Analysis: France’s climate ambition starts to unravel

By Sébastien Duyck

Being minister of energy and environment seems to have become the most politically dangerous position in Paris.

On Tuesday 2nd of July, President François Hollande announced his decision to sack Delphine Batho, minister for energy and the environment.

During the past two days, Batho had publicly questioned the cuts foreseen in 2014 in the budget of her ministry.

With a reduction by 7% of the funds allocated to her services – the second most severe cut for any ministry, the minister expressed disappointment and questioned whether the environment was a priority for the government.

The response could not be more straightforward, as the minister was dismissed within the following 36 hours and replaced by Philippe Martin, a member of the parliament with the socialist party.

France is set to host the UN climate talks in 2015, when a global emissions deal is set to be agreed (Pic: Flickr/jmayrault)

This decision seems even more sudden as it is not unusual for ministers to defend actively their portfolio during budget arbitrations.

In relation to environmental matters, other ministers had also called into question some of the promises of the president and vocally opposed some of the government’s environmental priorities and standpoints, without facing much political consequences.

Since he arrived in power in May 2012, President Hollande has taken the drastic step to terminate the mandate of a minister for political reasons twice.

In June 2012, as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development was still ongoing, the president had already sacked the then minister for the environment Nicole Bricq, despite her being widely recognized as very competent for this position.

Her only fault had been to revoke offshore oil drilling licenses. The suspension of the licenses was, according to the former minister, necessary in order to wait for the reform of the national Mining Law, an outdated framework that does not take into consideration the environmental impacts of oil drilling.

Following brief but intense lobbying by the companies concerned, the minister was replaced without advance notice and only five weeks after being nominated to the position.

False hopes

During the “Environmental Conference” – a periodic national multi-stakeholder process organized by the government in September 2012, president Hollande had promised to make France the country of “environmental excellence”.

Moreover the president also announced during the event his ambition for the country to take a leading role in the climate negotiations leading to a new UN global climate agreement and suggested that the signing of this new framework could take place in December 2015 in Paris.

However, the intense turnover at the head of the ministry of environment is unlikely to contribute to strengthening the ability of the country to perform this role effectively. While the French minister of the environment is not expected to preside the conference (a role attributed to the higher ranking minister of foreign affairs), its position is crucial in relation to EU internal climate policy, itself described by many stakeholders as a key to the future global agreement.

In relation to environmental questions, the incoming minister Philippe Martin is known so far mainly for his opposition to GMOs and for a parliamentarian report that he delivered in 2011 on the issue of shale gas.

In his personal conclusions, Mr Martin supported the national moratorium on shale gas exploitation.

The new minister also noted that, if the country was serious about the European commitment to climate action, it needed to actively oppose the development of the practice across the continent, noting that “being neutral with Poland on the question of shale gas, is to be a supporter of a climate laisser-faire on the scale of the planet”.

While the new minister could bring an interesting perspective on the need for the country to be more coherent in its climate policy – including when dealing with regional partners, there is however little doubt that his mandate will be extremely narrow.

Having fired two ministers of environment for being too committed to their task, the French president will have a hard time to convince people of the credibility of his own commitment to an ambitious environmental agenda.

This article first appeared on Adopt a Negotiator. Sébastien Duyck is an environmental advocate, student & researcher.

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