Macron’s new (not so) green team

French President Emmanuel Macron has named a trio of female technocrats and a team of close allies to drive his climate agenda — but critics say the new team brings more industry ties than green credentials to the table.

Elisabeth Borne, France’s new prime minister, will be in the driving seat and work closely with Agnès Pannier-Runacher, minister for energy transition, and Amélie de Montchalin, minister for ecological transition and regional development, both of whom were named as part of Macron’s government reshuffle on Friday.

The newly created team faces a difficult task: As outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili warned on Friday, they have accepted a tough job, as “the environmental transition concentrates difficulties and tensions.”

In his reelection campaign, Macron touted climate change as “the fight of the century” and pledged to build 50 new offshore wind farms and 14 new nuclear reactors by 2050, boost electric mobility and housing renovation, fight pollution, increase biodiversity protection, and plant 140 million trees by 2030. 

His renewed climate push is seen as part of an effort to bring left-wing voters into the fold after they voted en masse for far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the presidential election in April. Macron’s idea of appointing a prime minister in charge of “environmental planning” — essentially ensuring long-term planning of investments and policies to decarbonize the economy — was initially spearheaded by Mélenchon.

But environmental groups have raised doubts that the new team can deliver on Macron’s lofty ambitions, and point out that the new ministers maintained close ties to industry in previous roles. 

Pannier-Runacher and De Montchalin have both worked closely with the private sector in pushing Macron’s industrialization agenda. Their appointment suggests the government considers the environmental transition has to be rooted in economic growth and jobs creation. 

Isabelle Autissier, honorary president of the World Wildlife Foundation France, told FranceInfo that she is “a little concerned” by the two appointed ministers because they are “personalities who haven’t shown much engagement on biodiversity issues, climate issues until now.”

Pannier-Runacher, 47, a senior civil servant who held several executive positions in the private sector, joined Macron’s government in 2018 as junior minister for industry, working closely with Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.

She was particularly active in promoting research and innovation, and jumpstarting industrial activities in France by bringing back companies that had relocated production facilities elsewhere. She will be in charge of leading the construction of new renewable energies and boosting the country’s nuclear industry, which is in poor shape as it faces a shortage of qualified workers amid technical and maintenance issues.

Pannier-Runacher is also drawing some skepticism for arguing that industries hold the solution to achieving climate neutrality — an idea that some experts say is a distraction from much-needed top-down policy. “The industry is the answer to environmental issues,” she has said, noting that industry is working on green means of transport such as trains powered by hydrogen, decarbonized planes and electric cars “to allow us to answer climate challenges.”

Macron’s new (not so) green team
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, Minister for Energy Transition Agnès Pannier-Runacher and Minister for Ecological Transition Amélie de Montchalin visit the French National Museum of Natural History with its director, Bruno David | Julien De Rosa/AFP via Getty Images

De Montchalin, 36, became a minister in 2019 after working in the private sector for banks and insurance companies. She was first placed in charge of EU affairs — including working on the negotiation and implementation of the Brexit agreement — and then took the helm to reform public administration from 2020 to 2022.

De Montchalin has so far said little about her stance on environmental issues but believes nuclear power is essential to make France a green power. She has said she wants to focus on solutions that make the transition less painful for people and companies.

Structural change

Both new appointees will work with Borne — a battle-tested senior technocrat, who held several posts during Macron’s first term, including transport secretary and ecological transition minister, and will now have to translate Macron’s environmental planning ideas into concrete legislation.

During her first speech after being named PM, she said it was urgent “to act more quickly and more strongly” on climate change.

Borne first dipped into environmental issues when she was head of Cabinet for former socialist Sustainable Development Minister Ségolène Royal in 2014-2015. She then led the Paris public transport company RATP before joining Macron’s government in 2017 on the transportation portfolio.

She got her hands dirty with the reform of the French state-owned railway company SNCF and faced down trade unions that had disrupted rail traffic for several months. Borne was eventually successful in reforming the company’s pension system and opening the railway market to competition as required by EU law. 

Named environment minister in July 2019, after the Yellow Jacket movement — which forced Macron to give up on raising a carbon tax after months of protests against higher fuel prices — Borne passed a long-term energy planning bill aimed at increasing security of supply and a clean mobility bill committing the country to reaching carbon neutrality in the transport sector by 2050.

But her detractors say Borne at the helm of France’s climate project is no cause for celebration, as she mostly pushed unpopular reforms and the president’s privatization agenda. 

“Elisabeth Borne didn’t shine with strong and ambitious stands on ecology,” said Jean-François Julliard, director general of Greenpeace France. “Her nomination doesn’t give a lot of hope that France will do its ecological transition when the climate emergency pushes us to.”

One development, however, that is being hailed by many as a move in the right direction is Macron’s creation of a new administrative department in charge of environmental planning, directly under the authority of the prime minister.

According to a statement, the government will “coordinate the development of national strategies for climate, energy, biodiversity and the circular economy” but most importantly “ensure the proper implementation of the commitments made by all ministries with regard to the environment” — that includes the economy and agriculture ministries.

The new department is good news and “has the potential to be a game-changer” because it will ensure coherence and that all ministries work toward the same goal, said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the energy center at the Jacques Delors Institute, a think tank.

“This is much more important, as a political decision, then knowing who has been appointed minister,” he added, because it shows a structural change in France’s decision-making process.

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