French constitutional change on environmental preservation faces long road ahead

integrating environmental preservation into Article 1 of the Constitution is far from being successful, especially since the Senate is now held by a right-wing Republican majority. EPA-EFE/Christophe Ena / POOL MAXPPP OUT [EPA-EFE/Christophe Ena]

The French government will unveil a draft revision of the Constitution on Wednesday (20 January) to include the notion of environmental preservation. While the ultimate aim is to submit this proposal to the French public, holding a referendum seems a distant prospect. EURACTIV France reports.

The draft law aiming to include environmental preservation in Article 1 of the Constitution, a text that has been hotly debated for several months, will be presented to the Council of Ministers on Wednesday (20 January). Last December, in front of the members of the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate meeting at the Iéna Palace, President Emmanuel Macron said he was in favour of modifying Article 1.

With the last referendum in France dating back to 2005 and the environment not being an issue that has been put to a public vote before, holding a referendum on environmental preservation promises to be a major event.

But the road leading to public consultation is long and full of pitfalls.

“The text must first be sent to the National Council for Ecological Transition – which was done a few days ago – before being presented to the Council of Ministers,” Arnaud Gossement, a lawyer specialising in environmental law, told EURACTIV France.

“Afterwards, as defined in Article 89 of the Constitution, the draft revision must be voted in identical terms by the Assembly and the Senate. It is only once these steps have been taken that a referendum can be held, so not before several months at best,” he added.

Political obstacles

Moreover, integrating environmental preservation into Article 1 of the Constitution is far from being sure, especially since the Senate currently has a right-wing Republican majority.

“The place that must be given to the environment […] must rise to the same level as the fundamental laws, but cannot be placed above them,” the Senate’s Republican President Gérard Larcher (LR) told Europe1/Cnews in an interview on Sunday (17 January).

Instead, the Senate’s president would prefer “not to include this principle of climate protection in the preamble of the Constitution”, but rather “put it in an article at the same level as other fundamental freedoms,” such as “the freedom to conduct a business”.

The idea of introducing an environmental concept into the Constitution is not new.

Former Green MP Cécile Duflot tabled an identical proposal before the National Assembly in 2016, while Ecological Transition Minister Nicolas Hulot tried in 2018 to enshrine the idea of an “Ecological Republic” in the Constitution.

Most recently, former En Marche MP Matthieu Orphelin made a similar suggestion in his proposal for a constitutional bill introduced in July 2020. “If the executive really wanted to move quickly on this subject, it would be enough for it to take up my constitutional bill tabled last summer,” Orphelin told the environmental media Reporterre.

A political strategy? 

Faced with such obstacles, many observers see this draft constitutional law as a political manoeuvre on the part of the Élysée Palace.

“Emmanuel Macron is very good at political strategy and the idea of a referendum, at this point in the mandate, can be a diversion,” said Orphelin.

For his part, Gossement stated that “it is clear that the revision project has little chance of going through to the end. Obtaining a vote of conformity from the Senate will be complicated, and not only because senators would be reluctant to introduce an ecological concept in the Constitution”.

“Approving this draft revision also gives Emmanuel Macron a chance to launch his campaign. Let’s not forget that we are one year away from the presidential elections,” he added.

The draft revision has attracted further criticism, particularly from legal experts who do not see it as truly guaranteeing the preservation of the environment.

“A useless symbol for an unlikely referendum,” tweeted Gossement, explaining that “the Republic guarantees the preservation of biodiversity and the environment, and fights against climate change.”

We already have everything we need in Article 2 of the Charter for the Environment, which states that “everyone has a duty to take part” in preserving the environment,” the lawyer added.

According to him, a “real step forward” would be to incorporate into the bill the “principle of non-regression, as defined under Article 110 of the environment code”. Talking about a “constant improvement” in environmental protection would be “infinitely more constructive”, Gossement added.

Macron and the citizens' convention divided on climate issues

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with members of the Citizens’ Climate Convention on Monday (14 December). Although his announcement of a potential referendum on climate and environment made a lot of noise, the heated debate revealed continuing tensions between citizens and the executive. EURACTIV France reports.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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