Press play to listen to this article
Emmanuel Macron needs Barbara Pompili to succeed if he hopes to be reelected in 2022, but the French president has a tradition of riding roughshod over his ecological transition minister.
That leaves her in a weak position as she begins the toughest job in her political career this week — shepherding the massive climate bill aimed at slashing France’s greenhouse gas emissions through parliament.
“It’s been 20 years that I’ve been in politics, that I’ve been an environmentalist,” Pompili recently told Libération. “I know the obstacles. I know what to expect.”
The bill is a crucial part of Macron’s effort to woo green-minded voters — people he needs onside if he’s to see off the threat of right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in 2022.
The legislation is meant to be Macron’s response to the Yellow Jackets protests that swept through France in 2019 — an uprising that started as a complaint about a fuel tax and spiraled into a larger show of discontent.
In response, Macron created the Citizens’ Climate Convention, made up of 150 randomly-chosen citizens tasked with advising the executive on its green policies. This week’s climate bill is the result, containing some of the convention’s 149 proposals that included curbing emissions from the building, transport, agriculture and aviation sectors, as well as a call to amend the French constitution.
Pompili is determined to push through the bill with as few changes as possible, but the 45-year-old is much less of a heavyweight than her high-profile predecessor Nicolas Hulot — who quit the cabinet in dismay in 2018 at his lack of influence.
She will be up against the left-wing opposition which wants the text to be much more ambitious, and against conservatives who are leery of the impact of climate measures at a time when the economy is reeling from the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a bloody mess,” a French minister recently told Playbook Paris.
In the shadows
Pompili has been on a PR campaign in recent weeks, traveling around the country and giving interviews to promote her bill. She’s even planning to appear on a popular French cooking show, rating dishes and campaigning against food waste.
Despite the perils of debating food in France, Pompili faces an even tougher time in parliament — due in part to her lack of political heft.
“She is one of the least popular [ministers], even though she has gold between her hands, 30 billion to spend [on the green transition] and is the government’s No. 2,” another minister close to Macron said.
The problem for Pompili is that the bill she’s pushing is a far cry from what the convention and environmentalists wanted. Keeping to the original ideas would have meant “war,” the same minister said.
But as a result, the legislation isn’t getting much support from activists.
Pompili “is a very sincere, motivated, competent person … She has leadership,” said Arnaud Schwartz, president of the NGO France Nature Environnement. But “we’re not necessarily moving fast enough to keep up with the environmental changes our lifestyles are causing,” he added.
He feels Pompili is overshadowed by the economy ministry, the prime minister’s office and Macron himself.
“It’s no mystery that trade-offs are made with a heavyweight which is Bercy [the economy ministry] and from time to time, I think she is indeed led to recognize that the economic blow would be too strong,” Mireille Clapot, a lawmaker from Macron’s majority group La République En Marche (LREM) and a close ally of Pompili, said. “Yes it is difficult, but she is a woman of political fights.”
Until now, Pompili hasn’t been part of Macron’s inner circle.
She was surprised when the French president announced in December that he intended to support the convention’s proposal to reform the constitution by adding provisions saying environmental protection and the fight against climate change are core duties of the state. “Excuse me, I am recovering from my emotions, Mr. President,” she said.
In August, Macron gave her a rare victory by banning the centuries-old traditional hunting technique of gluing birds to branches to attract wild birds — a practice that prompted the European Commission to hit France with an infringement procedure.
Pompili started in politics as a Green and then went through various shifts — often accommodating herself to the party in power as she rose higher. She was the first member of the Socialist government under former President François Hollande to back Macron’s 2017 presidential bid.
But time after time, environmental efforts important to her have been overridden by Macron and other top officials.
Under Hollande, she wanted to speed up the country’s phaseout of pesticides, helping pass a law banning the use of neonicotinoids in 2016 as biodiversity junior minister. But she was recently forced to exempt beetroot farmers, despite the harm that the pesticides cause pollinators.
“Yes, it was a difficult pill to swallow,” Pompili admitted. “But I don’t want people to think that decisions are being made for me.”
“She has been forced to unravel the measures she took in the past, I don’t call that progress,” said Sergio Coronado, a former MP who was a member of the French Greens at the same time as Pompili, adding: “I think she was chosen because she’s a lightweight and can’t even win any trade-offs, doesn’t even try to win any.”
Pompili’s willingness to compromise now hangs over her effort to get the climate bill through parliament.
Members of the Citizens’ Climate Convention are upset that the government shifted their call to ban the most polluting cars from 2025 to 2030, scrapped their request to raise the country’s flight ecotax and watered down their proposal to ban the advertising of polluting products. Instead, the draft law proposes banning advertising for fossil fuels and asks the advertising sector to work on green guidelines.
“She is caught between two extremes: the lobby of the big energy companies and the toughest environmentalists,” said Guillaume de Bodard, president of the environment and sustainable development committee of the French Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.
Eva Sas, a spokesperson for the Greens, said: “When you choose to pursue a career in a government that is not green, you shouldn’t expect there will be a real willingness to change.”
The minister insists that she’ll do fine.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” she told reporters in January and said that passing the climate bill and its related proposal to amend the constitution is “a commitment of the president of the republic, and I intend to do everything possible to ensure it’s delivered.”
The pressure on her is growing. The lower chamber National Assembly is dominated by Macron’s LREM, but the Senate has a conservative majority, which is lukewarm on the bill.
“We want a law that reduces CO2 and you are coming forward with a law with more taxes,” Jean-Marie Sermier, an MP for the conservative Les Républicains, said Monday.
Some business representatives grumble that the climate law is an additional burden to companies already trying to survive the pandemic.
“There are too many new bills,” de Bodard said, criticizing what he called the growth of red tape that’s making a green transition difficult for small businesses which “can’t keep up with all the regulations and hundreds of implementing decrees.”
Meanwhile, environmental groups say the bill won’t do enough to meet France’s pledge to cut emissions by an additional 40 percent by 2030.
“It’s a subtle balance to find,” said LREM lawmaker Jean-Charles Colas-Roy, because “it is necessary to reconcile the ambition of citizens, the respect of greenhouse gas emission reduction objectives and the need to take the crisis into account.”
Pompili did not answer interview requests for this piece.
Elisa Braun and Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting from Paris.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.