Though COVID-19 has eclipsed many important issues on the agenda since its emergence just over a year ago, it seems as though the European Green Deal will live to fight another day. Indeed, EU leaders, despite all the hardships of 2020, were able to come together in the final days of the year to approve raising the bloc's 2030 emissions reduction target from 40% to 55%.
Accordingly, French President Emmanuel Macron is vying for the enactment of a comprehensive environmental bill that would be in line with France's role in reaching this 55% target. This bill is expected to be presented later this month, but the way in which it is being drafted is perhaps one of its most interesting aspects. Forming the foundations of this bill will be the proposals of 150 randomly selected individuals who constitute the Citizens' Climate Convention.
This Convention has the overarching aim of formulating proposals on how exactly France could reduce its carbon emissions. Accordingly, they arrived at a total of 149 proposals that were to be presented to President Macron. These proposals include measures such as the renovation of buildings, limiting advertisements for polluting products, and establishment of regulations on local soil treatment, like increased taxes on nitrogen fertilizers.
While approximately half of the 149 proposals seem as if they will be incorporated into the law that is currently being drafted, some members of the Convention are saying the government is watering down the solutions they have proposed. The matter of which suggestions will be in the bill, and their exact form, will gain much more clarity once the bill is definitively presented toward the end of January.
One thing is for certain, though: Macron will push for a referendum on a proposal to change the first article of the constitution outlining the fundamental principles of the French Republic, such as its indivisible, secular, democratic, and social character. The amended article would read, "the Republic guarantees the preservation of biodiversity and the environment and fights against climate change." Procedurally, this proposed amendment will need to first pass the National Assembly and Senate before it is presented to the people in a referendum.
It should be noted that, though Macron has argued the solutions arrived at will not be filtered before being passed on to the relevant legislative process, many have accused him of using the Conventions as a way of 'greenwashing' his image, where they say he is trying to appear to be doing more for the environment than he actually is, to improve his political standing before elections in 2022.
Macron has openly opposed measures such as an environmental tax on aviation and a ban on the production of new high-emissions vehicles by 2030, arguing that such issues should be legislated at the EU-level to avoid discrepancies in the single market.
He has additionally directly rejected a proposal on putting into place a maximum speed limit of 110 km/h due to the heavier negative impact of such a measure on more rural regions, arguing, "Never should the environmental transition be done at the expense of regions that are most isolated." Indeed, considerations of the rural-urban cleavage are crucial, especially for Macron, in light of the Yellow Vest protests that took place not too long ago.
In fact, this format of deliberation—a citizen's assembly—was first proposed in reaction to the Yellow Vest protests against environmental fuel taxes, the burden of which, its critics argued, disproportionately landed on the shoulders of the rural segments of French society that are more reliant on cars. The Convention was thus meant to be representative of the demographic diversity of France so that various stakeholders could engage in discussions surrounding the policy process and have their views represented.
There has been opposition to this interesting exercise in deliberative democracy from both sides of the political spectrum. For one, some voices in parliament have opposed the particular method, saying that the parliament is the actual legislative organ of the country. One centrist MP referred to it as "a rather questionable operation organized by the president, which suggests that there are no democratic institutions in France."
The conservatives have additionally expressed discontent with the substance of the proposals, in particular with how they see the solutions proposed by the Convention as mostly utilizing disincentives, such as taxes, bans, and limitations, instead of incentivizing mechanisms. Those on the left, on the other hand, are more opposed to the idea of a referendum, not because they disagree with its provisions but because they view it, in essence, as a "PR stunt" that distracts from the actual content of the Convention's proposals. As a Socialist MP put it, "While the citizens shoot for the moon, the president hopes idiots will only see the referendum." Others have put it more mildly, such as the environmentalist MP Matthieu Orphelin, who said, "The referendum is certainly a useful measure, but it's not the main thing."
There are also those who think that all of these measures, the bill itself as well as the constitutional referendum, are coming at the wrong time. They contend that France should be directing all its attention to the COVID-19 recovery, not proposing measures that threaten to create societal divisions.
Overarchingly, though, there appears to be perhaps a more key issue: these proposals were drafted in line with the previous aim of a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, not of 55% that was agreed by the European leaders in the European Council meeting on December 11, 2020. The concerns related to this problem could perhaps be summed up by the first question asked to Macron in his meeting with the Convention members that took place on December 14, three days after the targets were raised: "We see that the measures we are proposing are all weakened. How, by minimizing our measures, do you expect to meet a target that is now 15% higher?"