The French Experiment

On Wednesday, France’s new President Emmanuel Macron appointed his cabinet – to great acclaim. The direction of the country’s energy transition remains unclear, however. Craig Morris investigates (and secretly hopes for a Sixth Republic).

Emmanuel Macron (French President) speaking next to a French flag with blue backdrop

The new president may shift towards more renewables in the French energy mix (Photo by Pablo Tupin-Noriega, edited, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Macron, the outsider, has put together a group of ministers that reflect his wish to be inclusive. There is something for everyone: new faces and old, left and right, politically established and newcomers.

One main concern after his election was whether he would be able to bring together support from the political apparatus as an outsider. His cabinet is an obvious attempt to form an umbrella government across party lines. Judging from the initial media reactions, his choices have at least met with admiration.

The appointment that has drawn the most attention seems to be the new Minister of Ecology and Solidarity – the new name for the old Ministry of Energy and the Environment headed by Ségolène Royal. The new focus indicates that social issues will be a priority when decisions about the energy transition are made.

The man who will direct the new ministry is Nicolas Hulot, who made a name for himself decades ago with a TV series on the environment entitled (my translation) Ushuaïa – the Magazine of the Extreme. Here he is 19 years ago warning us not to fetishize pretty fish over ugly ones, but instead to respect the diversity of the oceans.

Hulot could thus perhaps best be presented to the global audience as the French equivalent of David Suzuki, the famous Canadian who used television to educate the public about nature and then went on to launch an eponymous foundation (here is Hulot’s; the website is only in French). He thus comes with impeccable credentials, and indeed previous politicians have courted him as well – but to no avail. But something about Macron must have convinced him that his time had come in politics.

It will be interesting to see what “solidarity” means in the energy transition. For instance, concerning the closing of Fessenheim, France’s oldest nuclear plant, Hulot is quoted: “We cannot impose a transition by force. The transition has to be done in an acceptable manner.” This approach is similar to the way Germany is handling its coal phaseout: slowly in order not to detrimentally impact coal communities.

Former President Hollande aimed to have France reliance on nuclear drop from 75 percent of power supply to 50 percent by 2025; that goal is still law. Macron is generally considered to be pro-nuclear, Hulot less so, but Macron has also commented skeptically on the cost of nuclear: “Nobody knows the total cost for nuclear energy. I was minister for industry and I could not tell you.”

It thus seems likely that an approach will be taken to pursue an energy transition towards renewables and away from nuclear, but possibly not at the speed that Hollande’s law specified. The slowdown would then be justified with solidarity. If so, this approach seems logical. As I have been saying for years, France has put most of its eggs in the nuclear basket and can hardly afford to shut very many reactors.

It’s not just communities with reactors that will be affected by a nuclear phaseout. Rather, last November EDF – the utility than runs all French reactors – bought up the effectively bankrupt Areva, the firm that built them. Both companies are largely state-owned. In January, the EU approved France’s plans to inject a whopping 4.5 billion euros in Areva to keep it afloat.

Whatever compromises he is forced to make, Hulot will easily bring more expertise to the table than the French have become accustomed to. Royal made a showcase out of the awful idea of 1,000 kilometers of solar roads (really terrible). And let’s remember, one last time as she leaves office, her challenge to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 to state how much nuclear power France has. They both got the answer wrong (Sarkozy was closer).

If nothing else, we can expect more expertise from Hulot. And if Macron’s recent video to American climate scientists is any indication (in great English with a charming French accent) we should brace ourselves. We’ll be facing five years of irresistible French leaders trying to find a middle ground in the rubble of their half-century-old Fifth Republic, whose party-based structures Macron’s success has called into question. The Fifth Republic was founded at the end of colonialism in 1958 and based on the idea that a strong leader was needed. But France is now embedded in the EU, and strong parties are needed to for democratic debate to flourish – especially if Macron wants to make good on his word that French history in Algeria needs to be dealt with.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. Nuclear reactors create very few jobs in operations. I’d be surprised if closing and decommissioning them saved any jobs at all net. Fessenheim is in prosperous Alsace on the German border and regional unemployment is low. The jobs argument favours rapid solar expansion not caution. There is I believe now a consensus in France not to order any more EPR reactors, so the transition to wind and solar will basically be dictated by the pace of nuclear retirements: which will be controlled by technical decisions on safety, not politics.

    I share your optimism about Hulot. Another point in his favour is that he produced and starred in a high-quality and long-running nature and exploration programme for French TV, an environment of amateurism, political patronage and backstabbing. They can’t even make a decent medical soap opera, more or less TV 101. David Attenborough’s programmes are even better in a different style, but he was starting with the professional standards of the BBC. In addition, Hulot’s intrepid-explorer act involved him in the kind of stunts (hang-gliding off Patagonian mountains, rappelling into bat caves in Borneo) that look more dangerous than they really are – provided your assistants are expert and meticulous. Hulot is in fine health. He must have run a very tight ship and won a lot of battles in office politics.

    • Nathanael says

      FWIW, closing and decommissioning nuclear reactors creates an endless number of jobs, just like most toxic waste cleanup programs. The problem is that it requires endless taxpayer dollars. (This cannot be avoided.)

  2. BTW, I disagree with your take that he Fifth Republic was based on the need for a strong leader. It was based on the need for Charles de Gaulle as strong leader, a one-off. After de Gaulle’s Roman dictatorship (very explicit in the Article 16 emergency powers), France would revert to as parliamentary system with a stronger Prime Minister to get rid of the merry-go-round of governments, Unfortunately de Gaulle, facing a loss of control and popularity later on, screwed up this clever scheme of Michel Debré’s with a referendum to make the President directly elected and hence always powerful. The modified Fifth Republic is now an incoherent hybrid of presidential and parliamentary. IIRC, the above reading is a fairly standard one; I think I got it from Duverger..

    • Craig Morris says

      James, the Fifth Republic has undergone an evolution itself, so I agree in part. But it seems broken now with the main parties weakened. The winner-take-all system should go, and parliaments, not presidents, should have power.

      • If France wants to revert to a ceremonial/long-stop presidency, as in Germany or Italy, it has to go back on direct election. Has this ever happened anywhere? Or bring back the monarchy …

      • Nathanael says

        France’s system — with a *runoff* election for President, and this is important — seems to work better than the UK system or the US system or even the Spanish system, all of which have returned Prime Ministers who are CLEARLY less popular than their opponents.

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