Interview: French climate activist on impact of global youth movement

French youth were a bit late to the Youth for Climate movement. But they are not less motivated to drive home the urgency of climate change.

The first youth climate demonstration in Paris, 15 March 2019
The first youth climate demonstration in Paris, 15 March 2019 Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The first French Youth for Climate demonstration was staged in mid-March. Lois Mallet, president of the REFEDD, the national network of students for sustainable development, was part of the organisation.

He is 22-years-old, studying environmental science and policy at Paris' Sciences Po university, and he talks about lobbying for change on campus, the impact of the Youth for Climate movement in France, and the results of the European elections.

Opioid addiction, French youth for climate, press freedom under threat Spotlight on France

(This is an edited version of an interview that is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Subscribe here.)

Q: How did you become a climate activist?

Lois Mallet: Environmental science was just another academic subject for me, until I started studying it at university. Then I realised it was very important, and very scary. It became the most important subject for me.

I think it does not reflect well on France that it was not more of a subject in my secondary schools. I would have expected that they would have given me the tools to understand what is at stake. We studied many interesting things, but climate change was not a subject. And when we did discuss it, it was one line in a book.

Q: You’re running a sustainable development network for students in France. What are the major issues?

LM: People are asking the same questions that I am: What the hell is happening? We don’t know enough, and it’s frightening. What can I do, in my daily life and as an activist?

For daily life we offer many tools, like organising recycling on campuses. It’s not implemented everywhere in France. That’s why students are going crazy and demonstrating. We don’t even have the possibility on campus just to recycle our trash. That’s so problematic.

There are other issues, like making canteens more sustainable: less meat, less animal products, more organic and local food, less waste.

We have a legal framework for all of this called Le Plan Vert, the Green Plan, which was passed during the Grenelle de l’Environment in 2008. [Campuses must establish sustainable development plans.] That should have been implemented everywhere, but has not been.

We are lobbying for it to be applied, and it’s very difficult.

Q: Do you feel like you’re taken seriously?

LM: The Youth for Climate mobilisation has inspired people in power, and shown the urgency and the responsibility they have.

I am proud to see that youth have risen up like this. They say: I want to be alive in 50 years. I don’t want to be dead because of horrible events that could happen because of the destabilisation of the climate and biodiversity.

Q: You say ‘they’ when talking about youth, even though you are 22 years old. What is that ten-year difference that makes the 12-year-old of today concerned about this, whereas when you were 12 it was not as much of an issue?

LM: I think it’s because of the work of many organisations advocating climate protection for at least 30 years. It’s not new. It’s built on many years of advocacy.

And I do feel like I’m part of that generation. We have always lived in a world with climate change. We have seen extreme weather events destroying many lives. We see it on TV, on the web. We have access to a lot of information through social networks that was not easily available before. All that has made us aware that there is a problem.

That’s why we demonstrate, saying: Listen to the scientists. They know the issues, they know what’s at stake, and now you have to act correspondingly.

Q: When you look at participation in the Youth for Climate movement, it seems as though it came to France a bit late…

LM: Yes, and also despite the fact that France is supposed to be good at demonstrations. I think there are two reasons for this: First, we are far away from Sweden [home to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student who started the movement].

Secondly, we had two climate demonstrations organised by adults at the end of 2018, and people focused on that, not on the youth one.

I want to say that even if Greta Thunburg created this movement, it was already here. People were prepared. If it had not been her, it could have been someone else in a year. The soil was already prepared for this. And now it’s emerging.

Q: Going from activism and day-to-day sustainability issues to policy and politics: In the recent EU elections, there was a surprise surge of support for the Green party in France and a concern about the environment. How do you interpret the results?

LM: The results are better than I expected. But looking at the big picture, we see that the far-right, which is not really environmentally friendly, is in the lead in France. And party of current president Emmanuel Macron is leading, and he is not known for his environmental achievements.

I think all the youth movements for climate, when we see the results we say: We have to continue to fight. There is a new date for the next demonstration [on 20 September].

Q: When you say the election results are ‘better than nothing’, it seems to clash with the all-or-nothing discourse in the demonstrations, where young people are saying: Fix the problem or we’ll all die.

LM: Even for me it’s a dual discourse. Every day we have to acknowledge little victories. In my position as the president of an organisation, I have to say it’s better than nothing.

But my personal feeling about my future is that we still have a sword hanging over our heads. Basically, I’m not that hopeful for the coming years. But I hope that one day there will be a tipping point, to escalate into an environmental revolution. But we have to prepare it.

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