Throughout 2019, Greta Thunberg and a wider climate movement repeatedly demanded a government response to the climate emergency. And repeatedly, the response of those in power was to listen, sometimes applaud, and do nothing. Modern states were not built to protect the environment but today are essential institutions for building a sustainable future. Lucile Schmid tracks the evolution of the French state in relation to the environment, arguing that the task for political ecology is its transformation.

What kind of state is needed for a successful ecological transition? The signing of the Paris Agreement at COP21 exposed the reality gap that shapes the attitudes of governments towards the environment. Diplomacy is not where domestic economic and social decision-making takes place. Nor is it where political parties do battle in national democratic life. Adopting an ambitious and universal climate agreement does not clear the path to a green state. It’s just where the problems begin.

The French example is particularly instructive. The French state is strong but its response to environmental issues at a national level has traditionally been weak. In France, the state initially concerned itself with matters of sovereign power: defence, security, and the economy through taxation and public investment. Its role gradually expanded to include reducing inequality, redistributing wealth, creating a national education system, and building a welfare state, as well as guiding regional development and cultural policy. The state now did everything, except, of course, when it came to the natural world. France enjoys a long naturalist tradition dating back to the work of Georges-Louis Leclerc in the 18th century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was just as passionate about botany as he was about democracy. But concern for nature developed in relative isolation from the building of the state, through learned societies, research, and citizens’ initiatives outside of the corridors of power. This separation laid the foundations for a real ambivalence between the ethos of technological progress promoted by the prestigious engineering schools from which the governing class was drawn, and a country rich in landscapes and biodiversity, from its inland regions to the mountains and overseas territories.

The first incumbent of the Ministry of the Environment baptised it the “Ministry of the Impossible”.

Yet, in 1971, as part of Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas’ “new society” project, France became one of the first countries in Europe to create a ministry of the environment. But, as a ministry without resources, it was all talk and no action. It was at this time that major environmental battles with the state began – most notably anti-nuclear protests and the Fight for the Larzac, a campaign led by farmers against the expansion of a military base in south-west France. René Dumont’s presidential bid in 1974, a first for political ecology, illustrated the gulf between the productivist policies of successive governments and environmental concerns. Growing environmental awareness in society manifested itself through local opposition to public policies and sometimes in the form of candidates at local elections, as in Alsace. For the French Greens, national issues were elusive and so they invested minimally in traditional matters of state. However, at the European level, environmental issues rapidly rose up the agenda under the influence of the United Kingdom, which joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and Germany, where society was quick to embrace environmentalism. The European Union inspired much of French environmental law. Whether it be genetically modified food, air quality, or chemicals regulation, the impetus came from Brussels.

The first incumbent of the Ministry of the Environment, Robert Poujade, baptised it the “Ministry of the Impossible”. For its lack of resources, certainly, but above all because the environment was considered a sector-specific portfolio rather than an overarching project. Operational separation makes the environment a persistent thorn in the side of other public policy pillars such as the economy, agriculture, and defence. How do you promote French foreign trade – exports of planes, cars, drugs, and agri-foods – and protect the environment at the same time? Won’t greening the French tax system automatically create new forms of inequality and social discontent? Is preserving the natural world compatible with local and regional development à la française?

A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
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A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
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Persistent distance

In 2007, the Grenelle de l’environnement (Environmental Summit), an unprecedented consultation exercise involving stakeholders from elected officials and businesses to NGOs, workers, and local authorities, resulted in the creation of a weightier Ministry of Ecology. For the first time, environment and infrastructure were brought together to encompass functions such as local and regional development, transport, and energy. This widening of institutional scope, which endures today, presents a real opportunity to link the environment to policies that have traditionally enjoyed strong state support. But this major ministry has not always managed to create a shared culture between its different departments. Environmental policy in France has undoubtedly come a long way since the early 2000s. But its technical nature means that policies are often out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people; environmental policy has a language, time frame, and expertise of its own, while environmental concerns in society are developing outside of and in parallel to that public policy space.

The Ministry of Ecology is still not seen as having power or political clout.

Because transversal relationships between ministries remain largely an empty promise, the strengthening of the Ministry of Ecology has for the most part been implemented vertically. It has not led to deeper collaboration with the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, or with the Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry of Ecology is still not seen as having power or political clout. When he resigned as the Minister of Ecology live on primetime radio on 30 August 2018, Nicolas Hulot – who to this day remains one of the most popular public figures in France – pointed to the governmental system’s failure to listen. He stopped short of blaming the prime minister or president individually.

In the autumn of 2019, the fire at the Lubrizol factory in Rouen – a chemical plant classified as highly hazardous under EU chemical safety regulations – once again exposed this lack of understanding. On one side were local residents and elected officials worried about the impact of the accident on quality of life, health, and the environment, especially for children and the elderly. On the other side were government and senior civil servants primarily concerned with public order, compensation, jobs, and protecting business interests. As days went by, the public was startled to learn that certain rules for hazardous sites had been quietly relaxed and that the amount of dangerous chemicals stored on the site were much higher than reported. Decades after France’s nuclear power stations were built, a culture persists among top civil servants and politicians that deem certain subjects too important to be debated publicly.

Catching up with society

Today, as in the 1970s, society is driving environmental action through behavioural change, be it on transport, food, or our relationship with other creatures, from planting trees to rejecting animal cruelty. Green aspirations are strongest locally when problems are visible and call for concrete responses. So when in May 2019 the mayor of Langouët, Daniel Cueff, clearly overstepped his legal authority to pass a bylaw banning pesticides within 150  metres of homes, he enjoyed a wave of support from ordinary citizens and local politicians all over France. Both the law and national institutions were at a disconnect with a society experiencing the ecological emergency at first hand. The example also shows how local authorities are taking a leading role in environmental matters. Action on green issues is now key for the legitimacy of mayors and municipalities in both rural and urban areas.

The face-off between society and the state on the environment has to end: the moment for action has arrived. Year after year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports tell us that time is running out. Government, particularly in France, is meant to be about shaping and achieving common goals over time, and is armed with many levers to make change happen. How can people believe that the “climate fight” will be won if, at the national level, climate action is only paid lip service? The economic model cannot be changed through individual efforts alone. Incentives to buy greener cars or insulate homes will only work if governments implement an environmental vision built upon their power to regulate the economy, enforce the law, and lead by example. Environmental transformation requires more investment and more redistribution between regions and towards the least well off – an overhaul of budget rules and resource allocation.

Political ecology in France has always acted as a check on power locally by raising the alarm, asking questions, occupying spaces, and launching initiatives.

It calls for a firmer, frankly more interventionist state. That is the only conclusion to draw from the success of the Affaire du siècle (the Case of the Century) petition a few months back.1

Another state is possible. What would this green state look like? A state that partners with those working for the environmental good. A state that is uncompromising with those who break environmental laws. A state that is willing to democratically debate issues on which citizens have not had their say. A state that fundamentally changes its economic and financial priorities.

A green state also calls for a new sociology of power. Political ecology in France has always acted as a check on power locally by raising the alarm, asking questions, occupying spaces, and launching initiatives.

Today, it must work on the national level to deconstruct the arguments that underpin how the state thinks and acts. This requires those championing the environment to change their perspective. From only opposing or existing alongside power, they need to recognise themselves as being in a position to transform it. It also requires that environmental awareness spreads beyond the world of green activism. This is already a growing trend in society, if opinion polls are to be believed. Eventually, the process will involve a fundamental transformation of the state’s powers, decision-making systems, and priorities, a transformation that is still in its infancy.

1. Between late 2018 and early 2019, over two million people signed the historic petition that launched legal proceedings against the French state for its failure to act against global warming. Launched by the NGO Notre Affaire à Tous (It’s Everybody’s Business), the petition is part of a wider campaign of climate litigation.

This article is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.

A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond

This edition explores the different worlds of green politics today. From concepts such as ecofeminism and the Green New Deal to questions of narrative and institutional change, it maps the forces, strategies, and ideas that will power political ecology, across Europe as around the world.

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