A minor political earthquake took place in Paris on Tuesday morning, when France’s environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, dramatically quit his position live on France Inter, which is sort of the French equivalent of Radio 4’s Today programme.
Appearing to literally make the decision in an agonising pause between questions, he declared: “I can’t lie to myself anymore, I don’t want my presence in government to give the illusion that we are on top of things. I therefore take the decision to leave the government.” His line was clear: he did not want to legitimise a government that, in his eyes, was failing to live up to its environmental obligations.
Other government ministers reacted with shock upon hearing the news. The secretary of state for equality, Marlene Schiappa, asked incredulously whether it was a joke when she was informed of his resignation during a live TV interview. La Macronie – the term used to describe the political galaxy ruled by President Emmanuel Macron – is not accustomed to rebellion.
Yet Macron’s government is one that, for many, is indeed not “on top of things”, whether it was France’s silly summer story of the president’s bodyguard moonlighting as a thug and beating up May Day protesters, or the more serious criticism in June from leading economist Jean Pisani-Ferry that Macron’s government is not doing enough to tackle growing inequality.
Equally, the challenges that France will face in the months to come would be enough to give any government sleepless nights. Its push for a unified European finance policy has been rebuffed by the deadlocked Germans and the reluctant Dutch, while an Italian government led by a neo-fascist tears at the soul of Europe, refusing to cooperate on integration and threatening to block the next EU budget.
The time bomb at the heart of the European project is, of course, Britain’s scheduled exit next March. While Macron has held the official line with the EU on Brexit, saying on Tuesday that Europe must remain united at all costs, the reality is that France would be one of the worst afflicted countries if Britain were to crash out. The prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has begun contingency planning for a scenario that would see France’s GDP suffer a 2 per cent drop, with fishing and automobile industries in the north of the country decimated.
While Macron remains master of all he surveys, he appears powerless to push for European reform during twin economic and political crises. He stands in the eye of a perfect storm for multilateralism where his environment minister storms off for fear of failing to achieve goals set in Paris in 2015, where the American president rejects free trade with Europe and where xenophobic, populist governments threaten the heart of European idealism.
Depending on perspective, the shock resignation of a popular environment minister is either the final nail in the coffin of a beleaguered uncompromising government, or merely another obstacle in the way of a dynamic president whose plan to reform France and Europe will soldier on.
As someone who worked on Macron’s campaign, I remain confident that his challenges are not insurmountable. Friedrich Hegel once said that a great man is capable of defining his era. He is a leader who comes around once in a generation, like Franklin D Roosevelt or Helmut Kohl, whose energy and ideas inspire and enrage in equal measure.
France is already seeing the benefits of his leadership, with companies such as Uber and BlackRock expanding in the hexagon as a result of his "human capital" investment and business-friendly policies.
The picture of the "Sun King" president reciting Molière’s Misanthrope, or defending his policies in person in front of angry factory workers, is enough in itself to make an American or a Brit weep with envy. Perhaps, as Alceste declared in Misanthrope, “betrayed and wronged in everything, [they will] flee this bitter world where vice is king.”
Nevertheless, the stakes could not be higher for the young president, or for the EU project. Macron will do all he can to ensure he does not end up with the title attributed to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. If he can prevent it, he will not be “the last European”.
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