PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron’s reputation as a leading climate change activist suffered a blow Tuesday with the abrupt resignation of his environment minister.
Nicolas Hulot, an outspoken environmentalist and former journalist, unexpectedly announced his departure in the midst of a routine interview on France Inter radio. He cited constant disappointments with what he considers the French government’s lax approach to tackling climate change, as well as its dependence on nuclear power.
“I no longer want to lie to myself,” he said. “I don’t want to give the illusion that my presence in the government signifies that we are answering these problems properly. So I have made the decision to leave the government.”
The French president has been widely seen as the chief defender of the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Accords, as well as one of the few world leaders willing to stand up to President Trump on the issue. After Trump announced in June 2017 the United States would withdraw from the Paris agreement, Macron pledged to “Make Our Planet Great Again.” He has received positive press for luring U.S. climate scientists to France.
Hulot suggested on Tuesday there was little substance behind these grandiose declarations.
“Have we begun to reduce the use of pesticides? The answer is no. Have we started to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is no. Or to stop the erosion of biodiversity? No.”
Hulot’s resignation was particularly striking because it took Macron’s government by surprise.
French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, a guest on BFM TV at the same time as Hulot’s bombshell interview, confessed Macron had not been warned in advance. Some of Hulot’s other government colleagues, making the usual rounds on the morning shows, were visibly stunned when presented with the news.
“Is that a joke?” asked Marlène Schiappa, France’s gender equality minister, her face angled in an amused smile.
They also struck back at Hulot’s criticisms.
“I hear his disappointment, but we must give him and the government credit for what has been done over the course of a year,” Griveaux said, citing incremental progress on saving species and transitioning away from nuclear energy. “We can’t have results in just one year, and Nicolas Hulot knows that.” Macron was elected in early May 2017 and took power shortly thereafter.
Hulot’s departure means the loss of one of the most popular members of Macron’s entourage. The minister is a former TV personality whose program endeared him to many in the generation of younger voters who came of age in the 1990s.
It also adds to a quiet but constant stream of turbulence at the Elysee Palace. Although Macron is often seen abroad as the composed, stable antidote to the political tumult in the London of Brexit and the Washington of Trump, four members of his cabinet have resigned after charges related to political corruption.
Additionally, Macron’s chief of staff, Alexis Kohler, is under investigation for influence peddling and for violating conflict-of-interest rules. Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen is under investigation for having illegally enlarged the premises of the publishing house she ran before entering the government. Budget Minister Gerard Darmanin was investigated for rape earlier this year, although the charges were later abandoned. Hulot, too, came under fire in February for allegedly sexually assaulting a granddaughter of former French president François Mitterrand in the late 1990s — an allegation from 2008 he denied. The government stood by him.
All throughout the long, hot summer, the French government has also been plagued by a scandal concerning one of Macron’s former personal security guards, Alexandre Benalla, who was caught on camera beating and dragging two protesters during the annual May Day demonstrations.
The way Macron appeared to protect Benalla before the footage was revealed in the French press has cost him significantly. The most recent Ifop poll, published Sunday, showed 66 percent of the French public is dissatisfied with his performance, a five point boost from the month before. By contrast, only 34 percent of those consulted expressed a favorable view.
The Hulot resignation may additionally portend a shift in the public identity of a government that styles itself as “neither right nor left.” From the beginning, the key players in the Macron cabinet were defectors from France’s traditional center-right party, and Hulot’s absence will mean even less of a voice for those on the left.
Macron’s nominally centrist party, “La République En Marche” (“Republic on the Move”), holds an absolute majority in the French parliament. But what remains of a political opposition immediately seized on Hulot’s resignation as the sign of further trouble ahead.
“The resignation of Nicolas Hulot serves as a vote of censure against Macron,” announced Jean-Luc Mélénchon, the outspoken leader of the far-left France Unbowed faction, on Twitter. “Macronism begins its decomposition.”
The president himself took the news of the day in stride. On an official visit to Copenhagen, Macron refrained from criticizing Hulot, saying he hoped “always to be able to count on the engagement of this free and convinced man.”
He also refused to entertain the substance of Hulot’s critiques. “This is a fight that does not happen overnight,” he said.