In April 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron stood before a crowd in southern France and promised to take climate change more seriously if he was re-elected. “I hear the anxiety that exists in a lot of our young people,” Macron told the rally in Marseille. “I see young people, adolescents, who are fearful about the future of our planet.”
A week earlier, in the first round of the presidential election on 10 April, the French had voted in roughly three blocs: the far left, the far right and the centre. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was narrowly beaten to second place by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. From that moment, the race was on between Macron and Le Pen to attract Melenchon’s voters from the left, and climate change was one of their key issues.
Macron was the greener choice in the second round, but that was a low bar given that his opponent’s main environmental pledge was to dismantle wind turbines. Surveys have shown that the environment is one of French voters’ main priorities, but Le Pen spoke little about it. Candidates on the left, however, were keen to bring up a March 2022 report by the NGO Reseau Action Climat that called Macron’s climate plans “vague, incomplete and imprecise”. His “initial engaging speeches” had not been followed by concrete action. In 2021, a French court found that Macron’s government is not doing enough to meet its climate targets under the Paris Agreement.
The fear was that green-minded voters who opted for Melenchon in the first round would stay home in the second round. To win them over, Macron made a new promise: to make France “the first major nation to abandon gas, oil and coal”. France is in a good position to do that because of its high use of nuclear power, something Macron and Le Pen were competing to show who supports more in their debate last week. Despite Le Pen trying to cast doubt on it, Macron’s firm commitment to nuclear power as the key to decarbonisation will continue during his second term.
Macron also promised new investments in renewable energy technologies, energy-saving residential renovations and organic food production, as well as new limits on air pollution and single-use plastics. Macron said he would formally task his prime minister with “ecological planning” – an idea first proposed by Melenchon.
Eyes turn to June elections
Whether Macron will choose that prime minister is now the big question. Unlike in the US, France’s system of government is only semi-presidential. Technically, the head of government is the prime minister, who is chosen by a majority in the parliament. The French system is designed to give the president’s party that majority: the presidential and parliamentary elections are held just two months apart, and ever since they were timed that way, the French people have always given their president his majority. This year, however, that is in doubt. Macron does not have the same momentum as he did back in 2017, and his margin of victory, though large, is quite a bit smaller than last time.
Because his party won a majority in parliament in 2017, Macron was able to choose his ministers and prime ministers over the past five years. If he does not control parliament, that gives an independent prime minister the power to appoint ministers. Technically, this is subject to Macron’s approval, but his room for manoeuvre would be limited because the ministers must be able to command a majority in parliament. Melenchon is trying to assemble a coalition of the left that could push Macron’s party out of power and make Melenchon prime minister.
Such a coalition would be unlikely to give Macron much trouble in the area of climate; in fact, it could push him towards further climate action, says Anna-Lena Rebaud, a campaigner with the NGO Friends of the Earth in France. During his first mandate, Macron had an absolute majority, she says. “During that time it was very difficult to convince members of parliament to have more ambition than what Macron was doing,” she notes. A majority of the left in parliament would likely push Macron further on climate action.
However, there are other possibilities, such as a coalition of the right. In that instance, the government could block Macron’s climate efforts, both domestically and at EU level. “That would be catastrophic,” says Rebaud, but she is hopeful that an anti-climate majority in the parliament will not come to pass. “For the past five years we have been building alliances among social movements and climate movements,” she says.
The current uncertainties in France are mirrored in Brussels. Although the 24 April election result means Macron will maintain his seat in the European Council of prime ministers and presidents, the future is unclear for the Council of the EU, the upper chamber of the EU’s legislature. That body is made up of national ministers, who craft and vote on EU legislation. If the French ministers were from a right-wing coalition in opposition to Macron, they could derail EU climate action. Votes in the Council are weighted by population size, making the French vote the second most important after Germany.
Such a development would be particularly bad news for the EU’s ‘Fit for 55‘ climate and energy package, which is currently in the legislative process to implement the EU Green Deal. If he cannot control France’s ministers, Macron could be powerless to stop them from partnering with eastern European governments like Poland and Hungary to torpedo EU climate legislation in the Council (which is the more powerful co-legislator compared with the European Parliament; also, the latter does not have an election until 2024).
More French and EU climate action
If he does secure a parliamentary majority, however, it seems likely Macron will use his political capital to push for more climate action at domestic and EU level. This would be a change of pace after years of bold words not followed with bold action from France, including during its current six-month stint at the helm of the EU Council.
“Early in his term, Macron also argued forcefully for greater European climate ambition,” wrote Richard Kinley, a former senior UN climate official, in Energy Monitor in April 2022. “The appeal was all the more powerful given that then US President Donald Trump, translating his ‘Make America Great Again’ pledges into actions, was recklessly dismissing the global climate threat.”
“Yet, more than three months into its EU presidency, the French government has shown no such intention,” Kinley continued. “Instead, Paris has sent warning signals about another part of the EU package – a proposal to put buildings and road transport in a distinct European emissions trading system.”
Given that French ministers will now be preoccupied with the June legislative elections – and, as tradition dictates, leave their posts when Macron unveils a new cabinet to fight the election – it is unlikely the French EU presidency will make much progress on ‘Fit for 55’ before the Czech Republic takes over the reins on 1 July. However, it is customary for large countries to help small countries when they pass the presidency on, and this is expected to be the case more than ever this year as the French try to make up for time lost during the campaign.
At a time when Europe is trying to wean itself off Russian gas and oil, the timing is ripe for a big push into renewables and energy efficiency. With fresh political capital and a win in the legislature, Macron would be uniquely placed to lead that push, EU presidency or not. The question is whether he is willing to spend political capital on climate action.
“After the experience of the past five years, we don’t exactly trust Macron when he makes climate promises,” says Rebaud. “His first five years have proven to us that he is a master of communication, but not of action. He had a major interest in trying to convince leftist voters and that is why he wooed the social and climate movements – but he did that in the past, and we didn’t see results.”