This post is by Robbie MacPherson, political adviser at Green Alliance.
Emmanuel Macron has made history. For the first time in 20 years the French people have re-elected the occupant of the Elysée Palace for a second term. Following Sunday’s rematch, Emmanuel Macron triumphed, winning 58.5 per cent of the vote, compared to Marine le Pen’s 41.5 per cent. However, commentators have been quick to highlight that this is her best vote performance and the closest a right wing candidate has come to being elected as the leader of the Fifth Republic.
Environmentalists should be satisfied with this victory. It means French support for the EU’s Green Deal climate policy programme and the Paris Agreement will be maintained. Another positive observation is that Emmanuel Macron’s last ditch attempt to woo Jean-Luc Melenchon’s supporters, by propelling environmental commitments to the forefront of his campaign, has paid off. So, what does this election tell us about climate politics?
The Overton window has shifted
The outcome of the French election signals a shift in the Overton window, the range of policies and issues that politicians can be vocal about without losing electoral support. As in the UK, environmental concern is high in France, demonstrated by 77 per cent being worried about climate change and thousands of protestors recently calling for more attention to be given to the environment in the run up to the presidential election. For the same reason that all major UK parties committed to net zero by 2050 or sooner in their 2019 general election manifestos, the environmental agendas of both French contenders had been strengthened, compared to previous electoral cycles, because environmental ambition now wins votes.
Global climate strikes, UN climate reports and the coronavirus pandemic have moved the environment from the periphery to firmly mainstream. People are not just more worried about climate breakdown they have been willing to convert that anxiety into political action by voting for a candidate – Emmanuel Macron – who promised to go “twice as fast” on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Had there been a commitment to build 50 offshore wind farms by 2030 – enough to meet 20 per cent of France’s electricity demand – in the 2017 election it would have done little to win votes. However, this pledge has become much more attractive against the backdrop of soaring gas prices, the Ukraine war (aided by Europe’s dependence on Russian gas) and, especially, against a candidate arguing to not only dismantle existing wind farms, but place a moratorium on new wind and solar.
Climate sceptics lose
There is a clear takeaway from this election: climate sceptics lose and climate champions win. Scaling back on promises to decarbonise is not something voters are willing to reward any more. Many of the political orphans, that both candidates were hoping to give a home to, backed a candidate who promised to make his prime minister responsible for ‘environmental planning’ and task them with co-ordinating long term measures to cut carbon across the economy. This is something that Emmanuel Macron adopted to enrich his platform and it was an option Marine Le Pen resisted. If her next move is to give the presidency another shot in 2027 then her softened image will also need a green rebrand.
This lesson is not exclusive to France but applies in the UK too. Arguments by those who make up the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of backbench Conservative MPs will one day be tested at the ballot box. New polling by Onward should worry them. Scrapping the UK’s net zero target would lose the Conservative Party 1.3 million votes which is enough to damage the government’s huge majority. As the UK prepares for the local elections on 5 May, and a subsequent general election, this is something politicians of all parties should bear in mind.
Promises have been made
Emmanuel Macron’s win does not mean the challenge to decarbonise the world’s seventh largest economy is over. Many promises have been made for the next five years, on which French campaigners, journalists and politicians will need to hold his government to account, such as reducing air pollution, planting 140 million trees and fighting for a European carbon tax. The president will need to carefully navigate the complexities of climate policy and work hard to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the gilet jaunes protests.
The IPCC recently made clear that emissions by 2025 to limit global warming and fall by 43 per cent by 2030. Therefore, Emmanuel Macron’s legislative package to more than halve French emissions by 2030 should be welcome. The French people might not have everything they want in his presidency, but his win leaves the door open for bigger and better climate policies to be delivered over the next five years. Action will always speak louder than words, but we should all take heart in the fact that the newly elected president of France declared to the world in his victory speech that a core part of his project will be to transform France into a “great ecological nation”.