Emmanuel Macron Is Cracking Down on Environmental Activists

France's neoliberal president, Emmanuel Macron, promised to get tough on climate change. But this week's move to criminalize protests at airports shows his government would rather get tough on climate activists — the latest in Macron's attack on civil liberties.

French president Emmanuel Macron during a press conference on July 9, 2021. (Stephane de Sakutin / AFP via Getty Images)

“The climate emergency is being marginalized by political games,” regretted Le Monde’s solemn front page this Thursday. Earlier this week, France’s two houses of parliament finally abandoned a monthslong tug-of-war over the text of a constitutional amendment, which, if approved by referendum, would have enshrined the state’s obligation to “guarantee the preservation of the environment and biological diversity.” The amendment ultimately failed to gain the approval of the conservative-dominated Senate — leading prime minister Jean Castex to formally withdraw the reform on July 6.

The proposed amendment was one of the lingering demands of the Citizens’ Convention on Climate (CCC), an experiment in participatory democracy that assembled 150 randomly selected people to draft proposals for cutting France’s greenhouse emissions. Although those proposals were ultimately diluted by an omnibus “climate and resilience” law approved this spring, many of the CCC’s original ideas were refreshingly extensive and radical — confirming the staying power of the demands for climate justice brought to the forefront of French politics by the gilets jaunes revolt of 2018 and 2019. Less than a year before the presidential elections slated for next spring, the potential amendment was a final, albeit cosmetic, way for Emmanuel Macron to varnish his environmental record.

Fearing the economic and legal implications of an environmental “guarantee,” Bruno Retailleau, leader of the Senate’s conservative majority, lauded the amendment’s defeat as a “failure for the advocates of degrowth.” Stanislas Guerini, a member of the National Assembly and executive officer of Macron’s La République En Marche! party, likewise quoted by Le Monde, pontificated that the “Right is looking away from the climate emergency and misses, once again, a rendezvous with history.”

So was this another case of a promising, consensual step forward for the environmental movement felled by partisan bickering? There’s something lacking in the morality tale relayed by the country’s paper of record. Attempts to constitutionalize environmental protections may be a worthy cause. But they make a difference only if there is an active group of people constantly making sure that they are respected.

This was what the real climate story on July 6 was all about — and it went ignored by Le Monde and other major media outlets. The hope of codifying a modicum of constitutional protections and obligations concerning the environment may have fallen victim to the struggle between the pro-Macron majority in the National Assembly and the conservative-dominated Senate. However, the two blocs were able to find common ground — by criminalizing just the type of activism without which meaningful reductions in emissions are unimaginable.

Repressing Calls for Climate Action

On July 6, parliament approved another innocuously titled law, “Containing various adaptation provisions to European Union law in the field of transportation, the environment, the economy and finance.” Tucked away within a chapter containing banal tweaks to the airline industry code, Article 10 of this otherwise inconspicuous catchall bill would make “punishable by a maximum of 6 months in prison and a fine of €7,500 the act . . . of intruding onto the runway zone of an airport.” These penalties are slated to be increased, should the activities be conducted as part of a group, or if property is damaged. In line with the stated goal of harmonizing French and European law, the bill at least clarifies that the definition of a “runway zone” will be in accordance with a European Union provision dating from 2008.

Approved just as Paris is entering its summer political lull, this measure is a shot across the bow for environmental activists. In recent months, organizations such as Greenpeace, Alternatiba, and Extinction Rebellion have led several high-profile civil disobedience demonstrations at airports, targeting the excessive pollution of the airline industry.

In early March, with debate over the climate and resilience law still in full swing, Greenpeace activists stormed the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris and painted an Air France plane green. On October 3 of last year, eight-seven environmentalists intruded onto the same tarmac, protesting the construction of a new terminal that would have vastly increased traffic capacity. The new terminal expansion was ultimately abandoned this winter under pressure, although the director of Aéroports de Paris has suggested that new expansion plans are underway, given that the capital region’s airport network is counting on a doubling of traffic in the coming decades.

Whether in opposition to airport expansion or the generous bailouts accorded to the airline industry, actions such as these are not the workings of some fringe environmental militants. They express the increasingly popular opinion that the high-polluting airline industry needs to be cut down to size through direct state intervention and restrictions. The CCC’s proposals aimed to do just that, demanding a moratorium on new airport construction projects and a ban on domestic flights where there is an alternative mode of transportation in under four hours.

After its translation into the climate and resilience law, this threshold was lowered to two and a half hours. According to the environmental news site Reporterre, however, the final version of the law that made it through the Senate will only affect the commute between Paris’s Orly Airport and Bordeaux.

“The government has a choice to make between two options. It could commit itself now, in 2021, to seriously reducing air traffic and to avoiding the negative effects that it has on climate change. Or it could devote its energy to creating new laws punishing civil disobedience,” Greenpeace legal counselor Clara Gonzales told Jacobin. “It has clearly chosen the second.”

Wider Attacks on Civil Liberties

The new law’s Article 10 has its own strange history — and is part of a series of recent attacks on NGOs and civil liberties. In fact, the new crime of runway intrusion had previously been withdrawn from the controversial global security law, a vast reinforcement and centralization of police powers approved by parliament in April this year. The main target of the “law reinforcing republican principles,” also finalized this spring, were religious associations and activities viewed as providing a fertile ground for Islamic terrorism. But the law also contained measures that could be used to restrict other political and civilian associations, including the pairing of public subsidies and accreditation with a vague “contract” of republican engagement obliging associations not to disturb “public order.”

“Between the global security law, the anti-separatism law on Republican principles, and this new crime of intrusion, we’re facing a worrisome inflationary spiral of repressive legislation,” Gonzales remarked.

This new crime law also intervenes in an ambiguous, shifting juridical framework concerning civil disobedience. In 2015, the Ganay law created specific penalties for demonstrations on nuclear energy sites — in a country which boasts the most extensive nuclear power system in the world. A January 2020 decision by a court in Metz weakened the public prosecutors’ sentencing demands against Greenpeace activists who had intruded on a Cattenom nuclear site in 2017. This June, however, France’s highest appeals court rejected the defense’s argument that the actions were conducted out of a legitimate “state of necessity.”

As if this tightening penal web weren’t sufficient, police forces have been shown to obsessively harass France’s climate activists. A collaborative investigation conducted by the news sites Mediapart and Reporterre catalogued the absurd degree of state surveillance of environmental activists opposed to the construction of a nuclear-waste disposal site near the town of Bure in eastern France. A special “Bure cell” of the Gendarmerie (armed police) viewed or listened to as many as eighty-five thousand exchanges and messages between the activists, including the equivalent of some sixteen cumulative years of telephone calls.

These attempts to codify activist-free safe spaces for polluters are, therefore, just the tip of the iceberg. “Since 2015, we have been able to observe the very concrete effects that these laws are having on our activists. This is a repressive penal policy that is functioning,” Gonzales said. “That does not mean that the results are going to be what the government is entirely hoping for, that there will be an end to civil disobedience or to climate mobilizations.”

Indeed, it’s a fantasy that penalizing environmental activism can make the climate emergency go away. The effects of global warming are pushing people to demand real efforts to curtail fossil fuel emissions, which certain powers that be consider the real danger.