Eye on France: Transport minister to save the planet

The odd couple: Elisabeth Borne alongside François de Rugy before she took his job as well as her own.
The odd couple: Elisabeth Borne alongside François de Rugy before she took his job as well as her own. AFP Photos/Ludovic Marin

In the wake of yesterday’s resignation of the scandal-plagued François de Rugy, France has a new ecology minister. She’s Elisabeth Borne and, along with the environment, she’s going to remain in charge of the Ministry of Transport.


Elisabeth Borne was the obvious choice, according to all the Paris commentators.

She used to be the boss of the public transport system for the Paris region; she has piloted the reform of the national rail company; and she was the driving force behind the new legislation on mobility, due for readings when the deputies and senators get back from their summer holidays.

The link between public transport, personal mobility and the broader environmental questions is instantly clear, even if it’s not the whole picture.

Left-wing Libération points to the inherent difficulty of the ecology job, nicknamed by insiders the ministry of the impossible, which has already seen two changes at the top in the two years of the Macron era. Nicolas Hulot lasted 15 months, Rugy is gone after 10.

Libé says the average lifespan of an environment minister since 1995 has been 18 months, with no fewer than 17 individuals going through the revolving doors since Ségolène Royal’s first stint in 1992. Alain Juppé, for example, held the job for exactly 31 days in 2007.

The problems are many. But Libé’s summary suggests that lack of funding, powerful lobbying and the sense that there are always more pressing demands on government energy have turned the ecology job into a dangerous dead-end. Whether trying to run the transport ticket at the same time is a reasonable solution remains to be seen.

Less political clout for the greens

Right-wing Le Figaro says the nomination of Borne as a sort of dual minister effectively reduces the political clout of the ecology part of the equation.

For example, as transport minister, Borne will have to defend the interests of the French aviation sector, with Air France and the plane-maker Airbus two key economic players. But, wearing her green hat, Elisabeth Borne will have to push in the opposite direction, trying to encourage us to take the train and leave those polluting planes on the ground. Her situation will be complicated and frequently contradictory.

And this, says Le Figaro, despite the strong showing by green parties in the European elections, and a subsequent surge in the value of the green ticket.

The political opposition is less than enthusiastic.

The right-wing senator Bruno Retailleau says the appointment is “bad news for the environment,” before adding, bizarrely, that “it’s a non-event”.

Boris Vallaud, leader of the parliamentary socialists, praises his former party colleague as an excellent technician. She used to run Ségolène Royal’s ministry, so she knows her job. But the question is how seriously those who give the orders take ecology. “And we all know who’s captain of the ship,” says Vallaud, dismissing the president’s public enthusiasm for the planet and its problems as populism without

Straight out of Beckett

The far-left are even more virulent, one France Unbowed deputy saying that the nomination of a road-builder and train wrecker to the job proves that the “ecological inconsistency” of this administration remains intact. “It’s like a scene from Waiting for Godot,” according to the same, evidently literate, deputy. Godot is a two-act drama by Sam Beckett and was once famously described as a play in which nothing happens, twice.

Elisabeth Borne will spend the rest of her summer getting up to speed on the climate-energy bill, currently being examined by the French Senate, and running to 55 topics. They include such ambitious aims as national carbon neutrality by 2050, forty percent less use of fossil fuels by 2030, no more coal-fired power stations by 2022.

She’ll also have to master the circular economy proposals intended to make recycling an obligation rather than a voluntary effort.

No lobster please, we're politicians!

And one final implication for the government, pointed out by right-wing daily Le Figaro: the fact that Rugy has resigned means that the negative impact in public relations terms will be limited. But this affair is another blow to what the paper calls President Emmanuel Macron’s narrow system of personal loyalty.

The young president is the leader of a small group of extremely faithful followers. He has politicised the upper levels of the civil service by appointing his own people to key positions.

The fact that he has now let a minister go down the gurgler risks having a negative effect on the confidence of the members of that inner circle, says Le Figaro.

There certainly won’t be too many of them dining on lobster and sauternes. Not publicly anyway.

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