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Emmanuel Macron had five years to win over green voters — it hasn’t worked.
Now he’s undertaking a last-ditch effort to appeal to them ahead of Sunday’s runoff against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
For green-minded voters, the choice on Sunday might seem obvious.
Macron’s record may not enthuse climate campaigners, but he’s running against a nationalist who has pledged to slow down decarbonization efforts, dismantle wind farms and place a moratorium on new wind and solar power. She has also blamed “the economic model based on international free trade” for “the majority” of greenhouse gas emissions.
But in Wednesday’s TV debate she jabbed at Macron by calling him a “climate hypocrite” — and it hit a nerve.
Experts and environmentalists point out that Macron’s five-year term was marked with sweeping declarations of intent but patchy delivery, raising doubts about his sincerity on climate issues.
Macron’s last-minute green pivot “is driven by electoral gain,” said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the Jacques Delors Energy Center, a think tank. “It’s something that he could have done in 2017, 2018, 2019.”
Macron’s thinking on environmental issues has evolved “considerably,” according to Pascal Canfin, former director of the World Wildlife Fund in France and now a European parliamentarian with the Macron-allied Renew Europe group.
When he first met Macron in 2012, the president-to-be was “a classic industrialist,” Canfin told La Croix, and tried to convince Canfin of the benefits of developing shale gas in France.
As president, Macron developed clear rhetoric backing climate action, said Anne Bringault, a member of the French Climate Action Network. But “there is a gap between his lyrical musings and his results” both nationally and internationally, she said.
Five years ago, Macron campaigned on a platform that included banning problematic pesticides, reducing the size of France’s nuclear fleet, slashing air pollution by introducing clean-air zones, and by France taking a lead in global climate diplomacy.
He fell short on almost all of those areas.
Just one year into his presidential term, a fuel tax increase that was part of an effort to combat climate change enraged commuters and businesses outside the largest cities and sparked the massive Yellow Jacket protest movement.
“We warned [Macron] for a long time that if the revenues from this tax weren’t given back to the most disadvantaged households … there will be resistance,” Bringault said. “And this led to the Yellow Jackets.”
The chaotic months of street violence forced Macron to rethink how to draft and implement his climate policies, and led to the creation of the Citizens’ Climate Convention — a group of 150 randomly chosen people tasked with advising the government on the green transition.
The president hailed the convention a success, and France’s sweeping climate law, which was passed last March, drew on recommendations from the convention. Aimed at contributing to the EU objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, the law bans fossil fuel advertisements, certain domestic flights and new cars emitting more than 95 grams of CO2 per kilometer by 2030. It also create a new offense of ecocide.
But members of the citizens’ convention accused the government of watering down their recommendations on reducing emissions, boosting the circular economy and greening agriculture — which undermined any political gain for Macron.
Macron’s decision to create a High Council on Climate, an independent body that advises the government, was more widely considered a success. But it also highlighted his government’s failings: Successive assessments showed France isn’t reducing greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet its objectives under the Paris climate agreement, a view backed by a French court ruling against the government.
These ideas are typical of Macron’s strategy on environmental issues, which isn’t “integrated” but amounts to “layering” new initiatives one on top of the other — which doesn’t lead to significant transformation, according to Pellerin-Carlin.
Macron’s new pledge to put his future prime minister in charge of “environmental planning” and task them with coordinating long-term measures to decarbonize the economy across various sectors — an idea pushed by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon — is more promising, said Pellerin-Carlin.
But its success will depend on whether Macron makes changes to administrative structures, he warned.
When his former environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, resigned in 2018 over his frustration at lack of progress on key issues, Macron “didn’t change these structures … he changed one person.”
Questionable climate champion
In Brussels too, Macron’s commitment to climate issues has faced heavy criticism.
France insisted on having nuclear energy and gas power stations labeled as green investments under the EU taxonomy, pushed back against the greening of the Common Agricultural Policy and has called for the sale of new combustion engine cars to stop in 2040 and not 2035 as proposed by the European Commission.
Macron also recently pressed for a rethink of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, which aims at greening agriculture, due to the impact of the war in Ukraine.
Diplomats have also voiced disappointment at what they see as a lack of progress on EU climate legislation — the so-called Fit for 55 package — under France’s six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, which began in January.
France’s efforts “[do] not seem to match Macron’s renewed interest in climate” following Mélenchon’s strong results in the polls, said a diplomat from an EU country. The only piece of legislation “the French seemed to care about” is the EU’s proposed carbon border tax known as CBAM, which Paris has long championed, the diplomat said. “They have successfully let other files rot away.”
A French presidency spokesperson expressed surprise at the characterization, saying in a text message: “The Council’s position on the CBAM was adopted in an extremely short time. All the Member States tell us that the French Presidency is characterised by a steady pace on all the other texts of the [Fit for 55] package.”
Macron was initially more successful at positioning himself as a climate champion on the international stage — particularly in the months following his election in 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump was preparing to announce his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In a video that went viral, Macron subverted Trump’s campaign catchphrase with a call to “Make the Planet Great Again.”
He also courted Chinese leader Xi Jinping and launched the One Planet Summit, in an attempt to bring together countries that remained committed to the Paris goals — efforts that helped to keep the ambitions of the global climate pact alive despite the U.S. retreat.
“That was quite a useful role at the time and I think he should be given credit for that,” said Lola Vallejo, climate program director at the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.
But the role of climate champion also served to boost his personal brand and carve out a space for himself on the international stage.
“He was a very shrewd politician and knows how to talk about the climate emergency in a way that resonates with people internationally, especially in a time where everyone was so desperate with how Trump was talking about that issue,” said Vallejo.
That has since changed. In the run-up to last year’s COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow, British diplomats privately voiced frustration at France’s contribution.
With the U.S. presidency back in Democratic hands, said Vallejo, “there was less space for Macron to reap political gains from such a personal commitment.”
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