April 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Sascha Pare
20th April, 2022

The French presidential election is in full swing, with outgoing president Emmanuel Macron set to face the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round on Sunday 24th April. It feels like Groundhog Day, given their previous run-off in 2017, except the race is now tighter and Le Pen has a real chance of winning. Back then, French scientists expressed their relief and support for stronger ties and cooperation with the European Union. Five years on, fears of what a far-right presidency might mean for science and climate action are more urgent than ever.

French research bodies rarely take an overt stance on elections, but the 2017 contest was different. Scientists raised concerns about Le Pen’s illiberal, Islamophobic, anti-immigration and anti-Europe rhetoric. Her party’s extremist views threatened, and still threaten, the democratic, inclusive and collaborative environment in which science and evidence-based policy thrive. In stark contrast to Le Pen’s Euroscepticism, Macron cast himself as an enthusiastic supporter of the EU. Scientists also backed his pledge to ring-fence research budgets, boost innovation and invest in environmental and green energy measures.

While environmental issues did not figure prominently in Macron’s 2017 manifesto, he did push for climate action when the US withdrew from the Paris climate accord. In 2020, he promised €15 billion (£13.7bn) to tackle the climate crisis after the Green party made significant gains in French local elections. He also set up the Citizen’s Convention on Climate, a council of citizens drawn at random, to deliberate and come up with green initiatives for housing, transportation, consumption, food production and employment. Whereas the citizens expected these proposals to be submitted to parliament ‘unfiltered’, Macron set about rewording them and eventually discarded them in the face of escalating public controversy.

Macron’s failure to implement any real measure to curb emissions is perhaps best illustrated by the resignation of his environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, after months of frustration that climate change was ‘always relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities’. Overall, according to the director general of Oxfam France, Cécile Duflot, Macron led a ‘somewhat green, somewhat brown’ environmental policy.

Five years later, with the second round looming, does either candidate have a convincing climate policy? The short answer is no, not really. After disappointing election results for the leader of the Green party, Yannick Jadot, it appears that environmental concerns are not a core concern in this election. Speaking after his defeat, Jadot urged his supporters to block the far right and Le Pen by voting for Macron, cautioning: ‘But our vote for Emmanuel Macron is not a reward for this past five-year term of climate inaction.’

Like so many French citizens, I feel compelled to follow this advice and vote strategically. Despite lacklustre environmental policy descriptions on both sides, Macron’s manifesto does include decarbonisation and investment in renewable energies. While he sets a clear goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Le Pen wants to evaluate emission reduction targets annually and independently of international agreements. On renewables, Le Pen has pledged to ban the construction of wind and solar farms, which she deems ‘horrors that cost a fortune’.

Both candidates want to build up nuclear power in the coming years, a policy reversal for Macron who promised a roll-back at the beginning of his presidency. Environmentalists argue that a ‘renaissance’ of the nuclear sector is costly, hazardous and inefficient, and will create fewer jobs than expanding renewables. Both candidates have also promised to reduce tax on fuel and energy – another ‘somewhat brown’ counterbalancing act to ‘somewhat green’ measures.

Macron has framed this election as a ‘referendum on Europe’, which should once again rally the support of French scientists. Although Le Pen denies plans for Frexit, she has pledged to cut financial contributions to the EU and build a ‘Europe of free nations’ – whatever that means. While the gap between the winners of the first round was not as tight as some analysts had predicted (Macron secured 27.9% of votes while Le Pen won 23.2%), we can expect a closer second round than five years ago. This shift to the extreme right – exemplified by the 7% share of the vote for Éric Zemmour, a far-right columnist with convictions for inciting racial hatred – is deeply worrying.

Macron must convince left-wing and green voters to cast their ballots for him. To stamp out the risk of a far-right presidency in France, the message is the same as five years ago: Allez voter!

Sascha Pare is an online features editor at I, Science and is enrolled on the MSc Science Communication course at Imperial College London. After studying Biology at undergraduate, she realised that she enjoys writing about science more than anything else and is looking forward to a career in science journalism. Sascha grew up in France and is following the elections closely.