French environment minister Nicolas Hulot resigns
Activist hits out at President Macron for taking only ‘small steps’ on green issues in government
Emmanuel Macron suffered a blow on Tuesday when his high-profile environment minister quit without warning, damaging the French president’s much-vaunted green credentials as he was away on a foreign visit.
Nicolas Hulot, a former television personality and longtime environmental campaigner, announced his departure on a live breakfast radio programme, citing frustration at making only “small steps” in the government’s green agenda.
“I have a little influence but I have no power,” Mr Hulot said, adding that he had not warned Mr Macron or Prime Minister Edouard Philippe of his intention. His departure was an awkward shock for Mr Macron, who had made a transformation of France’s energy and environmental policies a centrepiece of his reform pledges.
Mr Macron, currently on a visit to Nordic countries, has pledged to “make our planet great again” — a pointed response to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the global Paris climate accord, which Mr Macron has championed since his election in May 2017.
The Hulot resignation also came at the end of a difficult summer for Mr Macron, after film emerged of one of his bodyguards beating protesters during a May Day rally. The president’s approval ratings declined in August for the fourth consecutive month, to a record low of 34 per cent.
Mr Hulot, one of Mr Macron’s first ministerial appointees who also oversaw energy policy, agreed to join the government after turning down offers from previous presidents. But he acknowledged “an accumulation of disappointments” during more than a year in government.
“I don’t want to lie to myself any more, or create the illusion that we are facing up to [environmental] challenges,” Mr Hulot said. “I have therefore decided to leave the government.”
Mr Hulot said when he accepted a ministerial role that he believed France’s “new political situation offers an opportunity for action and I cannot ignore that”. The 63-year-old had previously declined to serve in the administrations of Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
“It was a personal victory for Macron to have poached France’s most-loved ecologist as a minister,” said Denis Florin, of Lavoisier Conseil, a management consultancy. “He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Speaking in Denmark, Mr Macron said Mr Hulot’s departure was a personal choice, adding that France would “continue its work” on combating climate change. Mr Philippe said the government had “made progress” on environmental issues and was determined to take account of the “imperative of ecological transition”.
As France returns to work after the summer break, Mr Macron is aiming to implement reforms in other politically sensitive areas such as the pension system, healthcare, central public administration and local government.
Mr Hulot’s departure came as France tries to make a belated shift from nuclear power, which generates almost three-quarters of its energy, to renewables.
Mr Hulot, a vocal critic of nuclear power, inherited a target to cut the proportion of energy generated from nuclear to 50 per cent by 2025 but was forced to postpone the target to 2035, acknowledging that a speedier shift would risk power shortages and could even push up carbon emissions.
Shares in state-owned nuclear group EDF gained as much as 2 per cent on the news of Mr Hulot’s resignation and later were trading 1 per cent up on Monday’s close.
A more detailed outline of the plan to cut the use of nuclear power is due later this year. Recommended The FT View France awaits the next wave of Macron reforms However, Mr Hulot said the government had achieved only “small steps” on environmental issues since his arrival, criticising political inertia in areas such as cutting pesticide use.
Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega, director of the Centre for Energy at Ifri, a Paris-based think-tank, described Mr Hulot as the “green credentials” of Mr Macron.
His resignation shows that “it’s one thing to have ideas, strategies and objectives but to deliver them has proven so far not to work”, said Mr Eyl-Mazzega. He added that Mr Hulot “was in fundamental disagreement with the government over the role that nuclear energy should play. He saw nuclear as a burden, not as a strategic asset.”
A spokesperson for the government said Mr Hulot could be “proud” of his record as minister, adding: “The record of this government in terms of environment is the best for many years.”
The government cited a planned withdrawal from coal-fired power plants, the closure of the ageing Fessenheim nuclear plant, discontinuation of a contentious airport project and the promotion of organic food.
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