Macron's green credentials take a hit as environment minister resigns in frustration
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Recruiting France’s most celebrated environmentalist as minister was a huge political coup for President Emmanuel Macron. But Nicolas Hulot’s abrupt resignation on Tuesday looks set to call the French president’s green credentials into question.
Hulot dramatically announced his departure live on air during an interview with France Inter radio, expressing his frustration over the government’s failure to adequately address the threat of climate change and other environmental issues.
“We’re taking small steps, and France has done much more than other countries, but will these small steps suffice…? The answer is no,” Hulot said.
From the outset, the position was fraught with challenges. Despite his repeated calls to close nuclear power plants, Hulot was forced to announce in November that France would not be able to meet a 2025 deadline to reduce by half the amount of electricity produced by nuclear energy.
His efforts to phase out the use of glyphosates in France over the next three years also reached a hurdle, after it was suggested the government could continue to authorise the broad-spectrum systemic herbicide. Lawmakers also recently voted against a measure backed by Hulot banning pesticides.
His tenure was not without successes, however. Perhaps his greatest victory as environment minister came in January 2018 when the government abandoned plans to construct an airport in the western town of Notre-Dame-des-Landes – a project he had long opposed as “costly, inhumane and useless”.
A blow to Macron
Hulot's on-air resignation appeared to follow a period of soul-searching and a stark realisation that the government was not doing enough. "I don't want to lie to myself anymore," he said.
“I don’t want to give the impression that my presence in this government means we are adequately tackling these [environmental] challenges,” Hulot told France Inter. “Therefore I have made the decision to leave the government.”
“Are you serious?” the interviewer asked, incredulously.
“Yes, I am."
Hulot described the move as “the hardest decision of my life”.
His resignation came as a blow to President Emmanuel Macron, who has repeatedly flaunted his commitment to the environment – famously pledging to “make the planet great again” after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement last year.
Hulot’s nomination as environment minister was a huge boost Macron’s image as a green president. Over the course of his 40-year-long career, the photojournalist-turned-TV-presenter-turned-politician has come to symbolise the fight to save the environment for many in France.
Hulot felt stymied, however, by the “presence of lobbies in circles of power”, pointing to Macron’s recent decision to lower the price of hunting permits in France, ceding to pressure from the National Hunting Federation.
“It may appear anecdotal, but it was symptomatic, and it’s probably what convinced me that things weren’t working the way they should,” Hulot told France Inter.
“At some point or another, we’re going to have to put this problem (with lobbies) on the table, because it’s a democratic problem: Who has the power, who is governing?”
A life of adventure
Hulot was born on April 30, 1955, in the western French region of Brittany to modest beginnings. His father, Philippe Hulot, was a gold miner, and his mother Monique (née Moulun) was a health worker. He had one brother, Gonzague, and a sister, Beatrice.
Hulot’s adolescence was marked by tragedy. In 1970, when he was 15, his father died from cancer. Four years later, his brother Gonzague committed suicide. Hulot discovered the body on Christmas Eve, 1974, in the basement of the family home. With it was a note, which read: “Life isn’t worth living.”
In the years that followed, Hulot appeared to take his brother’s words almost as a personal challenge. After a brief stint in medical school in 1973, Hulot dropped out to pursue his passion for photojournalism. After holding down a series of odd jobs, he got his first big break in 1975 when he was hired by the Sipa press agency.
In 1976, he travelled to Guatemala to photograph the aftermath of a 7.6-magnitude earthquake, which claimed the lives of 23,000 people and left a million others displaced. The same year, he went to South Africa, where he documented a series of demonstrations and uprisings against apartheid. In 1977, he was sent to what is now Zimbabwe to report on the escalation of the Rhodesian Bush War.
Hulot then moved into broadcast media, joining France Inter radio in 1978. His reputation as an environmental activist and adventurer flourished at the station, where he produced and hosted a number of shows.
A few years later, he made his television debut, appearing on a children’s programme on TF1. It was the start of a new chapter in his career. He quickly made a home for himself at the network, where he produced and presented Ushuaïa, a show focused on extreme sports and nature around the world.
The series premiered in 1987, propelling Hulot to national fame. Scores of viewers tuned in each week to watch his latest exploits, kayaking with killer whales in Alaska or sailing hundreds of metres above the Great Wall of China with a hopper balloon.
With the show’s emphasis on nature, Hulot became the new face of environmental conservation in France. In 1990, he launched the Ushuaïa foundation (later renamed the Foundation for Nature and Man), which is dedicated to raising awareness about protecting the planet.
Following the success of Ushuaïa – which ran until 1995 – Hulot hosted Opération Okavango, a travel show that was supposed to showcase a different continent every year, beginning with Africa. But the series was cancelled after only one season due to soaring costs. Hulot then decided to revive Ushuaïa, this time as a nature programme exploring different landscapes around the world and the people who inhabit them.
An influential figure among environmentalists and progressives, the world of politics soon came calling. At first he resisted, declining offers to join the governments of former presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande as environment minister.
#NicolasHulot, the maverick French #environment minister, has announced on @franceinter radio that he is quitting his post. Before accepting Macron’s ministerial offer, Hulot had always resisted being part of any government, preferring to fight for his causes from the outside. https://t.co/TvlMcTAtaVDouglas Herbert (@dougf24) August 28, 2018
Yet Hulot wasn’t completely immune to politics. He waded into the 2007 presidential campaign by using his popularity to pressure candidates into signing his Ecological Pact. Sarkozy was among the signatories. Although the former president did not honour the pact’s proposals, he did create a so-called “super ministry” dedicated to the environment and sustainable development.
Hulot even flirted with the idea of running for president in 2012, going so far as to take part in the Green Party primary. He ultimately lost the nomination to Eva Joly, a former judge, by more than 16 percentage points.
After more than a decade of playing hard-to-get, Hulot finally agreed to join the government in 2017, accepting Macron’s offer to become environment minister.
But after little more than a year in office, however, a disappointed Hulot decided to resign.
“I don’t regret having accepted ... maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to be minister,” he told France Inter.