Famous and beloved French ecologist finally accepts to be environment minister
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France's new Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot joined Emmanuel Macron's team after declining offers from three previous governments. What challenges lie ahead for France's popular environmentalist?
The environment was not high on the list of Emmanuel Macron’s campaign themes. So when the new French president poached big fish Nicholas Hulot, a popular environmentalist, to head his environment ministry, it was considered a major political coup. Many challenges, however, lie ahead for the feisty, 62-year old former TV host.
“When you read Emmanuel Macron, the new president’s, programme, you don’t see the words ‘ecology’ or ‘sustainable development,” Hulot said only days before he was appointed environment and social transition minister, a portfolio which also includes energy and transport. "He says it himself, that it’s not part of his makeup. I hope it will very, very quickly become part of his DNA."
Hulot must feel hopeful -- he refused offers by three former presidents to join their governments -- but he now faces the herculean task of pushing a number of major environmental issues at the head of France’s political agenda.
First on the list is climate change. On May 26th, Hulot and the French president will attend the G7 summit with other world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, who once described climate change as a hoax. Trump is expected to announce at the summit whether or not the United States will remain in the landmark Paris climate accord signed in the French capital in December 2015.
Hulot advised France's former president François Hollande on the marathon negotiations involved in the Paris accord, which was considered one of the few successes of the Socialist president's five years in office. As many as195 countries signed the pact to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Hulot will now have to help meet those targets.
'The thorny issue of nuclear power'
Another key, and potentially thorny, issue is nuclear power. Following in the previous government’s footsteps, the Macron's new government has already pledged to reduce the country’s share of nuclear from 75% to 50% by 2025. Hulot, who has been criticized by some Greens as too tolerant, faces the delicate mission of steering France towards this goal.
“There have been many delays since 2012,” the head of World Wildlife Federation France Pascal Canfin told reporters. “The priority now isn’t about whether or not we will reach the 2025 goal anymore. It is about how to put in place a real transition towards renewable energy."
Complications have already begun. Last week, Hulot announced the nuclear power reactor of Fessenheim, France’s oldest power station, would close after consultation. The plant on the border with Germany is located on a seismic fault line and has worried French, German and Swiss environmentalists for years. But closure of the plant, which employs hundreds of people, has met with fierce opposition from those who view France's nuclear park as a guarantor of the country's energy independence and a source of cheap electricity. The commune of Fessenheim and unions have already appealing the closing.
A lynchpin of France’s C02 reduction efforts is renovating buildings in order to make them more energy efficient. The previous government set a goal of renovating 500,000 dwellings a year to 2017. That target has not yet been reached, and experts point out that more needs to be done to simplify the processes.
Controversial airport project
Another hot topic on Hulot’s plate is the contentious new Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport, near the western city of Nantes. Debate over whether or not to build the airport has pitted environmentalists and protesters against the government for years. Macron and his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe back the project, which Hulot used to oppose. It was this hot potato that forced Hulot's decision not to join François Hollande’s government in 2016. Last June, a public vote on the issue was narrowly won by the project’s backers.
Two days after Hulot joined Macron's cabinet, the government announced that it would appoint a mediator to study the feasibility of the airport project. “There is probably an option which will satisfy all parties,” Nicolas Hulot commented, non-committedly, on French television.
French farmers and players in the French agriculture and the food industry will also be scrutinising the new environment minister on Emmanuel Macron’s campaign promise to create a high-level, multi-party debate on food and agriculture after the summer.
'A path for action'
Hulot’s appointment was met with approval across the political spectrum and wider afield, and he himself appears to be embracing his new role. “Those who know me know that being a minister as such isn’t a goal in itself. …However, I have the feeling, without being absolutely sure, that this new political environment opens a path for action that I cannot ignore. I hope it will be a fertile ground to build this new society at last," Hulot commented after his nomination.
It remains to be seen if the outspoken environmentalist will be comfortable in the constrictions of ministerial office.
“He thinks he will be able to change things all by himself," former far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon commented. “He thinks that if he has a good idea and that ‘I can defend it properly; everyone will agree with me’, but it doesn’t work like that.”
To which Hulot, who began his television career on an extreme sports nature show, might respond that harsh terrain and unchartered waters is something is he used to.