French environment minister quits in new body blow to Macron

PARIS (Reuters) – French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot resigned on Tuesday in frustration over sluggish progress on climate goals and nuclear energy policy, dealing a major blow to President Emmanuel Macron’s already tarnished green credentials.

FILE PHOTO: Nicolas Hulot, French Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition looks over towards French President Emmanuel Macron as they visit the Cap Frehel peninsula in northern Brittany, France, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

Hulot, a former TV presenter and green activist who consistently scored high in opinion polls, quit during a live radio interview following what he called an “accumulation of disappointments”.

“I don’t want to lie to myself any more, or create the illusion that we’re facing up to these challenges,” Hulot said on France Inter. “I have therefore decided to leave the government.”

Hulot was among the first ministerial appointments Macron made after his landslide election win in May 2017, chosen to shepherd France’s stewardship of efforts to combat global warming on the back of a historic climate accord sealed in Paris in December 2015.

But the centrist president has watered down a series of campaign pledges on the environment, including a commitment to cut the share of nuclear power in French electricity to 50 percent by 2025 and boost renewable energy.

Those policy shifts have been a repeated source of frustration for Hulot. Since a post-election honeymoon period, they have been accompanied by a sharp slide in Macron’s ratings, which touched new lows after his bodyguard was filmed assaulting demonstrators last month.

Hulot said he had not informed Macron before announcing his resignation.

“This may not be the right protocol, but if I had warned them they might have talked me out of it yet again,” Hulot said. His cabinet portfolio also included energy.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux expressed bemusement at Hulot’s departure, which the government “regretted”.

FILE PHOTO: French Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition Nicolas Hulot poses during a visit at a photovoltaic power plant in Allonnes near Le Mans, France January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

“I don’t understand why he is stepping down when we had many successes in the first year that are to his credit,” Griveaux told BFM Television. “He didn’t win all his battles but that’s the way it goes for ministers.”

Griveaux added: “It’s a blow from which we’ll recover.”

Greenpeace France director Jean-Francois Julliard said that while Macron had “made some fine speeches” and stood up to U.S. President Donald Trump on climate change, he had “never turned these words to concrete action” at home.

“There is still no energy transition policy in France,” Julliard said.

FILE PHOTO: Nicolas Hulot, French Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, leaves after the first cabinet meeting after the summer break, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

FRUSTRATIONS

Shares in power utility EDF, which is on the hook for the cost of decommissioning older nuclear plants, surged 2.7 percent in early trading before settling back to 14.26 euros at 0901 GMT, still up 1 percent on Monday’s close.

Hulot had also voiced disappointment after Macron wavered on a commitment to ban the weedkiller glyphosate, sold under Monsanto’s Roundup trademark, and failed to prevent Total’s La Mede refinery producing biofuel from imported palm oil linked to deforestation.

His announcement came a day after the government promised to relax hunting laws – a measure widely seen as an attempt to bolster Macron’s appeal in rural areas.

Hulot emphasized the inadequacy of “mini steps” on climate change by France and other nations, voicing hope that his exit might “provoke deep introspection in our society about the reality of the world”.

His doubts about remaining in government had grown over the summer as devastating droughts were met with a tepid political response, he said.

Alain Juppe, a conservative former prime minister and presidential contender, said he was impressed by Hulot’s “high-mindedness and by the nobility of his act”.

“Beyond the inevitable political buzz, I hope this decision encourages us all to think and to change,” he said on Twitter.

Reporting by Laurence Frost and Geert De Clercq; Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou, Richard Lough and Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and John Stonestreet

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