By Richard Blais
It was on August 28 that the French Minister of Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, announced that he resigned from office. This unexpected turn of events happened on a regular morning in the French political landscape as he was a guest at the morning show of France Inter, the nation’s most popular morning radio show (1). Without any warning, neither to his assistants nor to the President, Nicolas Hulot resigned, with tears in his eyes. This gesture managed to shock the journalists interviewing him, as well as the audience, since no one was expecting such a sincere answer, in one of the nation’s daily exercice of politics.
He justified this spontaneous announcement by the fact he “do[es] not want to lie to [him]self anymore“, since he believed his actions for the environment were undermined by the French political system, as they were often opposed by lobbies and the Macron government which prioritises economy. He stated that he was surprising himself to be “accomodating of baby steps while the global situation when the planet turns into a proofer deserves an assembly and a change of scale, of paradigm“. He claimed his decision concerned himself only and despite the fact he reiterated his sympathy for the government during his resignation, the aim of his gesture was to shock and provoke a reaction from Emmanuel Macron.
Hulot’s resignation took place in a context of growing discontentment towards the French president, who faced during the summer his first major scandal, the “Benalla case”, when Le Monde identified on a footage filmed during a protest a close councelman of the president, Alexandre Benalla, illegally dressed as a policeman and making use of violence towards protestors.
Who has the power? Who is governing?
Taking a look at the year spent in the office of the ministry of environment, one may understand what difficulties Nicolas Hulot faced during the year. Despite being the second most important minister in Edouard Philippe’s governement (first one being the ministry of the Interior), he evoked his quarrels with Stéphane Travert, the Minister of Agriculture, and the presence of lobbies as he stated his actions were “on the way of lobbies. Because lobbies are present.” Hulot had to make concessions as Minister of Ecology on various cases, either at national level, such as when he postponed the reduction of the use of nuclear energy, but also at an international and European level, as he was an opponent to the continuation of the use of glyphosate and to the CETA. However, one also has to note some “victories” achieved during the year, such as the renouncement of the building of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport near Nantes, ending a 50 years-old debate about the construction of this site.
The event which accelerated Hulot’s resignation happened the day prior to his resignation. The President hosted a meeting on August 27 with a group of hunters to debate new regulations to this sport. An important subject for France, as the country has 1.1 million registered hunters nation-wide, making it the first country for wildlife management (2); yet despite being an important group, the number of hunters has been constantly decreasing for 40 years. Nicolas Hulot attended this meeting, as well as the president of the French hunting federation (FNC) Willy Schraen, and Thierry Costes, a well-known pro-hunting groups lobbyist; despite the fact the Minister of Ecology made it clear that they were not welcome at this meeting. At the end of this session, the price of the national hunting licence received a substantial decrease -from 400 euros to 200; hunters were also given softer legislations concerning huntable species. Immediately after this decision, Willy Schraen boasted on French television about this victory for his group and Thierry Costes declared in a Figaro article, published on the same day at 10p.m. that “A large part of the proposals made by the FNC had been listened and approved“.
During his resignation Hulot stated he felt he had little influence but no power, and such decision was symptomatic of the presence of lobbyist in the political environment, adding “It is a problem for democracy: who has the power? Who is governing?“.
Pointed by Hulot during his resignation lies the shadow of the lobbyist Thierry Costes, whose figure reveals the importance of lobbies in French politics. Having influenced French politics for 30 years now, Thierry Costes developed close ties to Emmanuel Macron, who he met when he was still Minister of the Economy during the President Hollande term. As a proof of their mutual proximity, Thierry Costes organised a night boar-hunting session for the president 40-years-old birthday in 2017 in Chambord.
To add insult to injury, few days after Nicolas Hulot resigned, the FNC launched a new advertising campaign called “hunters, France’s first ecologist?” – a campaign aiming at presenting hunters as agents working for the benefit of the environment, by regulating species or preventing the spread of diseases carried by wild animals. By doing so, the hunter federation used the same communication strategy that environmental agencies use, despite the two groups being regularly in conflict since the 1980s. This advertisement campaign received an immediate backlash from several associations, such as the Bardot foundation (which aims at the protection of animal wellbeing), and arguments of hunters being protective of the environement could be harmed by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) latest report published on September 12. This report states that around 21,000 tons of lead are currently dispersed in Europe, among this number 7,000 tons in wetlands due to hunting and fishing habits. Such residuals of human activities have an effect on the ground and water they are left in and/or the wild animals that might swallow them(3).
Nicolas Hulot became known to the French population by hosting a TV show called “Ushuaia” broadcasted in the 1990s. In this show, he would film himself wandering around the world and meeting various political and environmental activist figures such as Nelson Mandela, for instance. In addition to this show, Nicolas Hulot also created a foundation aiming at promoting environmentalism for politicians and the population, of which he remains president to this day. He proved to be an influent actor of the environmental/political sphere, despite having refused all propositions he received to sit at the office of Minister of Ecology offered to him during the last 3 French presidencies. Recently, he had been missioned by former-president François Hollande to assist the organisation of the Paris COP 21, and finally accepted the position of Minister of Ecology when Emmanuel Macron was elected president in May 2017. Some voices from Nicolas Hulot’s polical party Europe-écologie les verts (EELV) considered his nomination a smoke-screen due to Hulot’s popularity (4), and even stated his position as a minister had a negative impact on EELV as for the electoral minds their political stance and the president’s party became intertwined.
This resignation impacts the image Emmanuel Macron tries to build as a leading figure for global action against climate change, as he called for action from the civil society as a whole and specialists last year after the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement signed in 2015 with his speech “Make our planet great again“.
It is worth noting that in the follow-up of that resignation, a grassroot movement started immediatly in France. A spontaneaous climate march took place in Paris on September 8th, and gathered 11,500 people according to the police, 50,000 according to its organisers. This movement was launched by a Facebook event created by a Maxime Lelong who describes himself as a regular citizen (3). This event which managed to gather up to 350 NGOs show the impact of Hulot’s decision, as the first lines of the event description are a quote of the radio resignation (4). This event has also been repeated the same day in various French cities such as Lyon, Rennes and Marseille; yet saw the presence of opposing political parties such as La France Insoumise as the head of the party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was present at the Marseille march.
Nicolas Hulot has been replaced by François de Rugy, who previously had the office of President of the National Assembly. François de Rugy is the Head of the Ecologist party as well, a minor central-left party, who had been supporting of Emmanuel Macron since the presidential election of 2017.
(1) Audiences radio, France Inter toujours au plus haut: https://www.franceinter.fr/culture/audiences-radio-france-inter-toujours-plus-haut
(2) Data on hunters in France: https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2018/08/29/sur-1-1-million-de-chasseurs-moins-de-10-possedent-un-permis-national_5347594_4355770.html
(3) ECHA report on the consequences of leads ammunition on wildlife: https://echa.europa.eu/fr/-/echa-identifies-risks-to-terrestrial-environment-from-lead-ammunition
(4) Environnement. Macron, un président vert-pâle [Published in May 2018]: http://www.rfi.fr/france/20180506-macron-bilan-environnement-hulot-deception-lobbies-climat-ecologie-lrem-eelv
(5) Youtube video, RTL channel- Maxime Lelong, un citoyen à l’origine de la marche pour le climat à Paris:
(6) Facebook event of the Climate march: https://www.facebook.com/events/1911533922247320/?active_tab=discussion
Featured picture: Nicolas Hulot at the COP21 in Paris, 2015.