PARIS — It’s 2018 all over again for Emmanuel Macron as, yet again, much of his presidency is riding on whether he can reconcile environmental and economic imperatives.
The day after he suffered a crushing defeat in local elections, mainly at the hands of the Greens, and with the Yellow Jackets protests still haunting him, the French president needs to find a way to pivot to more environmentally friendly policies in a bid to turn his fortunes around for the last two years of his mandate. But he must also be mindful that it was an eco-friendly carbon tax, and lowering speed limits, that led to the Yellow Jackets protests that nearly derailed his presidency.
And that delicate balance was clearly on Macron’s mind on Monday as he met with 150 people randomly selected to make environmental policy recommendations as part of a citizens’ convention, set up as a direct response to the Yellow Jackets protests.
“Never should environmental transition be done at the expense of regions that are most isolated,” Macron said as he explained why he was rejecting the citizens’ convention’s proposal to cap speed limits at 110 km/h. “I wouldn’t want you to have the same fate as me.”
The urban-rural divide is at the heart of the balance Macron must strike. The core electorate that gave him his improbable victory in 2017 is mainly urban but, with the need for a swift economic recovery and his repeatedly stated goal of bringing the nation together post-coronavirus, he is mindful not to risk renewed protests and strikes.
Macron has been sending strong signals that he plans to move toward more environmentally-friendly economic policies with greater social welfare and less dependence on foreign production.
And that same divide was clear in the election results Sunday. The Greens won in some of France’s biggest cities, breaking decades-long holds of Socialist and conservative incumbents. But outside the big urban centers, the traditional parties largely held onto their seats.
Despite the Greens’ noteworthy wins, the top priorities of the French people in the coming months are the economic recovery and safeguarding the social welfare system, according to a June poll by Ifop. Protecting the environment and fighting climate change was ranked eighth out of 10 options given by the pollster.
But Macron has been sending strong signals that he plans to move toward more environmentally friendly economic policies with greater social welfare and less dependence on foreign production.
On Monday, he promised €15 billion in new funding to speed up the move to a greener economy, as part of the post-coronavirus recovery plan.
“Our society needs a deep transformation that allows us to respect our international commitments, that allows us to do our part as French people to fight against global warming and to fight for biodiversity and remain a big geopolitical nation, and to continue to finance our social welfare model that is very ambitious and necessitates we produce to finance it,” Macron said.
He also made a political commitment, accepting all but three of the recommendations from the citizens’ convention. And in an implicit recognition of the crisis that representative democracy is experiencing in France, symbolized by the historically low turnout in Sunday’s election, he also said he was open to holding referendums on revising the constitution to include environmental goals such as biodiversity and fighting global warming.
Yet Macron is also suffering a crisis of credibility.
Throughout his mandate, he has been plagued by accusations of greenwashing, despite what aides say is a list of concrete measures he’s championed in favor of the environment including canceling plans for a gold mine in French Guiana and putting in place an anti-waste law.
And his La République En Marche (LREM) party has had to defend its decision to form alliances with conservatives in local elections.
How Macron ends up finding that elusive balance will also depend on what he decides to do with his Cabinet. He has been mulling a big reshuffle, but Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s big win in his bid for reelection as mayor of the northern city of Le Havre has further complicated Macron’s options.
An Ipsos poll found that there is strong support for a government reshuffle — but with Philippe remaining as PM. That was the option favored by 43 percent of respondents, while 33 percent want Philippe out and 24 percent don’t want any change at all.
Philippe and Macron met on Monday morning before they both attended the meeting with the citizens’ convention on climate.