BRUSSELS – New French President Nicolas Sarkozy wasted no time in putting human rights and the fight against global warming at the top of his agenda.
Just 15 days after taking office on May 6th, he met with nine environmental groups to discuss global warming, genetically modified crops, and nuclear energy.
He has also announced that he is convening a conference of national and local policy-makers, business, labour and ecological groups to focus on ways of curbing global warming, preventing pollution related illnesses, and the protection of endangered species.
Sarkozy also promises to enforce liability against environmentally polluting businesses and their subsidiaries.
He has announced, though, that he will not make any decisions about controversial issues like genetically modified crops or nuclear power—the mainstay of France’s energy economy, with more than 70 percent of France’s electricity coming from nuclear power plants making it the most nuclear dependent country in the world—before the conference.
And despite his powerhouse entrance into the environmental fray, Greenpeace was only cautiously supportive: while saying the meeting was a great show of openness, they warned that several deep differences between Sarkozy and the environmental agenda remain.
More taxes, better environment?
Nonetheless, his actions are speaking loudly. He signed the Ecological Pact put forth by famous French television reporter and environmental activist Nicolas Hulot, and has committed himself to solving French environmental challenges within the next one or two generations.
To be sure, Sarkozy is a surprising bedfellow for the environmental movement, having ascended to the presidency from the position of finance minister. Yet his sense of economics may give him an edge.
Among other reforms he has promised as president, one includes a tax on carbon dioxide emissions on top of the already-existing domestic tax on petroleum products—by an increase to five percent of the GDP. He also wants to impose a tax on products imported from countries that are not signatories of the Kyoto Protocol—among them the Untied States—to stop the practice of environmental dumping.
To finance these initiatives, Sarkozy proposes proportionally reducing taxes on employment.
Levelling international playing fields
Unlike his more strident predecessors Jacques Chirac and former Dominique de Villepin—both known for their open friction with Washington—Sarkozy wants to coax the United States onto a more even dialogue, emphasising that cosier relations between the two countries will remove obstacles to a common goal of fighting global warming.
He, with the United Kingdom and Germany, in fact urges the United States to take the lead in the battle.
Sarkozy is, nonetheless, a supporter of nuclear energy as a clean energy source in the battle against climate change. He does, however, emphasize the importance of developing a renewable energy infrastructure.
Super ministry for the environment
A major change in the new administration is the creation of the Ministry for Sustainable Development. The ministry is led by conservative heavyweight, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé.
Juppé was convicted of mishandling of public funds in December 2004, but his political rebound came when he was elected Mayor of Bordeaux in 2006. With the Sarkozy administration, he seems to have emerged from his scandal-tarred past as Minister of Energy, Ecology and Sustainable Development, and analysts expect the new ministry to rock boats. Yet many remain suspicious.
A number of environmental officials and several NGOs fear that other agendas in the ministry will prevail over environmental priorities. Nathalie Kosciusco-Morizet, Sarkozy’s environmental advisor, has acknowledged these concerns, but she believes that the ministry will provide a progressive environment policy.
Sarko and his detractors…
Critics say Nicolas Sarkozy is posing as a unifier on subjects that do not normally appeal to him. They point out that his position might be a way to woo voters for the legislative elections in June, where Sarkozy needs his party to retain majority in order to pave the way for his ambitious reforms.
Despite the Sakozy’s openness thus far, Greenpeace and other groups criticise France for failing to enforce European Union (EU) rules aimed at preventing over fishing, protecting open spaces and regulating the production of genetically modified foods.
The Green Party, which was not invited to the May meeting with Sarkozy, argues that the cultivation of genetically modified crops remains a reality, nuclear energy is being developed without investment in alternative energy, and highways and incinerators are multiplying.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the May meeting was “little more than hot air.”
Maybe Nicolas Sarkozy is really going green, but his current green hat may be little more than a sign of his political ambitions for the legislative elections in June.
Time will show if a simple gesture will be enough to translate big promises into effective environmental policies.