Laurent Fabius: From Greenpeace shame to climate champion

France’s experienced foreign minister succeeded where most failed at UN climate talks. He got a decent deal and everyone said they liked him

Laurence Tubiana (l), Christiana Figueres (c) and Laurent Fabius (r) celebrate approval of the Paris climate agreement (Pic: Kiara Worth/IISD-ENB)

Laurence Tubiana (l), Christiana Figueres (c) and Laurent Fabius (r) celebrate approval of the Paris climate agreement (Pic: Kiara Worth/IISD-ENB)

By Ed King

Laurent Fabius was not always a darling of climate campaigners. In 1985 he was prime minister when the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior was sunk by French agents in Auckland harbour.

It took months for the government to come clean. When it did, Fabius was sent to explain. “The truth is cruel. Agents of the French secret service sank this boat,” he said.

Time is a healer. In the early evening of Saturday 12 December 2015 Fabius, now French foreign minister, sealed his position as the world’s foremost climate diplomat.

Holding a small wooden hammer, his right hand noticeably shaking as he read through a brief UN script, he announced the Paris climate accord was ready to be approved.

Did he look and see if any opposed the deal? “It was a bit like Nelson putting a telescope to his blind eye,” said Lord Stern, one of the world’s foremost climate economists and an advisor to Fabius.

A second later the gavel crashed down. That moment marked the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era; the last and final push by humanity to try and avoid dangerous levels of global warming.

“I would anticipate a few students will be looking to use him as the subject for a thesis,” Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chief climate envoy from the Democratic Republic of Congo told Climate Home half an hour after the talks closed.

Fabius had just pulled off his greatest escape act yet; averting a diplomatic crisis in the final moments of the Paris talks, due to what was later described as a ‘typo’.

Put simply, the final deal presented to the 190+ countries on Saturday afternoon would have meant carbon cuts were legally binding, anathema to the US as it meant the Senate needing to ratify it.

News the US was unhappy spread through the conference centre once the final text was released after lunch. By the time envoys had filed into the main plenary after 6pm rumours were at a high.

Nicaragua wanted to kick off, as did Africa, some said.

With US secretary of state John Kerry involved, it threatened to blow into a major crisis. And yet, after fevered bilaterals, the storm passed and collapse was averted.

Fabius, said Michael Jacobs, a former advisor to UK prime minister Gordon Brown, had built up enough trust among parties that when he said the ‘typo’ was a mistake, they believed him – or at least did not want to upset him by rejecting the idea.

“Those hours of waiting were used cleverly by the French. We wanted to come back for an agreement that looked completely unified,” he said.

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Famed in Paris circles for his collection of fine suits, Fabius cut a commanding figure as soon as he assumed the ‘presidency’ of the 2015 climate summit.

Aged 37, he had become the youngest prime minister of the Fifth Republic. Now 69, he oozed self confidence.

“You need ambition, to have a listening ear, and you need to have the spirit of compromise to be a good president and I think these three elements will be something France will look to to follow,” he told delegates.

In previous summits the head has been an environment minister. That has ensured a good understanding of the issues and destination, perhaps less about how to get there.

In Fabius, there was a man who had played a key role in the recent and delicate Iran nuclear negotiations, the man who was first choice to replace Francois Hollande at the G20 summit in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks.

With a pocket square tucked into his jacket – usually as white as his flashing smile – he exuded calm. The talks were scheduled to end at 6pm on Friday 11 December, and that is when they would end, he repeatedly stressed.

Many winced when they heard comments like this. They feared a lack of knowledge of the often tedious process and toxic climate issue could undermine his presidency.

Some recalled Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s bungling at the 2009 Copenhagen summit. Process at the UN climate talks is all; ignoring or steamrollering over it can be fatal.

Here Fabius made his first good decision. In 2014, he called the respected 64-year-old economist Laurence Tubiana, then a visiting professor at New York’s Colombia University, and asked her to be his chief climate envoy and advisor.

“I didn’t hesitate,” she told the FT in an interview last week. Others were sceptical. She was not a diplomat and did not have experience managing such a large process.

Doubts about Tubiana were misplaced, said Michael Jacobs, a former advisor to UK prime minister Gordon Brown who has previously worked with her at the IDDRI think tank she founded.

“She is extraordinary intellect but she also has empathy. She has been able to listen to what countries and delegations have been saying.”

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A source inside the French presidency told Climate Home Fabius let teams led by Tubiana and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres look after the fine details of a deal.

An informal ‘strategy group’ including veteran UK climate economist Lord Stern was also on hand to tackle specific queries, as was Peru’s environment minister, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, who had capably steered the 2014 Lima talks home.

Instead of micro-managing, Fabius played a big picture role, welcoming delegations for “persistent bilaterals” in his plush office deep in the bowels of the conference centre.

“He has charisma, he’s a listener, he is seasoned in terms of complex multilateral processes – like the Iran nuclear negotiations – he’s someone who helped us reach that deal,” said Mpanu Mpanu.

“The way he managed was fantastic. It was open, transparent, inclusive. It was baby steps at times and it felt frustrating at times, but there was no surprises. What you saw is what you got.”

With a keen memory for first names, he did not conduct debates on substantive points, delegating those to officials. Instead he worked on the mood music, the overarching ambition of a deal and the wicked geopolitics of climate change.

“Through the two weeks they did a good job in having the process open and inclusive and giving countries a sense everyone was getting an opportunity to be heard,” said lead US envoy Todd Stern earlier this week.

“Sometimes you felt sessions were a waste of time, and everyone was just giving speeches, but there was a purpose.”

Fabius’ regular meetings with small islands, Africans and the Least Developed Countries were vital in the final two days to build confidence, said Stern.

Where previous summits focused on the big players, the decision was taken by the presidency well in advance of Paris that they needed everyone to feel involved.

“The French did a really excellent job, especially the way they brought people into the ‘tent’,” said top EU negotiator Pete Betts.

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If there was a moment of genius from France and the UN – and no-one is willing to claim credit – it was the appointment of Venezuelan’s one-time firebrand envoy Claudia Salerno to an inner set of ministers.

Famous for cutting her hand in Copenhagen (2009) and standing on a table mid-plenary in Durban (2011), here she was welcomed into the circle of trust by Fabius, and repaid it by working hard to develop a new – and innovative – preamble to the text.

“I worked a lot to be this happy. It was hectic but it was good. It felt like good, high scale elegant diplomacy,” she told Climate Home.

“Everything that was good and bad from Mexico [the 2010 summit] onwards was gathered by France and that made them so capable to handle such a difficult agreement in such a brilliant way.”

Others welcomed into the inner sanctum included Poland, long a blocker within the EU; Brazil, seen as the most progressive emerging economy on climate; and Bolivia, a fierce critic of the evils of capitalism.

All played ball in the final hectic days. Make of that what you will.

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Only at the end did Fabius lose his cool in public. Overcome by what his team had achieved, he started to speak in English, a cardinal sin for a French foreign minister in France.

In private, stories may emerge of a more colourful character at the conference. French media say a simmering feud between Fabius and environment minister Segolene Royal was maintained during the talks.

The pair fell out in 2006 when Royal beat him to win nomination as the socialist party’s presidential candidate, an election she ultimately lost to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Reports talk of Royal trying to deliberately upstage Fabius in the lead up to the conference and while it was taking place. Pictures of the pair together don’t speak of a warm relationship.

Still, that’s unlikely to weigh on his mind heavily – especially if rumours of a Nobel prize are accurate – and it won’t dull his aura among climate activists and fellow diplomats in the coming years.

It took 23 years of hard graft to come close to a climate pact involving all of the 195 member countries, and the final hours needed careful management.

The French enjoyed a lucky year, buoyed by a Papal Encyclical and strong US-China relations, but a diplomatic blitz using all their embassies gave them a unique insight into what made individual countries tick.

How else to explain the frequent use of ‘climate justice’ from the French, so often a term used by developing countries, or the stress on how a new deal would be fair for all?

Jacobs, a scarred veteran of Copenhagen, was fulsome in his praise moments after the agreement was gavelled through. “The French have played an absolute blinder,” he said.

Marshall Islands diplomat Dean Bialek agreed, and explained why he never felt the conference was in danger of collapsing.

“Fabius was incredibly open, attentive, a good listener, very organised in thinking but also a real sense of control,” he told Climate Home.

“You always felt the meeting was in a safe pair of hands. He was very good at listening. To me that’s all the hallmarks of a great diplomat.”

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