Blow for France's Macron as star minister quits

Frédéric POUCHOT, Adam PLOWRIGHT

Emmanuel Macron suffered a major blow to his authority and green credentials on Tuesday as his popular environment minister resigned live on radio -- without informing the French president beforehand.

Nicolas Hulot, a TV celebrity and one of the most respected members of the cabinet among the public, announced the news on France Inter radio, taking both his interviewers and government colleagues by surprise.

"I am taking the decision to leave the government," Hulot said, explaining he felt "all alone" on environmental issues in a government committed to the same economic model "that is the cause of all the problems".

"I hope my departure will trigger deep soul-searching by our society on the realities of our world," Hulot added.

A government spokesman ripped into Hulot for not taking "the most basic of courtesies" to inform Macron or the prime minister before quitting -- an unprecedented move for a French minister, analysts said.

But Macron responded that Hulot was "a free man" and that he respected his decision.

"I hope I will be able to count on his commitment in another form," Macron said on a trip to Copenhagen.

Hulot, 63, was lured into government last year by Macron but has repeatedly clashed with his cabinet colleagues over policy.

"We're taking little steps, and France is doing a lot more than other countries, but are little steps enough? ... the answer is no," he added, after months of speculation over his role in government.

- Macron's woes pile up -

His departure adds to mounting problems for Macron, who swept to power in May last year promising to end decades of high unemployment and reform the European Union.

Due to slowing economic growth, his government is having difficulties drawing up the 2019 budget which saw Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announce at the weekend that he was dropping targets for reducing the deficit.

At the diplomatic level, Macron is struggling to convince his European partners of the need for a more integrated EU as nationalist governments make gains across the continent.

The president also suffered a major political scandal this summer when a senior security aide was filmed manhandling protesters, and his poll ratings have slumped to their lowest-ever levels.

Hulot's exit also risks undercutting Macron's credentials as a leading campaigner internationally against climate change which has seen him adopt the catchphrase "Make our planet great again".

- Macron's record under fire -

His resignation "will signal to the public that the government isn't doing much" when it comes to the environment, said Daniel Boy, an environmental specialist at political research centre Cevipof.

While Macron claims he is "neither of the left or right", the shock announcement will further erode support from the centre-left after criticism that his economic policies favours the rich, Boy predicted.

While saying he had "profound admiration" for Macron, Hulot made a series of damaging remarks, denouncing the influence of "lobbies" and "targets that we know in advance we won't meet".

The TV star was left disappointed when the government backtracked on a target to cut back on nuclear power, while EU negotiations on pesticides were another source of frustration.

On Monday, the cost of a hunting licence was cut in half -- a final bitter pill for the vegetarian and animal rights campaigner, who faced accusations from fellow activists that he did not hold enough sway over government decisions.

Formerly the presenter of the hit Ushuaia environmental TV programme, Hulot had repeatedly turned down offers to enter government by previous French presidents.

He was widely reported to be close to quitting in February after media reports that he had been accused in the 1990s of rape, which he denied.

Macron's record on the environment is mixed.

Despite Hulot's frustrations, the president has made the battle against global warming one of his foreign policy priorities, hoping to compensate for US President Donald Trump's climate scepticism.

Macron also led efforts at the EU level to reduce the use of the controversial weedkiller chemical glyphosate and has scrapped a proposed airport in western France, partly on environmental grounds.

"Do you do an environmental revolution in one year? The response is no," government spokesman Griveaux said. "I prefer little steps to not moving."

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