France: Haggling with Hulot

, by Christina Baudin

France: Haggling with Hulot
Nicolas Hulot, the environmental activist turned minister. Source: Laclairiere Production // Vimeo

French politicians on both the left and the right attack Emmanuel Macron, the French President, for his self-aggrandisement and vague pledges. Those promises of forceful, decisive government are also precisely why many average voters put their hopes in him. In contrast to his mentor and predecessor François Hollande, the “normal” president, Macron portrayed himself as a man with almost transcendental powers able to overcome challenges through sheer force of persuasion and personality.

If one looks at the campaign—a sort of test run for the presidency—Macron’s trust in his own ability paid off. He became the youngest French leader since Napoleon. Without so much as a political party backing him, he seemed to embody the “great man” France’s body politic seems to both fear and crave. It also reflects some of the lessons Macron took away from writing his dissertation on Machiavelli.

Drawing on those lessons, Macron achieved perhaps his greatest post-election coup with the appointment of Nicolas Hulot as Environment Minister. A former journalist, television presenter and highly influential green activist, Hulot refused similar offers from Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and then François Hollande. He finally said yes to Macron… even though France’s new leader has only been born again as an evangelist for “making our planet great again” for just over three months. Hulot’s motivations may offer room for debate, but Macron’s were clear. By bringing France’s most prominent environmentalist into the fold, the centrist upstart earned valuable cache with ecologically-inclined voters who distrust his business background.

One could have guessed, of course, that Hulot’s outspokenness on climate issues would inevitably create policy difficulties for Macron. With a national state of emergency – in place since the 2015 Paris attacks – and endowed with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, the French president is currently exercising incredibly expansive political powers. Add to this his known proclivity to authoritarian shows of strength—he recently sacked the country’s top general for complaining about budget cuts—and one may wonder how long an outspoken environmentalist with serious policy convictions will last in the cabinet. Alas, the inevitable showdown may finally be upon us—and it involves the herbicide glyphosate.

The world’s most widely-used weed-killer, glyphosate has been continuously approved by regulators for decades but currently sits at the centre of a European maelstrom. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, or the same group that famously declared bacon causes cancer) concluded that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen”. It has since been revealed that IARC scientists failed to take into account extensive evidence when making their determination. Most importantly, IARC’s conclusion has been directly contradicted by other scientific bodies the world over. In Europe, IARC’s main challengers have been the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Both have rejected IARC’s conclusion and opened the door for the European Union to proceed with a hotly-debated reauthorisation.

EFSA and ECHA have understandably not made friends among environmental groups. Organisations like Greenpeace allege industry interference and want glyphosate banned, insisting that IARC’s conclusion is sound and everyone else’s flawed. They learned last month that they still have an ally in Nicolas Hulot, who announced that France will vote against the EU proposal to renew glyphosate’s authorisation within the bloc—a decision that puts his country at odds with not just Germany but also French farmers by derailing the reauthorisation process.

Hulot’s comments put Macron, whose grand foreign policy designs depend on German cooperation and who can’t afford to alienate French agriculture while he is trying to overhaul the country’s labour code, in a difficult position. The agricultural sector has come out in full force against what it calls a “capricious” and untenable decision. Hulot’s fellow minister Stéphane Travert immediately came under fire from farmers demanding to know what he would do about their impending predicament and wanting to know whether Mr. Hulot “is allowed to do whatever he pleases.” Another prominent indictment came from former Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll, who put the matter this way: “banning for the sake of banning… is no way to position ourselves to successfully navigate an agricultural transition.”

The economics of Hulot’s position back up these fears. According to IPSOS, the loss of glyphosate would cost French agriculture over 2 billion euros. Added costs would fall on the shoulders of individual farmers and winemakers, with grain producers losing as much of a third of their profits. Hardly an auspicious start for Macron’s pledges to protect and grow the French economy.

With the blowback creating an unwanted political crisis for the new president at a delicate time—as labour organisers are organising street protests against his market reforms at this very moment—could glyphosate be the breaking point that pushes Hulot out of government? The minister certainly does not seem to be in it for the long haul. In a September 12 interview with Le Parisien, he said that he experienced “no pleasure” in being a minister and that he won’t hesitate to vacate his post if ever he feels he is not accomplishing his objectives. To a young president with the tendency to demand total loyalty, that may well sound like a challenge.

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