19 may 2021

Going Green, or Greenwashing? A Proposed Climate Law Divides France.

Emmanuel Macron’s credentials as a leader on climate issues are being tested as business and environmental groups spar over changes to the French way of life.

By Liz Alderman and Constant Méheut, The New York Times, May 19, 2021

PARIS — Less meat in French cafeterias. Bans on short-distance flights. Gas heaters on cafe terraces would be outlawed.

As President Emmanuel Macron moves to make France a global champion in the fight against climate change, a wide-ranging environmental bill passed by the French National Assembly this month promises to change the way the French live, work and consume.

It would require more vegetarian meals at state-funded canteens, block expansion of France’s airports and curb wasteful plastics packaging. Polluters could be found guilty of “ecocide,” a new offense carrying jail terms of up to 10 years for destroying the environment. If Mr. Macron gets his way, the fight against climate change would even be enshrined in the French constitution through a referendum.

But those lofty ambitions are running into a barrage of resistance.

Environmentalists and politicians from France’s Green party, rather than backing the legislation, have accused Mr. Macron’s government of watering down ambitious measures and putting corporate interests above tough proposals by a 150-person “citizens climate panel,” which Mr. Macron himself convened last year to address climate concerns.

France’s influential business federations, meanwhile, have joined forces to push back against what they view as overregulation and job-killing populism that could threaten their ability to recover from the economic blow of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bill now moves to the Senate where, if approved, it would go to a joint parliamentary commission for final approval. If the commission fails to come to an agreement, the National Assembly, which is controlled by Mr. Macron’s party, will have the final say. Mr. Macron’s signature is not necessary for the bill to become law.

The clash comes at a delicate time for Mr. Macron, who is facing re-election next year against an array of challengers. He prides himself as a leader on climate issues and wants the legislation to bolster his credentials. “We must find a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy,” he said shortly after taking office. “Let’s face it: There is no Planet B.”

But the sharp divide could destabilize one of his major campaign platforms before the voting even starts.

On a recent Sunday in cities throughout France, tens of thousands of climate activists took to the streets to denounce the legislation. They issued a warning that was also an insult: The bill had been so diluted that France would be unable to meet its commitments to the Paris climate agreement, the 2015 international accord signed in its own capital to avert a climate catastrophe.

Extinction Rebellion activists in Paris chained themselves to gates of the National Assembly and lit smoke bombs that poured out a thick red fog. Camille Étienne, 22, a leading figure among climate change demonstrators, said in an interview that the bill would amount to a “greenwashing” operation.

Mr. Macron has sought to burnish his image as a champion of the Paris accord ever since former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2017. The same day, a defiant Mr. Macron rebuked the American president, riffing off Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan as he declared from the Élysée Palace that he wanted to “make the planet great again.”

Since then, European countries have enacted laws to cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The European Union agreed to a new 55 percent reduction target in December.

Environmental concerns have gained traction in France as the climate crisis becomes more pressing. Cafe terraces (warmed by outdoor heaters) and holiday skating rinks (chilled to create ice in above-freezing temperatures) have prompted consciousness-raising. Elite university students are demanding climate change curriculums, and local mayors have defied the national government in banning some pesticides.

Mr. Macron last fall sought to make the transition to a greener economy a cornerstone of a 100 billion euro “Relaunch France” stimulus package to reverse the pandemic-induced recession.

With the climate becoming a major election theme, he faces fresh pressure as France’s main Green party rises on the political stage, mirroring a wider rise of environmental parties around Europe. Even Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally and Mr. Macron’s chief rival for the presidency, has embraced her own brand of down-to-earth environmentalism.

But Mr. Macron has had to walk a tightrope between addressing climate change and economic insecurity since the Yellow Vest movement exploded across France in late 2018. Those violent protests began as a grass roots rebellion among working class people after the government raised taxes on gasoline and diesel to fight global warming.

Mr. Macron attempted to defuse the anger by setting up the Citizens’ Climate Convention, a panel of randomly selected people from across France tasked with formulating proposals, with the help of experts, for ambitious climate legislation balanced with economic fairness.

The climate bill, which now heads to the conservatively-led Senate for debate in June, stems largely from those proposals. It prohibits domestic flights for journeys that can be made by train in less than 2.5 hours (unless they connect to an international flight). Outdoor gas heaters used to warm cafe patrons would be banned beginning next April.

Supermarkets will have to reduce wasteful plastics packaging, while clothing and other goods would carry an “ecoscore” of their environmental impact. Landlords won’t be allowed to rent poorly insulated properties, and advertising for fossil fuel energy, like gasoline, would be phased out.

Business groups have zeroed in on certain measures that they say amount to costly overregulation. They have also cast doubt on the wisdom of having citizens propose climate change policy.

The main employers lobby, the Movement of the Enterprises of France, or Medef, which represents France’s biggest corporations, went through the citizens’ group’s proposals line by line, highlighting those considered to be the harshest and recommending softened versions of the text, according to the Journal du Dimanche, a weekly newspaper.

Medef was especially opposed to making “ecocide,” — defined as deliberate and lasting pollution — a crime. Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, Medef’s president, told a Senate panel that his members worried that it would stigmatize business and penalize economic activity. He said lawmakers, not random citizens, should write laws.

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