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After Gilets Jaunes, climate crusaders challenge Macron's government

REUTERS, Piroschka van de Wouw | People attend a demonstration to urge politicians to act against climate change in Paris, France, December 8, 2018.

With temperatures averaging 14°C, 2018 was France's warmest year on record. While the French government's response has been criticised, climate crusaders are fighting back with a record-breaking petition and plans to sue the government.

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On December 18 2018, four French NGOs issued a demand for the French government to address their climate change failings. It was launched by Notre affaire à tous, la Fondation pour la nature et l'homme, Greenpeace France and Oxfam France.These groups have united to lay the blame for climate inaction directly at the feet of Emmanuel Macron’s government, charging it with not taking the necessary measures to curb global warming.

A week later, the petition accompanying their initiative, called ‘L’Affaire du siècle’ or the case of the century, has collected almost 2 million signatures. This is the most signed petition ever in France, with dramatically more than the Yellow Vests movement received, which was just over a million signatures. For the NGOs, the likely next step will be to file an official legal appeal to the Paris administrative court.

The French government has challenged the petition, with new Environment Minister François de Rugy saying that “greenhouse gases will not be reduced in a court of law".

However, in a column in Le Parisien, de Rugy did also concede that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the success of the petition. He said that he was “happy that citizens are speaking up to fight climate change”. But he added that, whilst he would willingly sign a petition to protect the climate, it was one step too far to use the petition to sue the state.

“NGOs have a role as leaders of public opinion… But it is not in a court of law that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will be decided. It is not for judges to force the government to accept a law, it is not the meaning of our institutions.”

Cyril Dion, writer, director and environmental activist, has been very involved in establishing ‘L'Affaire du siècle’. He says he was amazed by the speed of reaction to the petition -- but not by the reaction itself. “We were surprised that the response was so immediate, but there was a strategy in place that worked.”

Clemence Dubois, the France Fossil Free campaigner for 350.org, says that the momentum started building after the Rise for Climate march on September 8, 2018. “More than 130,000 people marched in more than 120 cities in France on that day and there have been hundreds of marches monthly since then.

“The first march had a special resonance in France as it happened just ten days after the French environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, resigned because he didn’t feel that the government politics were in line to address the climate issues.”

Hulot surprised many when he announced his resignation on August 28 in an interview on live radio. He said he had quit after a series of disappointments in attempts to address climate change and other environmental threats. He also said he felt "all alone" in government.

“Hulot’s statement resonated with a lot of people and there was a deep sense that the public were not being heard and the government was not fulfilling its international commitment,” says Dubois. “Climate is a matter of justice. To achieve justice, you sometimes need to call out injustice. And that is what this petition is for and why so many people are determined to call our government to justice.”

Dion believes climate change is becoming a significant concern for the French people, alongside the more traditional worries. “I think this has happened as a direct result of this past summer,” said Dion in an interview with France Culture. “We experienced firsthand the effect of climate change and it was a tangible change. And I believe the media is also beginning to play its part in delivering the message.”

But Dion questions why it remains the responsibility of the working class to attain change. “Why are the greatest efforts required from the most disadvantaged? Today, it is the richest people who pollute the most, who have the highest carbon footprint. There is an imbalance.”

Laws are already in place

Responding to de Rugy’s dismissal of the petition, Dion says that the campaign “is not stupid. We realise that we will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the court. The problem that we must deal with is that France has not been able to apply the laws that are already in place.

“There are certain European directives that have been transferred into French law: to reduce our carbon emissions by 14% by 2020 and our energy consumption by 20%, and to increase our renewable energy production by 23%. But this is certainly not the case today and it seems increasingly unlikely that we will achieve these targets. We don’t see any other solution than to take the government to court.”

The four NGOs behind the campaign do accept that it is impossible to measure the tangible results of to what degree the French state engages with global warming. However, according to their legal team, it is possible to prove the failure of the government to comply with international and national regulations and commitments in the fight against global warming.

The government has two months to reply to the petition, otherwise this will result in legal action based on binding agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, and the 2004 Environmental Charter. But it will also rely on non-binding texts, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement, and France’s own national low carbon strategy.

Crucially, there is a precedent. In October 2018, a Dutch court ruled to uphold a groundbreaking legal order issued against the Dutch government. This ruling forces an acceleration of carbon emissions cuts. The judiciary concluded that the rapid rate of global warming demanded greenhouse gas reductions of at least 25% by 2020, 8% higher than the planned 17% drop. These reductions are measured against base rates of the levels in 1990.

It is believed that this case will greatly help a number of similar cases either already in action or about to be launched. In Germany in October 2018, three families launched a lawsuit against their government. Their complaint alleges that the failure of Angela Merkel’s government to meet its 2020 climate target violates their rights to life and health.

In this French case, Dion admits he is not particularly optimistic, but refuses to simply resign himself to accept the current status quo. “You have to be able to get up in the morning and match your actions and behaviour to the values you hold.”

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