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ENVIRONMENT – POLITICS

Rocky road ahead for Macron's 'green team' as French government veers right

French Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili arrives to attend the first weekly cabinet meeting after the government reshuffle, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 7, 2020.
French Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili arrives to attend the first weekly cabinet meeting after the government reshuffle, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 7, 2020. AFP - LUDOVIC MARIN

French President Emmanuel Macron’s green ambitions are in a somewhat grey area after the government reoriented to the right following a ministerial reshuffle that saw little-known conservative Jean Castex appointed to the top job. 

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After the ruling LaREM party was routed in local elections last month – with the Greens sweeping control of the major cities – many had predicted Macron would choose a prime minister from the more eco-friendly political left.

But Castex, a one-time advisor to former president Nicolas Sarkozy, hails from the ranks of the right-wing Les Républicains party – just like his predecessor Edouard Philippe. 

Commentators say the appointment falls short of the reinvention Macron promised, and is evidence of a power grab by a president looking to behave as prime minister himself, while galvanising support from the centre-right ahead of his re-election tilt in 2022. 

New poster-woman for environment

Among a slew of changes that see eight new ministers enter government for the first time, Barbara Pompili, a 45-year-old “reformist”, has landed the role of Minister for Ecological Transition. She replaces Elisabeth Borne, who’s been reassigned as Labour Minister.

The environment ministry is now listed as one of France’s senior portfolios and Pompili, a former member of France's EELV greens party, faces the uphill battle of convincing voters that Macron is sincere about putting the environment at the heart of his presidency over the next two years.

Pompili is the fourth minister to take on the Ecological Transition portfolio since Macron won power in 2017 – with Macron's first pick, Nicolas Hulot, having resigned in dramatic fashion amid disagreements with colleagues that left him feeling "all alone" in government.

Pompili has a tough challenge ahead, with one EELV former colleague, Karima Delli, telling FranceInfo radio that she would not be able to succeed where Hulot – a well-known French environmentalist – had failed.

Sturdy credentials

Pompili comes from a mining family and growing up under such circumstances, she has said, opened her eyes to the need to plan for a sustainable future.

Her ministry will oversee energy and housing, with Macron looking for greener policies in these domains to drive France’s post-coronavirus economic recovery and to build a lasting future for French manufacturers.

The new poster-woman for the government’s green strategy has plenty of experience to qualify her for the job. In 2018, she chaired a parliamentary commission on nuclear safety and security that was highly critical of France's nuclear power industry. 

An advocate for slashing France’s nuclear output to less than half of its energy production by 2035, Pompili has been “disastrous” for the sector, a source inside the state-owned utility EDF told Reuters.

Even before she put France’s nuclear plants on notice, though, Pompili was earning a name for herself in government as secretary of state for biodiversity under former Socialist president François Hollande. 

Along with former environment minister François de Rugy – who resigned amid a spending scandal – she co-chaired the National Assembly’s green grouping, and was at one point approached to take on the assembly’s presidency.

An MP for the Somme, Pompili then took a gamble, making the switch from EELV to Macron’s fledgling La République en Marche party – under whose banner she won her constituency for a second time. 

Now, with a seat at the decision-makers’ table, Pompili will be looking to get her voice heard within a government that’s increasingly veering to the right, while at the same time outwardly portraying Macron as an eco-friendly leader despite his failures of the past.

Barbara Pompili, France's new Environment Minister, speaks in parliament.
Barbara Pompili, France's new Environment Minister, speaks in parliament. Eric FEFERBERG / AFP

Citizens climate experiment

A day after the Greens seized cities including Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg from LaREM control in June elections, Macron vowed to speed up France’s environmental policies – promising an extra €15 billion to fight climate change over the next two years.

He also threw his support behind two referendums on major climate policy put forward by the Citizens Climate Convention, a lottery of 150 French people chosen to debate and respond to the climate challenges facing society.

It now falls to Pompili to set in motion the 146 proposals of the citizens' convention that have been accepted by Macron. She’s already made clear that the success of the convention – hailed an unprecedented exercise in participatory democracy – will be a matter of political will.

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