Can Europe Make It?

Macron's green-washing

How politicians play footsie with the public’s hopes and hide their inaction behind mountains of vague promises.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
7 July 2020, 11.03am
Following the resignation of former Environment minister Nicolas Hulot, 50,000 protest in Paris and 100,000 throughout France, September 8, 2018.
Apaydin Alain/PA. All rights reserved.

Emmanuel Macron is keen on green-washing. Like henna in the hair it can keep one in line with fashion, but careful all you who want to see our planet saved, like henna it also fades as politicians play footsie with the public’s hopes and hide their inaction behind mountains of vague promises.

The u-turn that isn’t

President Macron is already well-known as a specialist in the u-turn that isn’t. For the last two months, the nods and winks that slip out from the discussions within the Macronie via tame media commentators, political correspondents or even carefully placed remarks by a senior activist or two, have all been heavily hinting that, as the traffic lights for the French economy turn green while the Covid lockdown eases off, their colour will not just be for “Go”.

The great, but deeply cynical, project for keeping his presidential ship afloat over the next two years is to do to the green movement what he did to the social democratic left in his drive for the Elysée three years ago: suck the life blood out of the movement, adopt its clothing, ape its fashions and try to co-opt some of its leading figures.

He fired the starting gun after one of the worst days electorally for any French government in power. Local election results on Sunday 28 June left his La République En Marche organisation – it cannot really be called a political party as it is closer to a fan club for the President – with little more than dust in its hands. It was either the traditional Gaullist right that took the councils, or the different alliances of the left and the greens.

Shallow green wave

The results were hailed across the mainstream media as a “green wave”, though only in one or two instances did a green candidate actually win when standing on their own. The usual base of the victory was what the far right weekly, Valeurs Actuelles, mocks as la politique de la pastèque, water melon politics: green on the outside, red on the inside. It was this that took Marseilles, Lyons, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Besançon and others from the right.

Welcome as the victories are, the wave came on a very shallow tide. The abstention rate of 58.4% was at an all time high for French elections other than those for the European Parliament. French Presidents do not get turfed out of office by those who abstain. Worse, some of the best successes for these left-green alliances came where the abstention rate was even higher.

And while the Macron’s En Marche came away all but empty handed, so did Marine Le Pen’s racist Rassemblement National which now has little more than half the local councillors it won in the last local elections in 2014.

Yet these two, Macron and Le Pen, are the ones the pollsters continue to say will be the two candidates in the final round of the next Presidential election in 2022, with Le Pen edging ever closer to Macron’s score. They can both benefit from the virus of abstention eating into the heart of French democracy.

Macron and Le Pen… can both benefit from the virus of abstention eating into the heart of French democracy.

So, while things are not going to be easy for Macron, they are no better for his green and left opponents who continue to squabble among themselves politically as well as organisationally. Above all the green and left victors in these polls are far from being in a position to offer the one thing the French electoral system demands when you want to change the fundamental direction of national politics: a unifying, strong, individual candidate with a good chance of winning a presidential vote.

Hence Macron’s manoeuvres. He got elected partly by playing to the soft left with talk of “Europe”, a fresh and open vision of opportunity, preparedness to accept change on social relations issues but with a programme for a Thatcherite economy on turbos. The last two years he has played to the Right with his economic reforms, with “security” measures, collusion with police violence and his crude repetition of the worst proposals from the right on immigration and help for migrants.

Blown off course by public protests, he played the let’s-sit-down-and-talk card with his Great National Debate in face of the Gilets jaunes. Then, as that debate drew to a close and the public contributions to it vanished into the archives early last summer, he threw in a Citizens’ Convention for the Climate. Its 150 members of the public were picked at random and told to discuss how to cut greenhouse gas emissions in France. Notice, not a full green programme, as nuclear power was off the agenda they were handed.

Hulot lies to himself

The second round of these local elections on 28 June with their green wave tinge, long predicted in the polls and by those on the ground in many of the big cities, happened, with a bit of cynical juggling greased by some good luck, to come just the day before Macron responded to the final list of 149 proposals adopted by the convention. And with the shutdown of France’s oldest nuclear generation plant at Fessenheim on the Rhine, the first such move by any French government. Happened? If there is one thing the Macronie is good at, it is getting their PR pieces in line on the political chessboard.

Cynical, because, when set against his record since May 2017, any thought that Macron might have a real green bone or two in his political body is a long way from reality. And cynical also because trying to dupe the public into believing he is a green is a crime of political pretence for which this President has previous.

His first government contained something of a political bombshell. He managed to persuade Nicolas Hulot, one of the more popular and least party-political of the personalities in the broad Green movement in France to come on board as Environment Minister. It was a surprise, one that was intended to imply to the public: the planet is safe with me. The ploy fell apart when Hulot walked after 15 months telling us all on breakfast radio: “I don’t want to lie to myself any longer.”

That thought was among one hundred slogans all starting “The time has come to . . .” that Hulot issued as a sort of Green call to action back at the beginning of this May. All worthy, but the whole not making a programme for government, rather a general expression of hope. The sort of feeling he had as he took the post under Macron and, bit by bit, replaced hope with lies.

Also at the start of May, some ninety French private business leaders had issued a call entitled “Put the environment at the heart of the economic revival”. Unprecedented resources had been mobilised against Covid-19, they said. Now it should be done for the environment. Two things were worth noting. First, none of these leaders, running effectively the bulk of French industry and finance, had already put their own money where their mouths were. Second, they noted “Every public financial effort is a powerful lever for private investment.” Which sounds like a requirement that if we taxpayers pay for it, they will think about investing.

Acting together?

But what exactly has France done collectively against Covid-19?

Defeating a dangerous virus like SARS-Cov-2 requires action, positive work and engagement from the top to the bottom and vice versa, coordinating individual, small changes in behaviour with large scale programmes, whether in the production of protective equipment, new means of production or travel in the context of social distancing, or even, let us hope, vaccines and treatments on a scale sufficient to protect every human being on the planet.

Instead, production has been left to the individual initiatives of those private enterprises that sense an opportunity for profit. Huge sums have been spent, but carefully focused on ways that have not led to a co-operative mobilisation in action.

People clapped from their balconies during the toughest part of the lockdown as the hospital staffs absorbed the crisis in a heroic effort that is being parked at the back of the public’s mind as the crisis eases and relief replaces fear. The doctors, nurses, hospital cleaners and others in the health system held their second national day of action on 30 June, still waiting for Macron to announce sufficient funds for pay rises attractive enough to fill the vacancies in the health service.

The doctors, nurses, hospital cleaners and others in the health system [are] still waiting for Macron to announce sufficient funds for pay rises attractive enough to fill the vacancies in the health service.

Would this record give anyone the confidence that those running France are either prepared to, or capable of delivering a real green future for the country? Going green means doing things, being active, being organised whether in our individual lives, our public presence or across the economy, the transport system, wherever. Individuals will have to act in ways that break lazy habits. For that, collective action is needed that reaches right into the heart of the decision-making processes in the institutions that push us all into environmentally destructive practices.

Doesn’t that abstention rate in the local elections tell us something profound about the lack of any sense of involvement on the part of the French public after four months of an emergency in which they have carefully been left as passive objects and not active subjects? Or the way in which trade unionists at Fessenheim, frozen out of participation in radically changing their work, had voted to keep their reactors running?

Doesn’t that abstention rate in the local elections tell us something profound about… the French public after four months of an emergency in which they have carefully been left as passive objects and not active subjects?

Sotto voce

The Convention actually recognised this point, but only sotto voce. On page 56 of its 460 page final report it proposed that, “The whole of the French population should be made aware (of environmental issues) by linking an understanding of the climate emergency to engagement in action” because, it explained, “raising awareness is more effectively done by ‘acting together’ rather than cascading information downwards”.

They ruined the point by making the “acting together” a matter of three things: participative projects like gardens or neighbourhood workshops on cooking, cosmetics, cleaning materials and clothes; local evening debates; and mini citizens’ climate conventions. All worthy – indeed necessary – but nothing there to worry those 90 business leaders and their grab for dollops of taxpayers’ cash.

One proposal from the Convention that got quickly trashed was the suggestion that the upper speed limit on France’s motorways should be cut from 130 to 110kph, roughly equivalent to Britain’s 70mph. Opponents quickly unearthed an environment ministry report back in 2018 which had argued such a reduction would “cost” the handsome sum of 550 million Euros.

Quotation marks are there because there is some sleight of hand in how this figure is calculated which perhaps gets to the heart of the debate through which Macron is trying to guide the French.

That is that environmentalism should not be dogmatic but pragmatic, not be punitive but should seek to persuade, all code words for an approach that sooths the agitated fears of those business leaders as they lie back in their chauffeur-driven limousines (for how could they have company jets when they are so committed to the climate?).

The 100-page ministry report was published before Hulot had decided to stop lying to himself. It arose from a proposal adopted by France’s 2014 Environment Conference when Macron was a mere backroom manipulator in the Elysée, not the one in charge. It estimated that a limit of 110kph would cost 1,150 million Euros a year because of “the loss of time involved”.

There are among the French those who prefer never to waste a minute when on the road. Long time star of radio interviewing, Jean-Jacques Bourdin, whose quick-fire, insistent questions often get in the way of anyone answering him, turns out to be much the same when behind the wheel. Toward the end of the lockdown, he was clocked doing 186kph on the A75 motorway in the south because “the road was empty and the weather magnificent”.

On air a couple of days later, without the slightest sign of remorse, he offered two “valid” reasons for his speeding. He had left Paris to see his mother in a care home and had, he explained, a document “showing he could travel during the confinement” issued by his employer (the private tv and radio channel BFMTV, on strike for the election results because its owner, post-Covid, is aiming to “save” cash and staff).

Readers can work out for themselves the hypocrisy of his first “valid” reason, but the second needs a factual rebuttal. Journalists could move about during the French lockdown, using their press card or a statement from their employer, but only when doing so for reasons of work. Visiting one’s parents has never counted as work for journalists, nor anyone else for that matter. Not a journalist in the French media pointed this out, such is the dominant tolerance of speeding. Even the green hero of the hour, Yannick Jadot, now preparing himself as a presidential candidate, was among those opposing the lower limit: “Who does not like to go fast? I adore it.”

But what the hell, Bourdin is not the only public figure to be caught by a police camera. Emmanuelle Wargon, a minister in that environment department, was caught speeding at 150kph in an official car in February 2019 on a stretch of motorway where the limit had been reduced to 110kph because of atmospheric pollution due to weather conditions. Her office made it clear she knew the speed the car was going at. Journalists were briefed that “We did not see that we had been flashed but that corresponds, in effect, to the speed at which we were going” and were told of “diary pressures”.

Wargon was following in the tyre tracks of her boss, Premier Edouard Philippe. When he was just a right-wing MP, doubling as the Mayor of Le Havre back in 2015, he, too, was caught at 150kph in a 110 limit. Luckily, Wargon, like Philippe and Bourdin, has not killed anyone when speeding, nor, so far, been killed. Which saved her partner, Mathias, head of A&E at the Delafontaine hospital in Saint Denis, the gruesome duty of seeing her pass through his service as one of the 3,239 who died on France’s roads last year.

Human life and statistics

The deadly total is relevant because the 2018 report sets a number of things against that cost in terms of time “lost” when driving at a reasonable speed. One is what it terms “The statistical value of a human life”. This it sets at 3 million Euros. On page 23, in what is the shortest section in the entire document, we are told that the total “cost” saved by the lower limit would be only 150 million Euros in fewer dead and injured.

But, if Emmanuelle Wargon were to leave Mathias’ A&E service for the morgue, would some cash register in his head just go “Kchung!! Oh dear, there goes 3 million”? And if any such thought were to pass through his brain, on what possible basis would he have calculated that very, very round sum?

The document suggests some other costs alongside time wasted. Two hundred Euros per new panel announcing the new limit, for instance. That at least may have some material basis in fact. But how can, or dare, a government calculate the loss of a human life for these purposes at 3 million Euros? The paragraph on lives lost, for that is all it is, refers one back to an earlier technical note for an explanation of why that sum represents the statistical value of a human life. Something that, despite several readings of this lengthy note, was not to be found.

That one should seek at all to “monetise” a human life so you can place it in some sort of see-saw balance against the “cost” of time lost by driving sensibly is, in itself, both typical of the ethics of the business and financial world within which Macron matured and hopes to rejoin, and is utterly offensive. The figure is, of course, arbitrarily small enough never to outmatch the inflated cost attributed to time lost for those hurtling along because the weather is nice or racing from one appointment to another in an overcrowded ministerial diary.

Changing how we drive so we save both lives and the environment is a good metaphor for how individuals and society need to change so that what we do is not just green-washing.

Fading green

One of the 90 business leaders signing that May appeal, Jean-Pierre Clamadieu of Engie, gave a special interview to LeMonde on Thursday 25 June, as Macron was putting the final touches to his ideas on how to launch his green revival. There were good things in the Citizens’ Convention package, but “there are just some propositions which have left me a little perplexed, like the fact of talking of a tax on dividends”.

Now that idea, a tax of 4% on dividends, did not please someone else either. Four days later, the 150 convention members were gathered together in the garden of the Elysée palace. The weather was as nice as when Bourdin was flashed. Macron was his jaunty, confident self of old. Smirking like a cheeky scamp who has just dropped their used chewing gum on the pavement, he stepped up to the podium to announce that among their 149 proposals were three “jokers” that he would be ditching right away.

Jean-Pierre Clamadieu will keep the whole of his dividends; Wargon, still an environment minister in a re-organised government, can fulfil her diary at 90mph; and the French constitution will not include an over-arching priority for saving the planet. So you now know what Macron meant when he said he would place “the environmental ambition at the heart of the productive model”.

It only took that one week for the green-washing to begin to fade. Macron’s new government was formed with a politician currently under investigation over a rape complaint as Interior Minister, a Justice Minister whose principal qualification appears to be his ability to enrage his fellow lawyers and the rest of the squad the same as those who took France into Covid without a mask in sight. On the environment, not one of the independent green leaders he had hoped to entice into his clutches was prepared to get on board.

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