The 500 workers making parts for wind turbines at a new factory in the northern French port of Le Havre have few illusions about what an election victory for Marine Le Pen might mean.
The far-right rival to Emmanuel Macron has not only pledged to stop developing the wind farms that this plant would supply, she also wants to start dismantling turbines that have already been built, dismissing them as blots on the landscape.
“In terms of jobs here, there’s not much of a debate to be had over what the fallout would be,” said Mathis Heurtaux, a subcontractor at the factory run by Siemens Gamesa.
Last month, employees began to assemble parts for towering 80-metre offshore turbines, which France — a laggard compared with the likes of Denmark and Britain — is beginning to install.
For Macron, who visited the Le Havre factory as he stepped up his re-election campaign last week, Le Pen’s policies represent an obvious target as he seeks support from environmentally conscious voters ahead of the April 24 vote.
Both are looking to woo the 7.7mn people who backed leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, many lured by green promises such as more organic farming and a phaseout of nuclear power in favour of renewable energy. Two-thirds of Mélenchon supporters who took part in a party poll have indicated they could abstain or vote blank, with the rest opting to back Macron. Le Pen was not given as an option.
“I hear the anxiety felt by many young today,” Macron told a crowd of supporters in the southern city of Marseille on Saturday as he referred directly to the concerns of Mélenchon voters and pitched the election as a “referendum on the environment and a referendum on youth”. He pledged to go faster on cutting greenhouse gases and said France should be the first major nation to make a complete exit from coal and gas.
Onshore wind farms produce about 10 per cent of French energy today — alleviating some of the pain from temporary nuclear reactor shutdowns that have cut output from France’s primary source of power just as Europe is trying to wean itself off Russian gas.
Macron’s record on the environment is at best mixed in the eyes of green campaigners, who accuse him of not going far enough in cutting emissions or developing renewable energy. While he banned some short-haul domestic flights and upped incentives for electric cars and more efficient boilers, he also pushed back until 2050 a target to double onshore wind farm capacity, two decades later than originally envisaged.
This year Macron also made a big commitment to renew France’s nuclear power capacity, saying he wanted to build at least six reactors in the coming decades to replace ageing ones. Nuclear energy has helped cut France’s carbon emissions, but has its detractors largely because of concerns about how to treat highly toxic waste.
“Macron has said everything and anything on the environment. He said no to pesticides and then brought some back,” said Marie-Claude, a retired teacher and anti-nuclear campaigner from Le Havre. After voting for Mélenchon in the first round, and for Macron five years ago, she said she would now vote blank on April 24. “I just can’t find what I want,” she said.
Le Pen, who champions a “non-punitive” approach to the environment, wants to take France out of an EU “green deal” that Macron has championed. It would make companies pay more for the cost of polluting in order to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
The far-right candidate, who told France 3 on Sunday she was not a climate change denier, has stopped short of saying she would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, as former US president Donald Trump did. But her manifesto advocates reaching commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions “at the rhythm [France] will have chosen”.
“Macron has not been a fantastic president for the environment. But it’s not been a disaster as some people say,” said François-Marie Bréon, a researcher at France’s Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment. Le Pen’s climate policies “clearly don’t take us in the right direction”, he added.
In keeping with her campaign’s focus on living costs, Le Pen couches her green position in terms of how it would affect ordinary voters.
She plans to end investments in solar and wind power, saying this would allow her to reduce value added tax on fuel. The measure, aimed at drivers and some rural residents, is a reminder of the “yellow vest” protests that marred Macron’s first term in office when he tried to introduce a fuel surcharge as a form of green levy.
“Environmental changes . . . can have a regressive effect, which Macron knows well from his attempt to introduce the carbon tax,” said Anna Creti, an economics professor specialising in the environment at Paris Dauphine University.
She said Macron could have outlined how he planned to tackle this, adding that options included targeted measures and decentralising some decisions.
Le Pen’s arguments have alarmed companies in France’s nascent renewable energy sector. One executive involved in offshore wind projects said there was “a real concern for jobs”. Another said he was convinced Le Pen would have to reverse course so as not to imperil energy supplies.
Le Pen would go even further than Macron in expanding nuclear energy, pushing for 20 new plants. That would be difficult to achieve given the billions of euros of investment required and the years reactors take to build, experts said.
Her wind proposals could be difficult to implement too, said Creti. “She’d have to hire as many lawyers as there are wind turbines today in France to try and undo existing concessions.”
At the turbines parts factory, supply quality engineer Guy Bandolo said he was comfortable about voting for Macron after the president’s turn towards green issues. “If that risk of taking down turbines is real, what would happen to all the people [working on them] and the investments?” Bandolo said.
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