macron angers the struggling middle classes every time that he mentions the “green transition”.

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“All of that stuff is seen as a fad of the elite by the people who will bear the burden of change,” she said. “Don’t forget that the Gilets Jaunes movement began with a tax on petrol and diesel prices.”

Macron has not forgotten the Gilets Jaunes. They were absent but ever-present in his speech on Monday.

The president faced a double or triple conundrum. Despite a burning hot summer (literally in some places), popular opinion is more concerned at present with inflation than with climate change – “the end of the week, rather than the end of the world”.

Macron needs to spend state money to soften the impact of inflation. He needs to spend more state money to “accompany” (as he puts it) carbon-reduction plans in household heating and transport.

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He is also trying to reduce France’s budget deficit. The sums do not easily add up.

Macron chose to present the conundrum as a great opportunity – a chance for France to rebuild its industrial base by investing in electric cars and batteries and heat-pumps, to clean the air in cities and to boost the economy by reducing imports of fossil fuels.

“Our dependance on fossil energy costs us €120 billion a year---that’s the cost of our dependance”, he said. Reducing fossil fuel use to 40 percent by 2030 will create a “value-added ecology” and a country that is more “sovereign” and takes back “control”.

The repeated use of right-wing buzz-words was deliberate. It is a way of confronting the Right and Far Right with their own incoherence on climate policy.

But the speech was meant to jolt as well as reassure public opinion. That balance was lost. Cutting carbon emissions by 5 percent a year for seven years will be painful; Macron admitted as much and tried to conceal it at the same time.

The president has also been forced by bad memories of the Gilets Jaunes into incoherences of his own. He had announced the previous evening that a €100 a year state subsidy for poorer car users would be restored, weeks after his government said that such hand-outs must end.

Many of the president’s announcements on Monday were not new. The €100 a month lease for electric cars was in his campaign platform last year. The “new” urban train networks were announced in the spring and already exist in some cities.

The plan has now been extended to 13 conurbations – almost every large metropolitan area in France. But the government’s €700million is only a fraction of the €10billion needed.

Compared to the muddle on climate policy in some neighbouring countries (Germany as well as the UK), there was much to welcome in Macron’s speech. Offering a positive case for climate change action makes ecological as well as political sense.

Hard choices remain hard choices all the same. It remains to be seen whether in the remaining four years of the Macron era, the balance will be long-term ecological or short-term political.

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