Macron’s Celebrity Apprentice Is a Nightmare
Nicolas Hulot is a combination of Donald Trump and Al Gore—and the French president will regret ever putting him in his Cabinet.
This week, Nicolas Hulot, France’s most—perhaps only—popular political figure, just became even more popular. He did so by quitting politics. During a Tuesday morning radio interview, Hulot, the government’s environment minister, caught his interviewers and the entire nation—including President Emmanuel Macron—by surprise. “It’s the most painful decision,” he announced. “I no longer want to lie to myself. I don’t want to maintain the illusion that my presence in the government means it is up to the [environmental] challenges we face. And so, I’ve decided to resign from the government.” After a moment of shocked silence, one interviewer blurted: “Are you serious?”
Hulot was deadly serious. It now remains to be seen if his decision will be as serious, if not deadly, for Macron’s presidency.
No doubt for some foreign observers, Hulot’s resignation is less surprising than the fact that a Cabinet official so unknown internationally is playing such an outsized role in a major political crisis. But it would be a mistake to interpret Hulot’s untraditional career path as a sign that he’s simply a political dilettante. Hulot is proving for France what Donald Trump already has for the United States: In today’s political landscape, there’s no necessary distinction between media celebrity and political power—but the differences are still very much in force when it comes to crafting public policy.
Certainly, Hulot’s rapid rise has been unorthodox. Unlike the vast majority of French politicians, the frequently indistinguishable products of public universities or grandes écoles, Hulot is a medical school dropout. He held a motley series of jobs, found his way into television and radio work, and in 1987 was vaulted into television stardom. It was then that he became the narrator of the televised nature program Ushuaïa. Named after the world’s southernmost city (located at the tip of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego), the show took Hulot (and his growing number of viewers) to far-flung and mysterious corners of the globe. Most episodes would begin with Hulot firmly planted in the locale, shown rowing a kayak across pristine seas, trudging through a buzzing rainforest, or peering across vast plains. After a day at work or school, viewers welcomed the dash of authenticity and flash of exoticism offered by the show.
Inevitably, the authenticity was at times carefully arranged. One scandal occurred in 2001 when journalists learned that the show compensated—with cartons of cigarettes—a hundred or so Papua New Guineans to leave behind their shorts and motorized boats to greet Hulot’s ship in canoes while wearing “primitive” garb. Other critics taxed Hulot for being little more than a purveyor of exoticism, transforming these various places and peoples into colorful stages and walk-ons for the delectation of French viewers sitting in the comfort of their homes.
These criticisms pale, however, when compared to the immense and extremely positive impact Hulot came to exercise on those very same viewers. With increasing urgency, Hulot reported on the multiplying environmental dangers we now face but mostly refuse to see. His documentaries reflected, if only indirectly, the consequences of global warming and shrinking bio-diversity, and questioned, if gently, the suicidal logic of a consumer-based economy and the inhumane logic of industrialized meat production. By the early 2000s, Hulot had become the nation’s most eloquent and energetic defender of environmental causes, and the foundation he created in 1990, now known as the Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme, served as one of his vehicles to influence public opinion and government policies.
In 2002, Hulot took up his pen to broadcast his warnings with the publication of Combien de catastrophes avant d’agir? (How Many Disasters Before We Act?). Two years later, he followed with another manifesto, Le Syndrome du Titanic (Titanic Syndrome), in which he accused the global political and industrial classes of blithely steering the earth into a disaster of our own making. By 2006 and the run-up to the following year’s presidential election, more than a few observers thought Hulot would parlay his celebrity into a run for the presidency, especially with polls showing that more than 10 percent of respondents supported his candidacy. His decision to toss his chapeau into the ring seemed even more certain when, that same fall, the cover of the popular weekly Le Nouvel Observateur featured a headshot of the still boyish-looking Hulot above the caption: “The man who wants to save the earth.”
As it turned out, the man who wanted to save the earth could not decide if he wanted to run for office. Combining the indecision of Hamlet and the naiveté of Candide, Hulot eventually chose, after much hemming and hawing, to let others do the running. Instead, he designated the finish line: an “Ecological Pact” he asked all the presidential candidates to sign, listing a series of environmental measures, including the creation of a carbon tax and shift from industrial to “quality” agriculture. By signing on, the candidates promised to pursue the pact’s principal objectives. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the victorious signatory, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, ignored the pact once he entered office. (Whether he threw it into a trash can or the recycling bin remains unknown.)
Despite Hulot’s decision to end Ushuaïa and his failure to win the Green Party’s nomination for the presidential election of 2012—due as much to his personal ambivalence as to the party’s byzantine conflicts—he maintained his prominence in the public eye. In 2016, he topped a list of personalities the French wished to see play a prominent role in politics. Yet it was one of the poll’s runners-up, Emmanuel Macron, who grabbed that very role the following year. As an economic liberal and political centrist, Macron was supported by France’s left not for what he was but for what he wasn’t—namely, his opponent Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front. As a result, he desperately needed to burnish his social and environmental credentials.
Who better, thought Macron, than Nicolas Hulot to furnish both one and the other? And who better, believed Hulot, than Macron to help him confront the many environmental challenges that had reached critical mass? In short, it would be a marriage of convenience, not conviction. As the newly elected president began to form his Cabinet, he told Hulot that as environment minster he would have, following the prime minister and interior minister, the third most important post in the cabinet. Though the ranking is a matter of public protocol and not practical politics, the symbolism remained important. In mid-May 2017, after intense negotiations, Macron announced that the television star-turned environmental advocate had agreed to join his government as the minister of ecological transition and solidarity. On its front page, the tabloid Le Parisien declared: “Hulot is Macron’s big catch.”
Little more than a year later, Hulot concluded Le Parisien was right: He was the caught, not the catcher, while his Cabinet post was mostly shadow, not substance. Despite Macron’s famous rejoinder to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord—“Make the Planet Great Again”—Hulot has been obliged to reconsider or retreat on nearly every important environmental priority. Committed to reducing France’s dependency on nuclear energy from 75 to 50 percent by 2025, Hulot acknowledged last November that the plan was “unrealistic.” Despite Hulot’s insistence that this was the lesser evil, since any such reduction would inevitably lead to increased use of fossil fuels, environmentalists denounced him for folding on the issue. Similarly, his efforts to ban the use of herbicides containing glyphosate also fell short of his initial goal. Rather facing a total ban in three years, farmers can continue to use the herbicide—in particular, Monsanto’s Roundup—if no substitute has been made available.
The final straw was, of all things, the price of hunting permits. The leader of France’s hunting lobby, Thierry Coste, succeeded in persuading Macron to halve the annual cost of a hunting license (from 400 to 200 euros, or $464 to $232). It was not just the measure itself, but the means by which it was adopted that ignited Hulot’s ire. At a Cabinet meeting devoted to the issue of hunting licenses, Hulot discovered that Coste was one of the participants. Coste’s presence distilled, for Hulot, all the obstacles he faced in his effort to make the planet great again. Or, for that matter, to make democracy great again. After his resignation, Hulot confided that Coste’s participation at the meeting was “symptomatic of the presence of lobbies in the circles of powers. This needs to be acknowledged because it’s a problem in our democracy.”
Hulot’s resignation has been widely cheered by the French left, who believe it shows the emptiness of Macron’s efforts to cast himself as a defender of the environment. The right has also applauded Hulot’s decision, if only because it has sparked a political fire that Macron and his supporters must try to extinguish. Following the blaze created by the so-called Benalla affair—the discovery that Macron’s bodyguard spent his spare time roughing up left-wing demonstrators, a practice that the Elysée learned about but did nothing to punish—this is the last thing Macron wished to deal with.
But most importantly, Hulot’s parting words remind the rest of us of what we ultimately do not wish to deal with. With stunning candor during his radio interview, he observed: “I am surprised how I resign myself every day to small steps while the global situation, at a moment when the planet is turning into an oven, merits a paradigm shift. … Others keep telling me to take my time and be patient, but we’ve been patient for 30 years, during which dangers have continued to grow, and they are getting out of control.” For Hulot, the rearranging of the ministerial chairs following his departure means little when we are all participating in the rearranging of the deck chairs as we steam toward the iceberg.