Sputtering signs of economic recovery in France have coincided with a big political defeat at the regional polls last month for the right-wing UMP majority and President Nicholas Sarkozy. One of the first things Sarkozy did in the aftermath of the elections was to dump the carbon tax. NGO’s were the first to declare that this meant the death of the Grenelle de l’Environnement. Getting rid of the carbon tax was Sarkozy’s concession to his right-wing base, who had been progressively alienated in the past 2 years by his government’s overtures to the socialist left. Nicholas Hulot, a TV presenter and very popular environmental advocate, denounced the move as a step backwards by the political class. His Fondation Hulot said that it would suspend its participation in the working groups led by the government for the Grenelle – both for the environment and for the Oceans.
France’s Junior Ecology Minister Chantal Jouanno joined the chorus of disapproval.
“I am in despair over this step back, in despair that eco-scepticism has defeated it,” she said, adding: “I am not onside with this decision.”
“It was possible to have done it in France before doing it in Europe,” she said. “It was what we had thought from the beginning; it was what other countries like Sweden have done.”
There are other signs that the societal consensus sealed in 2007 over the urgency to move to a more sustainable mode of economic activity and governance is eroding. My feeling at this point is: Sarkozy did this because he believes he can get away with it, politically. In March, a GM potato called Amflora, was authorized by the European Commission. This is the first GM crop to be authorized in Europe since 1998. A global conference in Doha, Qatar in March overturned a European Commission ruling to ban fishing for bluefin tuna. Sure, NGO’s issued protest statements, but somehow their response has been underwhelming.
But was the Grenelle – which inspired Sarkozy to declare that he would make France a world leader on the environment – ever more than just a process?
The process – which in itself was innovative and ground-breaking at the time – involved being inclusive with all stakeholders, and bringing them together around a round-table to make decisions collectively. The substance of most of the decisions was already written into European legislation, and the subtlety of French political action consists in seeking – or at least appearing to seek – at every turn to enact legislation and/or standards that are more ambitious than what the EU prescribes.