End-August 2017: ‘Back to school. Back to work. But, for some, it’s backs to the wall. C’est la Rentrée … and here comes trouble. The post-summer-holidays return-to-crashing-reality Rentrée …’ [Wrote your not-so-humble scrivener one year ago]
End-August 2018: see end-August 2017
La Rentrée is, for some, a time of hope. Following his oh-so-rocky Presidential moments during the Benalla Affair (my 19 August post has near-endless detail for those who passed a wholly comatose summer), Emmanuel Macron will have hoped (intended?) that this Rentrée would consist of nothing more than photos of sober-faced politicos returning to serious work on such weighty matters as
- awfully difficult 2019 Budget decisions: what services should be cut … including such challenging intellectual questions as ‘How will pensioners who bought Candidate Macron’s 2017 pledge to ‘maintain the standard of living of pensioners’ react in the 2019 Euro-Elections when they learn that index-linking of pensions won’t happen in either 2019 or 2020 and that a 0.3% pension increase won’t do much when inflation’s 2%?’
- Candidate Macron’s promise to transform the French retirement system so each euro contributed to any of France’s 40+ retirement systems gets the same rights. Rush to give comments and participate in a citizen’s consultation until end-October; it probably won’t matter what you say, there’s to be a new law in 2019
- unemployment benefit reform needs to be agreed with both employers and trades unions (all of whom derive major financial benefits from the current system) to protect the self-employed and those leaving their jobs of their own volition … plus the thorny subject of the job-seeker’s right to refuse job offers and still draw benefit
- major reform of hospitals
- (and to show that there was still a glimmer of the President’s long-forgotten ‘Left-wing credentials’), the announcement (after several postponements … most recently for the World Cup semi-final) of the Government’s plan to tackle child poverty
So a week ago it was to be more of the same. More reforms at the same breakneck pace: continuing with what the President describes as France’s transformation.
Such stuff as (journalistic) dreams are made on
Public service radio France Inter had an early morning interview 3 days ago with Nicolas Hulot (Minister for ‘Ecological and Interdependent Transition’ – that really is what’s on the Ministerial label). Hulot is France’s
most-recognisable only-recognisable politician, apart from the President. A lively ex-TV personality and environmental super-campaigner, Hulot had fallen for President Macron’s seductive wiles and agreed to became a full-time politician only after each of Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande had failed, over 20 years, to persuade Hulot to take a Ministerial position.
Barely five minutes into the interview, Hulot (the 2nd highest ranking Minister, after the Prime Minister, to demonstrate the ‘importance of the environment’ in the Government’s thinking) announced he was slinging his Ministerial hook.
He resigned live on air, saying ‘I have decided to leave the Government’. The full interview is here; if nothing else, it’s well worth watching 5 minutes in, just before he announces his decision, to see the stress tell in Hulot’s right eye warning us that something’s about to explode. Hope he avoids poker. Also, his resignation is almost immediately followed by interviewer Salamé’s delightfully flabbergasted: ‘Are you serious?’ He was.
Hulot said no-one knew in advance of his decision, which he’d taken the night before: neither President nor Prime Minister (‘it’s not really in accordance with protocol …’ he admitted, ‘but they would have tried to dissuade me’), nor wife, family, advisers. He’d decided ‘I don’t want to lie to myself any longer or create the illusion that we’re facing up to [environmental] challenges’. Condemning the ‘small steps’ that had been taken, even if ‘France had taken many more [steps] than other countries’, and blaming ‘an accumulation of disappointments’, he said ‘I have a little influence but no power’.
The animals can get stuffed
There’s a sub-plot surrounding Hulot’s resignation. During his France Inter interview, Hulot complained vociferously about a meeting with the President and PM concerning proposals for sweetening the hearts and minds (assuming some do have both) of the huntin’ and shootin’ fraternity.
First the announcement that despite near-austerity, with the Government seeking savings everywhere, it had been decided that now was an appropriate time for the President – who’s often articulated his strong support for la chasse (hunting) and perhaps is also attracted by the 1.1 million active hunters who can all VOTE – to halve the cost of a national hunting permit from €400 to €200 [this helpfully aids the mobility of those wishin’ to go a-huntin’ throughout France].
Then word emerged that 6 new species – including such renowned and evil predators as the greylag goose, the turtle dove, the stone curlew and the black-tailed godwit – should soon be able to be added to the list of creatures which can be hunted.
But what really got up Hulot’s democratic nose was the apparently uninvited presence at this meeting with the President of a powerful lobbyist, Coste, political adviser to the National Hunting Federation [he also runs the wonderfully-named William Tell Committee, whose role in life is to ‘defend the interests of 2 million legal gun users’]. All this convinced Hulot that ‘things weren’t working as they’re supposed to … It demonstrates the presence of lobbyists at the centre of power. At a certain point one has to put the question on the table because it’s a problem with democracy. Who has the power? Who governs?’
But even if a spat about huntin’ lobbyists may have been a strange trigger (sic) for Hulot’s bid for (political) freedom, it surely will have been the near-endless successes of the powerful agriculture lobby and the Agriculture Ministry that each time somehow contrived to defeat the Government’s (theoretical) N° 3 Minister. Whether it was pesticides, biodiversity, no videocameras in abbatoirs, no ban on battery hens, Hulot’s ‘ecological’ stance was out-trumped by the powerful Agribusiness Lobby every time. Hence pollster Odoxa found that only 1 in 3 saw Hulot as an ‘effective’ Minister.
Who stuffed whom?
The President’s Rentrée seemed shaken by the Hulot bombshell. Odoxa‘s instant poll reported that 2 out of 3 thought that the resignation was ‘bad news for the Government’. [Certainly way better news for 85% State-owned electricity company EDF, which has battled anti-nuclear power Hulot’s plans to force EDF to shift from nuclear to renewables. The date for reducing the quantum of France’s nuclear generated energy from 75% to 50% had already been pushed out from 2025 to 2035. And now it’s reported that the Government’s planning to construct 6 new third generation EPR nuclear power stations starting in 2025.]
However, the lasting effect of the ‘bad news’ – and damage to the Government – is tempered by a recognition that while the punters salute Hulot as a man of ‘deep convictions’ (76%), who’s ‘likeable’ (72%) and courageous (63%), only 31% believe ecology should be a priority for the Government, with 61% saying that while ecology is important it’s not a priority. And that 31% will obviously be far lower outside the context of such a high-profile resignation.
The newspapers all felt that Hulot’s departure was big. If nothing else, while (probably) professionally jealous of France Inter‘s brilliant scoop, the newspapers love it when the media, not the Government, sets the agenda. These were the front page headlines:
- ‘Hulot’s resignation spoils Macron’s rentrée’ (conservative Le Figaro) ‘The surprise departure of the Minister of Ecological Transition adds to the difficulties of a Government already facing a tricky political future.’
- ‘Nicolas Hulot’s resignation: ‘I don’t want to lie any more” (centre-left Le Monde) ‘Hulot said he felt ‘All alone at the wheel’ defending the environment within the Government … This departure by a very popular personality poses a major political problem for President Macron, who did all he could, for over a year, to avoid this outcome.’
- ‘Why Hulot is right’ (left Libération) ‘The Minister of Ecological Transition surprised the Government on Tuesday by resigning. His giving up highlights the incompatibility between the liberal growth model and the climate emergency.’
- ‘Macron no longer has an alibi’ (Communist L’Humanité) ‘Nicolas Hulot’s resignation underlines the incompatibility between the Government’s liberalism and the ecological emergency facing society.’
- ‘Hulot weakens Macron by taking back his freedom’ (business Les Echos)
- ‘Storm Hulot’ (popular Aujourd’hui en France) ‘The Ecology Minister’s surprise resignation weakens Emmanuel Macron … pages 2-6.’
- ‘Ecology, Mission Impossible’ (Catholic La Croix) ‘Nicolas Hulot’s resignation puts question marks over society’s ability to reflect environmental issues.’
- ‘Nicolas Hulot leaves: the defeat of ecology’ (the most-read francophone newspaper in the world, Ouest France)
- ‘With a bang’, ‘Hulot snapped’, ‘M. Hulot’s very long holiday’, Hulot leaves without transition … another body blow for Macron’s Government’, ‘Why he left … he felt too alone to defend the environment’, ‘Hulot’s Warning … ill wind for Macron’ (random provincial newspapers)
- Hulot was the front page lead everywhere (except sports paper L’Equipe)
Some stuff rolls on
At the end of the hurly-burly what are we left with? A lot of sound and fury, but signifying relatively little. President Macron still undoubtedly sees himself as the most committed international leader on environmental issues.
The website #Make Our Planet Great Again (‘An initiative of the President of the Republic’) is still there in glorious French deep blue, with a touch of added green (definitely not too much green). ‘France has always led fights for human rights. Today, more than ever, we are determined to lead (and win!) this battle on climate change.’
The One Planet Summit will be held in New York on 26 September, showing how ‘high-level institutional decision-makers as well as individual citizens can all work as one planet to deliver solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change and invent our collective future’.
But then being an international environmental leader must be somewhat easier than pushing through serious change at home.
Sometimes the Presidential tongue should be stuffed
‘When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticise or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home’ (Winston Churchill in opposition, April 1947).
President Macron makes it a rule only to criticise the people of France when abroad, never the Government.
In another of his increasingly long series of dustings-down of different people within his country, the President rather let rip while on a State visit to Denmark. Praising the Danish model, in front of the Queen, Macron spoke of Denmark’s ‘Lutheran people who have lived through transformations in recent years, and who are not exactly the Gauls who are resistant to change.’
These remarks were taken at home to be not only an insult to the French, but to Asterix and the tribes of Gaul fighting the Roman invader.
Indeed, this Presidential jibe was somewhat stronger than his remarks in Romania a year ago when saying: ‘France isn’t a country that’s capable of reform. Many have tried but they haven’t succeeded, because the French hate reforms’.
Protests a-plenty from all opponents. The leader of Force Ouvrière trade union said he was an ‘inflexible Gaul’ (this, appropriately, when emerging from his meeting with the Prime Minister); Gaul, he went on, had ‘been invaded by Jupiterians’ but that we ‘had a magic potion … the power of the people.’ Wauquiez, leader of the right-wing Républicains Party condemned Macron’s caricature of the French saying it was ‘unacceptable’ for a President to do that when abroad: ‘Asterix and Obelix are part of our identity, our charm’. Le Pen tweeted: ‘As always, Macron shows contempt for the French when abroad. The ‘Gauls’ will be only too pleased to respond to his arrogance and contempt.’ The Guardian headlined their report with ‘Macron galls French’.
The next day, the President said it was all down to a ‘bit of humour’. His spokesperson even tried (he utterly failed) to get away with saying that the President had been referring to French political parties being change-resistant. At least that attempted excuse made a change from the earlier failed excuse that the ‘incapable of reform’ remarks had referred to previous French Presidents.
For the avoidance of doubt, the President ‘clarified’ his position at a press conference in Finland, his next stop: ‘I love France and the French. I love those tribes of Gaul. I love who we are.’ Certainly, no-one’s talking about Hulot any longer. As for Benalla: who he?
What is it that causes so many extraordinary Presidential foot-in-mouth remarks? We remember his condemnation of ‘slackers’ from Athens. We thrill at recalling his remarks at the opening of Station F (the largest start-up hub in Europe, nay The World) housed in a former railway station: ‘A place where you come across people who succeed, and other people who are nothing’. Is this the way a second term will be won?
A few last bits of continuing stuff … that could yet prove irritating
- There’s a need to find new Minister in charge of the Environment … even if the new appointee can’t be such a marquee signing as to merit the exalted title of the Government’s N° 2. Hulot’s immediate predecessor as Environment Minister (under President Hollande) was Ségolène Royal (Socialist Presidential candidate against Sarkozy in 2007). Continuing her work on the Paris Climate Change Agreement, Royal’s accompanied President Macron on trips working on solar energy initiatives. With ex-President Hollande the father of her 4 children, she would surely enjoy the irony of being Minister again … especially while Hollande wanders France signing his book (and dreaming of what will never be).
- Appointing a new Environment Minister may also be a good time to get in a quick Ministerial re-shuffle. Eg Minister of Culture, Nyssen, appears in print far too often for things that have little to do with her Ministerial portfolio, eg having apparently enlarged, without ever receiving planning permission, at least two of her former business’s offices at Arles and Paris (when she was a leading publisher). Other Ministers seem to do all too little in support of their Ministerial activities. Hence, today’s Rentrée Ministerial get-together got postponed in the wake of Hulot’s departure; and there may not even be time for goodbyes before folk disappear back to their previous activities.
- The Man Who Is Really France’s N° 2 is the President’s ‘Secretary-General’, Alexis Kohler. Never in the public eye, he rarely even appears in daylight, beyond announcing the names of new Ministers from the Elysée Palace steps. He may have got himself into a bit of a ‘conflict of interest issue’, more than once. Following reports by investigative website Mediapart, anti-corruption body, Anticor, formally complained about Kohler’s failure to recuse himself from discussions/decisions about issues involving Le Havre harbour and MSC shipyard whilst he himself had links to MSC through various relatives. The National Financial Police are investigating the complaints, all vigorously rejected by the Elysée Palace. [Footnote: According to Le Monde a year ago, ‘The President, the Secretary-General and the special adviser [31-year-old Ismael Emelien] are the people with the power. The three of them run France.’ Further Footnote: Emelien was seemingly in possession of the (in)famous Benalla video tapes at some point before the music stopped (for which offence 3 senior police officers are now on serious charges) – a police trade union, which has standing in the matter, is asking that Emelien should also testify]
- A delayed-action time bomb from President Hollande (the much-heralded new personal tax system – tax being deducted at source each month for the first time (à l’anglaise), and not paid by the taxpayer a year in arrears) which should finally be brought into effect in 2019 having twice been delayed … may get pushed by President Macron on to an even further back-burner. All a possibly far too difficult high-risk reform, especially recognising the Gaul-like resistance to change.
- Will those supporters ever return? Today’s BVA poll shows that those having a ‘good opinion’ of Macron are down a further 5 points to 34% (he was at 47% back in January), with those having a ‘bad opinion’ up 7 points to 66%. By comparison, Hollande had 32% good opinions at the equivalent point in his term. Nearly as bad as Hollande. Wow. That’s bad.