Macron’s film-maker choice on energy puts nuclear in frame
In Titanic Syndrome, a 2009 documentary, Nicolas Hulot argues that the capitalist system needs to change to avoid environmental catastrophe. “Our model is not sustainable,” the French celebrity activist says.
Today Mr Hulot, known for his nature films, is France’s new energy minister, one of the eye-catching, and for the energy industry potentially disconcerting, appointments in President Emmanuel Macron’s first cabinet.
In a government that is resolutely free market and pro-globalisation, the appointment of the nuclear critic has led investors to question Mr Macron’s commitment to nuclear power, which provides about 75 per cent of the country’s electricity and employs some 200,000 people.
Shares in state-owned nuclear group EDF — which had jumped more than 20 per cent after Mr Macron’s win, propelled by hopes of a supportive policy — lost nearly 7 per cent after Mr Hulot was appointed. Analysts suggested he would make the government take a harder line on the sector, pushing EDF to close nuclear stations and denying permission to extend the life of plants.
During his long career in the spotlight Mr Hulot, 62, has turned down a series of government jobs and ministerial posts, refusing to serve presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. On Wednesday he explained Mr Macron’s government gave him for the first time a chance to take real action on the environment.
“I think, although I am not sure, that the new political situation offers an opportunity for action and I cannot ignore that,” he said on Twitter.
In an interview with Libération newspaper last month, Mr Hulot said EDF needed to move away from nuclear and towards renewable energy: “While elsewhere the energy transition accelerates, EDF gets closer to Areva, overinvests in costly nuclear projects like Hinkley Point [in the UK], and does not invest enough in renewables,” he said.
In another interview he said France should have a “medium-term target” of stopping to use nuclear power completely. Some people who have worked with him, however, say that despite his documentary films, strident views on the environment and criticism of nuclear power, he is pragmatic.
Mr Hulot, who ran unsuccessfully in 2012 to represent the Green party for the presidential election, has generally good relations with French business. EDF, and other groups such as L’Oréal and Carrefour, are listed as sponsors of his environmental foundation.
He has taken a moderate tone in recent interviews on specific issues, indicating that while he is a critic of nuclear power, he is realistic about how quickly the cheap and reliable energy from France’s 58 reactors can be replaced. Asked by Le Parisien newspaper in March about a possible closure of the Fessenheim nuclear plant, which Mr Hollande promised but did not imple- ment, Mr Hulot said the closure was important but would have a social cost.
“We cannot impose a transition by force. The transition has to be done in an acceptable manner,” he said.
One person in the nuclear industry who has worked with him said: “We think that he will be pragmatic about balancing the need to keep France’s strength in nuclear power with a need for more renewable energy as well.”
Others point out that any attempts by Mr Hulot to radically shift the energy landscape will be balanced by Mr Macron as well as Edouard Philippe, the new prime minister, who worked as a lobbyist for nuclear group Areva from 2007 to 2010.
Mr Hulot was born in Lille. He spent a few months at university in Paris before working as a photojournalist in the 1970s, later moving into television and making a series of popular documentaries about the environment called Ushuaia. He has long been involved in environmental politics, particularly efforts to seal the Paris accord on global warming in 2015.
‘The political situation offers an opportunity for action. I can’t ignore that’ Nicolas Hulot