Macron’s film-maker choice on en­ergy puts nuclear in frame

Financial Times USA - - INTERNATIONAL - MICHAEL STOTHARD — PARIS

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

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