[This article grew out of a comment I left on a French sceptical site which I mention below, which got some very positive reactions. I hope to encourage French-speaking sceptics to participate in the discussion. It’s clear from reading French sceptic sites that many French sceptics have no trouble reading English, but may feel nervous about writing it. Please feel free to make comments in French if you want, and I’ll translate them, (if they’re not too long!)]
I’ve been meaning to write about climate scepticism in France for a long time. As I indicated at
it’s not easy to do without going into a lot of background detail about the politics and the state of the media. The arguments used on both sides are pretty much identical to those heard in Britain or the USA, but the cultural differences mean that the debate can seem utterly different in its nature.
A major difference arises from the French electoral system, which ensures the presence of a sizeable group of Ecology Party MPs. The French public are also familiar with dozens of other Green Party personalities who are not in parliament; Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born examining magistrate; José Bové, the moustachioed pipe-smoking peasant; Nicolas Hulot the presenter of popular TV nature programmes; Dany Cohn Bendit the Franco-German hero of May ‘68 – these and many others give ecology a political and media presence which the British Ecology Party can’t hope to equal, and which is out of all proportion to their political support, which hovers round 2-3% in national elections.
The French attachment to its culinary and agricultural traditions also gives ecology a very specifically French air. It’s much more about protecting French cuisine against the invasion of “le fast food” than about the ethical puritanism of the Anglo-Saxon variety. Dismantling a Macdonalds is a more popular stunt than climbing a power station chimney. And anyway, power station chimneys are a rare sight, since France’s electricity is 80% nuclear, relatively cheap, and available for export when Britain’s coal-fired stations wheeze their last gasp.
Despite the fact that the French ecology movement seems more aesthetic than technical when compared to the equivalent movements in English-speaking countries, there’s plenty of room for debate about “le Changement Climatique”. This is largely due to the pathetically poor quality of French TV. There are loads of channels, many of them minority channels concentrating on news and culture in order to attract the moneyed middle classes and the advertising aimed at them. So there’s lots of debate on the telly, though it’s late at night and attracts small audiences. Debate is cheap, particularly if it’s between intellectuals who will appear for free in order to push their latest book.
There are at least three prominent French scientists who are vocal climate sceptics. Paul Reiter and Vincent Courtillot, both of whom are on the Academic Advisory Board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, are probably too grand to appear on the average TV debate (please correct me if I’m wrong about that!).
The third sceptical scientist, Claude Allegre, a distinguished vulcanologist, is probably the only climate sceptic who is a household name in France – unfortunately. Unfortunately, because Allegre was recently one of the most hated figures in French politics. He was unknown to the French public until in 1997 he was made Education Minister by his old friend, socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, and immediately announced his intention to “cut the fat off the mammoth”. All education ministers announce their intention to streamline the French education system and reduce its impressive budget, but few as crudely as Allegre. His career ended as the careers of most French education ministers do, with millions of students and teachers on the streets demonstrating. Allegre added a touch of North Korean-style contempt for democracy by refusing to talk to the press for ten months. Teachers are the backbone of the socialist party, and also the core audience for late night tv debates. The chance of persuading any of them to take climate scepticism seriously are vanishingly small, given their lasting hatred for the only sceptic known to the public.
Allegre did nothing to improve his reputation when he published a book, “l’Imposture Climatique” in the form of a long interview with a journalist, a style of book which is unfortunately very popular. It’s quick and cheap to produce, but the result is usually pretty rubbishy. Allegre’s scepticism is perfectly orthodox, of the Lomborg / GWPF variety, but a number of graphs which seemed to have been drawn by a five-year-old made the book an easy target, and the environment correspondent of “Libération” replied with a book “L’imposture – C’est Lui”.
I watched a couple of TV debates recently, one of which featured Jean Jouzel, vice-president of the IPCC, who was seconded by an Ecology party MEP, and opposed by Pascal Bruckner, a well-known essayist (or philosopher, as the French call almost anyone who writes a book) and Benoît Rittaud, a maths lecturer who has written a book called “le Mythe Climatique”, which was rubbished by Jouzel in le Figaro a few years ago.
The debate started predictably. Jouzel speaks well, and properly refused to attribute the recent hurricane in the Philippines to global warming. The ecologist burbled about putting energy production under the control of local authorities, as if a windmill and a solar panel on every mairie would do the trick. Pascal Bruckner was little better, in my opinion. He’s established a solid reputation as an opponent of “la pensée unique” – the unfortunate herd mentality of French thinkers which makes them a prey to whatever intellectual craze is in fashion – and he’s a trenchant critic of the green taste for self-flagellation. But there’s only so many times you can say “I’m not a scientist, but…” in a debate without seeming ridiculous.
Rittaud made some good points, but as soon as he got on to the 15-year pause in temperature rise Jouzel was onto him, interrupting continuously, and the debate deteriorated into a shouting match, as French TV debates usually do.
[When they’re dodging bullets on the streets of Damascus (and sometimes, alas, not dodging them) French journalists are second to none. But when it comes to mastering a subject in order to conduct a live debate, they’re about as useful as the French Highway Code is for negotiating French traffic].
This used to annoy me, but I put it down to a cultural difference which is not entirely negative. It goes with the tolerance of disruptive demonstrations, disorderly queuing and a lot of other things. George Orwell made a similar observation about the Republican Army outfit he was attached to in the Spanish Civil War. Anarchy and disorder are annoying at first, but you can have too much discipline and rationality. (Orwell made the point in a quasi-racist way which I hope I’ve avoided).
I found a post by Benoît Rittaud at
and left a comment, suggesting that it would be interesting to compare the way the climate debate is conducted in the two countries. My comment got a lot of encouraging replies, which is what prompted this article.
I hope my brief caricature of the French debate is not too cruel or misleading. Comments on cultural differences between countries are always false in some way, and often appear condescending or insulting. Please don’t hesitate to point out any mistakes.
The two other French blogs I’ve looked at, and which I’ll be exploring further, besides Skyfall, are