France’s Proposed Climate Law Is Stirring Divisions

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.,

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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.

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French President Emmanuel Macron is facing re-election next year and wants a climate bill to strengthen his environmental credentials.Credit…Pool photo by Yoan Valat

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 Etienne, 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 Elysee 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.

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Extinction Rebellion activists outside the National Assembly in Paris during a recent protest. Credit…Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

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Dining under heat lamps at a Paris cafe in February 2020. Environmental concerns have gained traction in France.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

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 Bezieux, 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.

Tougher rules could also hobble companies weakened by the pandemic, Francois Asselin, president of the Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, told the panel. “So be careful not to bring them to their knees with too-restrictive measures,” he said.

BASF, a German multinational chemical company and a major producer of pesticides with operations in France, was more blunt. In a post on its website, it singled out recommendations by the citizens panel to reduce pesticides and fertilizer in agriculture, saying they “reflect a profound ignorance of reality.”

“In seeking to re-energize democracy,” BASF added, referring to the citizens’ proposals, “aren’t we running the risk of weakening our democratic institutions and fueling populism?”

The criticism may be having an impact. In the legislation passed by the National Assembly, “ecocide” was changed from being labeled a crime, as proposed by the citizens’ panel, to a civil offense. It could still result in jail time.

The proposal to ban short-haul flights originally barred trips that could be covered by a four-hour train trip. After airlines and airports objected, the rule was scaled back to cover only flights that could be replaced by a rail trip of 2.5 hours — a change that barred only eight routes. A measure that would have made it more difficult pave over empty fields and lots for Amazon-style warehouses now exempts e-commerce companies.

The climate bill in its current form will make it nearly impossible for France to fulfill its Paris accord pledges by 2030, the High Council on Climate, an independent body, warned in a recent report.

In response, the government said that the modified measures, combined with other climate change regulations passed since 2017, would allow it to meet the goals. But another independent study commissioned by the government, by the Boston Consulting Group, concluded that France would fall short even in the best-case scenario.

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The climate bill’s proposals include barring flights for journeys that can be made by train in less than 2.5 hours unless they connect to an international flight.Credit…Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And last week, the French Senate, dominated by opposition conservatives, replaced language that would have the constitution “guarantee” the fight against climate change with wording stating that France would “protect” the climate.

Daniel Boy, a political scientist at Sciences Po university in Paris, said that environmentalism “was not really part of Macron’s DNA.” But he added that Mr. Macron had favored a “pragmatic ecology” made of small steps and concrete measures, reflecting a liberal electorate sensitive to economic interests, and had opposed “a more radical ecology” with wide-ranging changes.

That cautious approach is what has drawn the ire of many climate activists — and pulled protesters back into the streets.

Ms. Etienne, the activist, said the climate bill in its current form amounted to a “betrayal” of the citizens’ convention’s proposals and a wasted opportunity for Mr. Macron.

“They had the science, the people, the political moment,” she said.

“To deliberately lack the will and fall for industry lobbies now — I can’t think of any other word than betrayal.”

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