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French Demi-Tour: The Party Who Banned Fracking Says Never Say ‘Jamais’

Natural Gas Europe

It’s been almost four-and-a-half years since the passing of the law banning hydraulic fracturing (fracking) by the French parliament – a lifetime in politics. And a lot can change given enough time – including party opinions.

The once-ruling, right-wing party Les Republicains introduced the anti-fracking bill on the floor of the French parliament back in 2011, citing the “extremely harmful impact” of the hydraulic fracturing technique on the environment. But times and politics change and the party, which is now in opposition, has made a complete reversal on the issue. So much so that these days, it publicly and vocally embraces shale gas opportunities.

On February 14, Luc Chatel, stated that “Les Republicains must be the party that chooses the innovation principle over the precautionary principle – the party of shale gas, GMOs, biotechnologies. It’s my firm conviction.” It’s a strong statement from the leader of a party that could win the next presidential election in 2017.

Chatel is no small voice in French politics. A political advisor to former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, he is now president of the National Council of Les Republicains (formerly UMP). He was elected on February 13 with 55% of the votes.

The right keener on fracking

The reactions across the political spectrum to the party’s U-turn indicate a marked difference in the attitudes of the right and the left in France. The reactions of right-wing politicians have been few.

Though many politicians on the right don’t think France should necessarily develop shale gas resources, a majority are in a favour of explorations to assess the potential of the non-conventional resources.

That may explain why Sarkozy’s top opponent in the ongoing primary campaign to be the party’s presidential candidate in 2017 – Sarkozy is running again for the nomination – has not criticised Chatel’s comments.

Former prime minister Alain Juppe, who is leading in the polls, has taken a measured position in relation to recent times. In April 2015 he said that “France should have an experimental centre to have a better and accurate understanding of what is at stake. Instead of refusing everything, I think this centre would be useful under strict control necessary precautions so we can select techniques with an acceptable impact on the environment.” Juppe – who has also previously blasted “fundamentalist environmentalists” – was Sarkozy’s environment minister for two months before losing his congressional seat in June 2007.

Maud Fontenoy, a former sailor in charge of environmental issues within Les Republicains, agrees. “I don’t understand why we should not explore our resources on principle as this source of energy could lead to jobs and wealth. We have to find new techniques with no negative impact on the environment. Nicolas Sarkozy has never talked about drilling operations but explorations,” Fontenoy told BFMTV in June 2015.

Fierce critics on the left

Though hydraulic fracturing is finding increasing support on the right, that position has not been reflected throughout French politics. Even Jean Christophe Lagarde, leader of the UDI centre-right party – a traditional political ally of Les Republicains – expressed shock at Chatel’s recent comments. “Luc Chatel’s words surprised me,” he said. “The impact of shale gas on the environment would be huge.”

As much as the position is struggling to find support with centre-right politicians, when it comes to parties and voters on the left, Chatel – and Juppe – may feel the pushback against fracking, particularly when it comes to voting time.

Fracking, according to a BVA poll released in October 2014, is not strongly supported by votes, with a clear division across party lines. In that poll, four out of five respondents who identified as left voters were against shale gas developments in France. Even among those who identified as right-wing, support for fracking was not unanimous; a small majority (51%) of right-wing voters supported fracking.

More than a year after that poll was conducted, the strong reactions of left-leaning parties to Chatel’s comments seem to indicate that opinion on the left has not changed since then.

Among those who criticised the comments was Denis Baupin, a member of the party Europe Ecology –the Greens and vice-president of the national assembly. He responded to Chatel’s comments on February 15 on LCP, France’s parliamentary television channel. “It’s a stunning setback and we will need to stand up against it,” he warned.

Francois Hollande’s Parti Socialiste, the ruling party in the national assembly, went even further in criticising the comments. In a statement, the party denounced the “anti-environment orientation” of Les Republicains. “Luc Chatel’s remarks in favour of shale gas illustrate a guilty and opportunistic shift of Les Republicains on this issue,” it said. The support of shale reflects “the old policies that do not work and do not meet the environmental, climate, social and economic challenges of the 21st century,” the statement said.

Total legal appeal revived the debate

Chatel’s comments did not happen in a vaccum. Shale gas is firmly back on the French political agenda following the ruling of the administrative court of Cergy-Pontoise on January 28. The court convened to hear the appeal of Total, whose Montelimar permit had been repealed in 2011 following the implementation of the fracking ban. Though the French oil company won its legal appeal by arguing that the permit that was granted made no mention of the use of hydraulic fracturing, the court decision has raised concerned among the local population. Many environmental and anti-fracking organisations have called for a rally in Barjac, in the department of Gard, on February 28. They are asking the government to change the law to ensure non-conventional resources cannot be explored in any way.

Sabine Buis, a socialist member of the national assembly representing a district impacted by the Total permit, presented a draft bill on January 27 aimed to reform the mining code. “I am pleased to fully enshrine in the mining code a ban on any development or exploration
of non-conventional liquid and gaseous resources, as a principle, whatever extraction technique is used,” Buis said.

Government stands firm

For the moment, while a party on the left remains in power, the French government’s position on fracking appears to remain the same.

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