May 212012

In the wake of the election of Francois Hollande, Bruno Rebelle, former Director of Greenpeace France and Founder of Transitions, the Robertsbridge Group’s partner in France, reflects on the likelihood of a change of direction in the country’s green policies.

My first reaction, when I saw the composition of the new government, was a degree of doubt. Only two ‘greens’ among 34 ministers; no high profile proponent of sustainability; and a bunch of classic centre left social democrats. The sad truth is that neither our new President, Francois Hollande, nor his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, are thought to be particularly sensitive to environmental issues. It’s not that they are against them – it’s just that the topic doesn’t really show up on their political radars.

However, after a second, closer look I felt more reassured. First of all (and this is a real innovation) we have full gender parity – 17 men and 17 women. Given that women are considered to be more sensitive to long-term issues and actually think about future generations, there is cause for hope here. We also have a good mix of youth and experience in our politicians. The younger ones will almost certainly push to bring the challenges of sustainable development to the fore. And even more interestingly, if little understood outside France, we have only a few top civil servants from the National Administration School (the ENA) – which to date has produced the vast majority of our governments’ officials. The ENA is exceedingly traditional, and the environment is only of marginal concern in its curriculum.

That’s all fine, you may say, pointing out that it’s men who dominate the top posts in the new government. This is partly true. But look at where the women are – Justice, Culture and Communication, State Reform, Housing and Territories, and last but not least Environment and Sustainable Development. This is good news.

Cecile Duflot, the young and dynamic head of the Green Party (Europe Ecologie Les Verts), inherits an innovative portfolio which combines integrated planning and community cohesion with housing. Those of us immersed in green issues know that the dynamics of a transition to a low carbon economy depend in large part on an ambitious plan to reduce energy consumption. We also know that housing represents the biggest opportunity for energy saving. And it is clear that if the ambitious housing refurbishment programme already scheduled by this government to improve the energy performance of 600,000 homes takes place, it will also be necessary to reshape land planning and urbanisation policy overall. This will be needed in order to limit traffic, reduce fuel consumption and contribute to low carbon communities. Putting energy efficient building together with urban re-design is a really interesting, and joined-up approach as it links short-term action and long term concerns. Giving this portfolio to the Greens is a guarantee that the subject will remain at the top of the agenda.

Nicole Bricq is our new Minister for Sustainability. She is not what you would call a high profile environmentalist. Her speciality is tax management, budget control and finance. However, it is this that possibly makes her the best person to establish a new economic model – including reshaping the tax system, as announced by Hollande – that would deliver real change in manufacturing and production, as well as consumption. I had the opportunity of working with Ms Bricq when we were putting together an environmental team at the heart of the French Socialist party. I can tell you she developed a deep understanding of the structural changes needed to promote sustainability and of the complex connections between it and finance. Energy falls inside Ms Bricq’s portfolio, which is another good sign. Her biggest challenge will be to launch a widespread public debate on the future of energy in France – another of President Hollande’s commitments. Indeed it is here that real politics will come back into play in force – in a country where the energy issue is dominated by the nuclear lobby, it will be a challenge indeed to open the debate on the widest possible front and not allow it to become simply a ‘for’ or ‘against’ nuclear issue. Bricq’s moderate stance on the issue will probably calm protagonists from both sides. So it is entirely likely that she will be able to steer the conversation in a way that is inclusive and constructive for the future of French energy policy.

So far so good! It seems we have the tools, and the right people in the right places, not to create radical change overnight, but to lay the foundations of real long term change. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Bruno Rebelle is Directeur général of Transitions

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