What can we expect from French President Macron on climate change?

On 14 May, Emmanuel Macron, leader of the new ‘En Marche!’ movement and former Economy Minister under François Hollande, became President of France, after winning 66.1% of the votes in the final round election against Marine Le Pen.

The task ahead of President Macron is immense. Mr Macron will now have to gain enough support for his agenda in the approaching legislative elections in June which will decide the 577 members of the French National Assembly.

Claiming he is from neither the left nor the right side of the political spectrum, and without an established political party backing him, Mr Macron must secure significant support for his programme beyond his initial voters to have a chance of winning a majority. Only then will he be able to form a functioning government with the authority to push through his promised reforms.

The battle for seats in the National Assembly will not be easy. It is unclear at this stage what stance the traditional political parties will take. After the first round of the Presidential elections, some of the old parties sided with Mr Macron in a bid to defeat his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen of the National Front. However it seems unlikely that this cross-party support will continue.

Climate was not high on the agenda during the Presidential Elections

During the several months of heated debates and campaigning, the election was dominated by a few hot topics – the country’s sluggish economy, security concerns, immigration and the European Union. Climate change could not get a look in.

Several opinion polls in France over the past year have shown that the environment and climate change do not appear in the public’s top 5 priorities. Indeed, climate change has dropped significantly as a priority since COP 21 – the United Nations summit held at the end of 2015 in the French capital where the landmark Paris Agreement was created.

Reflecting this drop in the public’s priorities, climate policy did not feature prominently in Mr Macron’s campaign. His opponent in the final round of the Presidential Elections, Marine Le Pen, devoted even less time to climate change.

The centre-right candidate, Francois Fillon, who came in third place to Mr Macron and Mme Le Pen with 20.01% of votes in the election’s first round, also gave little time to climate change during his campaign though his manifesto pointed out that he wanted to review France’s energy objectives, without excluding nuclear power, while letting the market decide about fossil fuels with a carbon floor price of €30.

By contrast, climate change was raised by the other traditional parties, the Green party and the Socialist Party. The Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon (who won 6.36% of the first round votes), made the transition towards a green economy one of his key priorities after forming an alliance with the Green Party candidate. Mr Hamon promised that all of France’s electricity would be generated by renewables by 2050, and a move away from nuclear energy within 25 years.

On the Far-Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the France Insoumise party (who won 19.58% of the votes in the first round of the election) also raised climate change during his campaign and advocated for 100% renewable energy by 2050 and a move away from nuclear energy.

Is Mr Macron indifferent to the environment, or is it a ‘red line’?

President Macron has been described by some as apathetic towards the environment. French Parliamentarian and former leader of the Green Party, Cecile Duflot, described Mr Macon’s stance in terms of “environmental indifference” following the result of the Presidential Election on 7 May. The Green Party, however, is very clear: it condemns Mr Macron’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the environment, and instead call for a ‘green and social’ majority in Parliament.

Other critics have also said Mr Macron’s programme is not ambitious enough, and claim that it represents a continuation of the policies of Francois Hollande, whose big achievement on the domestic climate change was the adoption of the Energy Transition Law for Green Growth less than two years ago.

How valid is the criticism of Mr Macron’s position on climate change? Despite its absence from discussions on the campaign trail, he says that the environment is a “ligne rouge” or red line for him, meaning that it is an underlying issue that cross cuts his presidential plans.

Mr Macron was interviewed by WWF France early in the campaign, giving voters the first hints about his environmental programme. He has subsequently described how important an effective green transition is to his plans. And in his two speeches on the night of his victory on 7 May, he explicitly said France would drive a world that is more environmentally mindful and that the country would respect the commitments made to fight climate change.

Mr Macron has also spoken out about the importance of climate change internationally. In February, he invited climate scientists in the United States to move to France. The President has also said he is committed to the implementation of the Paris Agreement. After he unveiled his manifesto in March, Mr Macron warned that “Mr Trump would be making a grave mistake by going back on his predecessor’s commitments towards the climate”. He warned President Trump again of his commitment to the Paris Agreement in a phone call the day after his election.

Mr Macron has promised to stick to existing commitments on climate change

Although President Macron has declared environment to be a “red line”, his proposed plans stick with existing commitments. France has been quite forward-looking on the environment in the past. In his first major speech as President, François Hollande set the course for France to become “the nation of environmental excellence” through an energy transition based on efficiency and the development of renewable energy. Mr Macron’s plans appear to build very little on President Hollande’s ambitions.

The President has stated that he is in favour of a “new model for growth” which should be fair, sustainable and green. He has promised a large and targeted investment plan to drive his green ambitions, including €15 billion of public funding for the green energy transition, and more money for the renovation of public buildings and the transformation of the agriculture system.

Mr Macron’s manifesto includes several other key measures relating to the environment. He says he will shut down all coal power plants within five years (earlier than currently planned) and double the electricity generation capacity of wind and solar photovoltaics by 2025. Mr Macron will also ban all new shale gas exploration. He has also pledged to accelerate research and development and investment for energy storage and smart grids, as well as increasing the French carbon tax (contribution climat-énergie) to €100 per tonne by 2030. Mr Macron also wants to reduce the proportion of electricity produced by nuclear power from about 75 per cent now to 50 per cent by 2025.

Many of these measures are effectively in line with what was adopted in the Energy Transition and Green Growth Law and the multiannual energy plan that followed, so it seems unlikely that Mr Macron will be seeking more ambitious legislation.

However, there are also some gaps in the President’s published plans. For example, they do not provide any details about future imports of fossil fuels for energy generation.

Mr Macron now has five years to deliver on his commitment to climate action

President Macron has largely avoided making commitments on climate and energy that deviate from those of his recent predecessors. France has carried out a series of important reforms relating to the environment over the past few years, including the Grenelle Laws (I and II) in 2009 and 2010 and the Energy Transition and Green Growth Law in 2015.

Mr Macron clearly needs time to work out what can really be achieved on climate change and the environment, which will depend on the battle for the 577 seats in the National Assembly. He may not secure the majority he needs to govern effectively. An Ipsos poll by the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’, carried out on 7 May after Mr Macron’s victory, found that 61 per cent of voters did not want him to command an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

With increasing public scrutiny and distrust of politicians who do not fulfil their commitments, Mr Macron may want to avoid promises that are hard to keep and which will could undermine confidence in his new government. He now has five years to turn his campaign promises into action.

Updated: 15 May 2017