The fight against climate change in European politics often seems like two steps forward and one step back; despite the unveiling of ambitious EU climate proposals last week, or landmark steps in the right direction such as the return of the United States into the folds of the Paris Agreement, France’s climate fight has recently encountered a resounding defeat. An attempt by French President Emmanuel Macron to enshrine the fight against climate change into the national constitution was ended by the French Senate on July 6, dealing a potentially decisive blow to a president who has faced criticisms over his climate action commitments ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Early on in his presidency, Macron announced his leadership on the world stage by presenting himself as a strong leader on climate change, embodied by his ‘Make Our Planet Great Again’ campaign in response to America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017.
However, in the years since, Macron has faced accusations of inaction on his climate policies. The president’s pledge to organise the constitutional referendum was seen as an attempt to alleviate criticisms that his climate leadership is more of a façade than a call to tangible action.
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A constitutional referendum in France requires passage through both the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, as well as the Senate. Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche (LREM), has strong control of the National Assembly, and overwhelmingly voted to approve the referendum in May of this year. The referendum failed to pass through the upper house of French parliament, halted by the conservative-majority Senate.
The dominant party in the French Senate, Les Republicains, voted down the move over apprehensions that a guarantee of environmental protections would be prioritised over other constitutional imperatives. The party also expressed concerns that it could stifle innovation and business.
The Senate’s vote to reject the constitutional amendment has been widely condemned. Senators linked to Macron’s party stated that the vote shows how “conservatives in the Senate fail to understand the importance of environmental issues”, adding in a tweet that the decision “illustrates the irresponsibility of the senatorial right on environmental issues”.
Prime Minister Jean Castex described parliament’s rejection of the referendum last week as “deeply regrettable”. Castex claimed that the government continues to “believe it is essential for our country”.
Environmental issues did not feature heavily as a topic in the last presidential election in 2017, and Macron largely avoided campaigning on the issue. However, the French political landscape has dramatically shifted since then, and the environment is now the second most important issue to the French electorate, according to government agency ADEME. With Macron widely expected to seek a second term at next year’s presidential election, overcoming criticisms of his climate commitments will be crucial to the success of his re-election.
Striking a balanced platform to appease environmentalists whilst maintaining the support of moderate voters will be key to the President’s re-election ambitions. “For two-thirds of his base… they think it’s important to pursue green policies but it’s more important to have an active economy”, said Bruno Jeanbart, a pollster for French political poll platform OpinionWay, to Politico.
“His own voters are sensitive to green policies”, added Jeanbart.
In The Photo: French President Macron/ Photo Credit: Amaury Laporte
Macron’s perceived weakness on climate action has been politically damaging in the past. In October of last year, 32 MP’s broke ranks with Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche (LREM), and 36 more abstained over environmental legislation on the issue of pesticides. Indicative of the divisions that have often undercut Macron’s tenure, an LREM MP, speaking to Politico on the condition of anonymity, stated at the time that the party was split between “those who think for themselves and those who hope to be reinstated in the next legislative elections”. LREM’s head of environmental issues, Jean-Charles Colas-Roy, also publicly called for MP’s to oppose the pesticides legislation.
Accusations of divisions in Macron’s leadership were the catalyst for the recent push for a constitutional referendum. A ‘citizens council’ set up by Macron, a body of 150 randomly selected French citizens, was tasked with presenting solutions to France’s climate solutions to then be presented to parliament and the French people.
Established as a reaction to a perceived divide on climate perspectives among elites and regular French citizens, the council was successful at the time in quelling the epochal ‘Yellow Jacket’ protests. However, the move backfired when Macron presented watered-down proposals to the ones that the council established. With the promise of a constitutional referendum falling short earlier this month it is clear why Macron has faced accusations of not following through on his climate commitments.
His commitment is skin deep…. It’s all communication, smoke and mirrors. He lectures others, but in reality, his actions in France don’t pass muster.
Jennifer De Temmerman, French MP and former LREM member- Politico
This is not to say that Macron hasn’t attempted to promote climate legislation, but rather that his platform has been either perceived as inadequate or, in the recent case of his push for a referendum, ineffective.
In May earlier this year, France’s National Assembly passed a wide-reaching climate action bill, legislating across multiple industries from preventing future airport expansions to prohibiting open-air terrace heaters. The bill was debated for over 200 hours in French parliament before being approved in a 332 to 77 vote. While successfully passing through parliament, the bill received criticisms for not going far enough to tackle climate change.
The head of Greenpeace France stated that the bill “might have been adequate 15 years ago, when the climate emergency was less pressing. In 2021, it will not be enough to effectively tackle global warming”. France’s High Council on Climate, a body set up by Macron, echoed this, claiming the legislation won’t “fill the gaps in France’s transition to low carbon” and will only deliver “between a half and two-thirds of the cuts needed between 2019 and its 40% target for 2030”.
Even President Macron’s own environmental advisory council has said that the bill will “have a potentially limited impact”. Given the EU’s recently announced ‘Fit for 55’ emissions proposals last week, the legislation would almost certainly require ambitious updates should the plan go through.
The additional failure of the constitutional referendum to Macron’s list of climate setbacks comes at a time when the president’s re-election chances are facing attacks from all angles. Current polls indicate that the first round of presidential voting in 2022 would have Macron and right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen in a virtual tie, while the Green party achieved significant victories in several large French cities in last year’s municipal elections.
With less than a year to go until the first round of the Presidential election, now set to open on April 10, Macron’s climate and environmental policies will be a crucial element to predicting the outcome of the nation’s next leadership election.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: French National Assembly Building Illuminated Blue Featured Photo Credit: Arash Derambarsh.