By Yannai Plettener, French Instructor at Stanford
Although it is far from the turmoil of current American politics, France is also undergoing an eventful presidential campaign. Marked by scandals, surprise primary outcomes, and changing polls, the result appears more unpredictable than ever, less than two weeks away from Election Day. It’s true that Americans often aren’t as interested in European politics as we are in the great race that takes place every four years in the United States. This is of course due to the lasting and profound influence the US still have on countries in Western Europe, politically, economically and culturally. However, I believe that environmentalists and climate activists should keep an eye on the course of the French election.
While France's importance as a world power has decreased over the last few decades, it remains nonetheless very influential in a variety of domains, both in Europe, where it is one of the major economies of the continent, and outside – especially through diplomatic and economic relations with a network of historic allies (such as the US) and former colonies (mostly in Northern and Western Africa). In regard to environmental and energy-related issues, France plays an important role: it is part of the European Union, which is the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, representing 9.6% of global emissions in 2015. France has also undertaken a leadership in the fight against climate change, as it was the host of the Paris Conference in December 2015 (the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), during which it conducted the negotiation that resulted in the adoption of the historic Paris Agreement.
France's industry is also remarkably important in energy production, as two of the world's largest multinational companies in this sector are French: Areva and Total. Areva, owned in majority by the French State, is a leader in the development of nuclear reactors. It designed third-generation nuclear reactors, four of which are currently in construction in Finland, France, and China. It has activity and presence in the nuclear power industry on all five continents, from uranium mines in Canada, Kazakhstan or various African countries to enrichment facilities in South Korea. Areva is a world power in nuclear energy, and as a way of consequence, so is France. Almost 80% of France's own electricity production is powered by nuclear reactors – and risks of an accident are getting higher as a majority of the reactors approach their 40-year age limit. Total is one of the seven biggest oil and gas companies in the world. While both companies have also invested in renewable energies, they still are major actors in the fossil fuel industry and environmentally risky nuclear energy businesses. I also could have included Engie (formerly GDF Suez) on this list, as it is one of the top non-petroleum energy companies in the world.
Other French industrial strengths include defense, space and aeronautics technologies. Although France is nowhere close to the US in terms of investment in research and development, it is a huge science supporter, endowed with a few top-tier universities and research institutes such as the state-funded CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research). Finally, France has overseas territories spread all around the Earth, the so-called “Outre-mers”, some of which (like French Guyana in South America, or French Polynesia in the Pacific) that have naturally rich and diverse environments. In fact, France possesses the largest EEZ (exclusive economic zone – refers to sea zones over which the state has rights regarding the exploitation of marine resources) in the world, covering 11,691,000 km2 (4,514,000 mi2) in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Antarctic.
The next French “Président.e de la Republique” and his or her administration will therefore be governing a country which, despite its tiny size in comparison to the US, plays a major role in global environmental issues. By leading efforts on fighting climate change, pushing for more renewable energy, and protecting large areas of biodiversity, a progressive president could make a real difference, and act as a model in Europe. However, a more conservative one could also help Trump blow up the efforts that have been made in this domain for the last decades. So, how is it looking so far?
The presidential election is happening during a rise of extreme right-wing nationalism throughout Europe, characterized in France by the popularity of Marine Le Pen, who's been topping the polls for over a year. Le Pen doesn't believe France needs to change its electricity production system for more renewable sources, and would stand by the current domination of nuclear power. She has expressed the idea of “energy nationalism”, which would consist in furthering national sources of energy over imported ones, especially Middle-Eastern oil, and support nuclear energy in the name of energy independence. Such a proposition can appear paradoxical, since French nuclear reactors are fueled by uranium that is found nowhere on French soil. Her challenger on the right, catholic-conservative François Fillon, in the midst of a political scandal (he's being investigated for having employed his wife as a parliamentary assistant for 10 years, during which she is suspected of having earned several hundred thousand euros while doing no actual work at all), would also stand by the nuclear power. Although the French Right is not climate-sceptical like the American Right, they don't seem to offer real proposals on how to fight climate change, limiting themselves to only mentioning renewable energy and environment protection without any details or potential funding.
The current, supposed liberal, administration of François Hollande left a lot of voters disappointed. Environmentalists in particular expressed discontent with how these past five years' government did on environmental issues on the national level, despite the successful Paris conference on the international level. While still considered a step in the right direction, the energy transition bill voted by the Parliament in 2016 was called out by activists as being not ambitious enough. Marine Le Pen's most serious contender and, according to the polls, her probable competition in the run-off, Emmanuel Macron, is the direct heir of François Hollande's policy (he was Hollande's Minister of the Economy for two years), although he broke up with the Socialist Party (PS) and launched his own independent movement with the intention of transcending the right-left divide, not without any ambiguities. He claims that he will stand by the objectives of the bill (bring the share of nuclear-produced electricity down to 50% by 2025), and invest in renewable energy, but has also come out in support of fracking.
On the left, the best hopes are directed towards Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also an ex-PS member who left the party, because of ideological dissent. An outsider still a few months ago, he has surged in the polls in the last two weeks, coming very close to the three above-mentioned candidates, while the other major candidate on the left, PS-primary winner Benoit Hamon stepped back into 5th position, without any hope of winning anymore. Mélenchon hopes to benefit from very favorable opinion and a big social media presence to try and qualify for the run-off as one of the top 2 candidates after the first round. Sometimes compared to Bernie Sanders, he recognizes the urgency of the global environmental situation, and ecology is a major part of his program. His plan includes €100 billion of public investment to fund an “ecological planification”. The goal is to nationalize electricity production and distribution, phase out nuclear power as soon as possible, and raise the share of renewable electricity production up to 100% in 2050. He opposes fracking and environment-threatening trade-agreements such as TTIP, and proposes to amend the Constitution to include a “green rule”, the obligation to not take from nature more than what it can regenerate.
This situation represents huge uncertainty. Depending on the outcome, it could mark either a victory for environmentalists around the globe, or another set-back after Donald Trump's election. On the national level, the next president's policy views and decisions on how to allocate resources will have huge repercussions. Especially if France wishes to avoid the multiplication of dangerous incidents in its aging nuclear plants, it will have to chose between a risky extension of reactors' lifespan combined with the building of new ones, or a phase out of nuclear power. On the European level, with one major candidate openly against the EU (Marine Le Pen), and another one, Mélenchon, willing to step out of European treaties if they resist a change of course towards ambitious social and environmental policies, the French election, a year after Brexit, could be a decisive event and redefine powers in the region, potentially endangering European cooperation on climate change. On the international level, we are yet to see how the leaders of the world will react once Donald Trump decides to come after the Paris Agreement, a few months only after Barack Obama signed it.
As climate change and other environmental issues are becoming increasingly present in our lives, having another conservative leader at the head of a Western nation would be a disastrous signal to the rest of the world. On the other hand, if a nation like France chooses to elect a president with an informed vision, it would provide hope that democratic state-wide institutions can and will help us, citizens and activists, implement the change we need.
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