Why you should care
Because Paris isn’t leading on its eponymous climate agreement.
The same week Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Paris climate accords in June 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron launched his snarkiest ploy yet to posit himself as Europe’s anti-Trump — by rolling out a website promising climate change policy to “Make Our Planet Great Again.”
Since then, Macron hasn’t let off the gas on his anti-emissions publicity crusade, so to speak, taking every opportunity to present himself as humanity’s great hope against global warming. Only Macron may be more like The Donald than he cares to admit. After all, it was through Trump’s preferred platform, a tweet “liked” 382,771 times, that the centrist populist delivered his climate promise broadside. More importantly, it appears that much of his talk on curbing emissions has been eloquent bluster, more reality TV than reality itself. Who do we have to thank for that revelation? None other than his own environmental minister.
Nicolas Hulot, 63, the television personality turned minister, fulfilled the dreams of many an embittered laborer Tuesday by announcing his resignation live during a burn-the-boats radio broadcast. It was a stunning turnaround. When Macron managed to recruit Hulot to the post in May 2017, it was seen as a coup for the new French president with questionable environmental credentials — after all, Hulot had turned down three previous presidents seeking his imprimatur. Nearly 18 months later, the only coup is one waged by Hulot himself, his resignation a seeming confirmation of what many green thumbs have long complained — that on climate change, Macron is an emperor with no clothes.
[Hulot] was starting to lose his reputation among the ecological movement because he had to make some compromises that were not acceptable.
Cyril Dion, environmentalist filmmaker
“I no longer want to lie to myself,” Hulot told France Inter radio on Tuesday. “I don’t want to give the illusion that my presence in government means that we are on top of these issues, and therefore I’m making the decision to leave government.”
He went on to call his tenure an “accomplishment of disappointments” and that he was “all alone” in pursuing environmental aims in a sclerotic Macron government. His choice to publicly call Macron out was especially notable considering Macron stood by him in February when a magazine report accused Hulot of sexually assaulting the granddaughter of former French president François Mitterrand in 1997 (the accusation never went to court because the statute of limitations had passed when brought up in 2008). Yet despite his “huge admiration” for Macron, Hulot asked rhetorically: “Have we started to reduce the use of pesticides? The answer is no. Have we started to stop the erosion of biodiversity? The answer is no.”
Hulot’s sudden departure is so gutting because of his popularity in French culture. Born in Lille, France, in 1955 to a pharma sales rep and a Venezuelan gold miner, Hulot grew up a motorsport hobbyist before becoming a photographer and, later, a radio journalist at France Inter. He became a household name with his television show, Ushuaïa, le magazine de l’extrême, a TV documentary series that from 1987 to 1995 spotlighted extreme sporting events across the globe.
Hulot created a foundation aimed at curbing climate change and an ecology think tank. He attempted to set across the Atlantic Ocean in a pedal-operated airship, making it 1,500 kilometers before landing in the Cape Verde Islands. But his real power was in putting pressure on French presidential candidates. In 2007, he threatened to run for the office himself if the hopefuls didn’t add ecology to their platforms, and sure enough, five of the 12 candidates quickly fell into line. Even with his popularity, Hulot was always an odd fit for politics. The one time he did run for office himself, standing in the primary to represent the center-left Europe Ecology party in the 2012 presidential race, he lost, despite leading in the polls.
Hulot is “kind of too sensitive” for politics, says Cyril Dion, an environmentalist French filmmaker who is an acquaintance of Hulot’s and met with him for dinner a few months ago. And the last year working for Macron had not helped. Despite ambitious aims to reduce emissions 30 percent by 2030, carbon emissions in France actually increased last year as the country missed its 2016 goal, forcing Hulot to announce a plan to course-correct their standards this January. He had to swallow a free trade agreement with Canada that was “really against any ecological belief that Nicolas had,” Dion says. And despite declaring a war on pesticide last fall, France refused to outright ban glyphosate, the controversial ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup that a California jury recently found caused a man’s cancer.
“He was starting to lose his reputation among the ecological movement because he had to make some compromises that were not acceptable,” Dion admits. But Dion believes Hulot’s exit was more from personal values than political expediency. “He wanted to be useful, and he got the feeling that he was some kind of toy used by the government to paint their politics in green.”
The final straw may have come Monday. The day before his rogue announcement, Macron and Hulot met with the National Hunting Association. The visit launched rumors about rural voter-friendly reforms that would allow hunters to kill more types of animals, a threat to the biodiversity Hulot had long fought to protect.
The situation proves that “you can have the better ecological person in government, but it won’t make any change if you don’t have all the people behind him,” Dion says. Surrounded by agriculture and economic ministers in a government built on growth, capitalism and liberalism, there was little room for the climate activism that Hulot had built his life and career around. So he quit, leaving the heat to rise yet more on Macron.