Aux Armes, Citoyens! France’s New Green Revolution

By Rachel Arthur

5 months ago

How the French nation is changing for the better


Will France’s history of activism mean it leads the way when it comes to sustainable change in Europe? asks Rachel Arthur.

France’s New Green Revolution

For the first time in over a century, you will be able to swim in the River Seine in Paris. Thanks to a €1.4bn (£1.2bn) regeneration project started in 2018 as part of the run up to the Paris Olympics, three open-air swimming areas will be made accessible to the public in 2025. The historic clean-up has meant fish have returned, the water is becoming clearer and, crucially, it will be safe to bathe in.

It’s not the only environmental change the Olympics in France have welcomed. In a bid to reduce carbon emissions, a ban on short-haul flights came into effect in May 2023 where passengers can instead travel by rail within two-and-a-half hours. It is a world-first, albeit one that was referred to as symbolic by environmentalists who called on the government to impose even stricter rules for it to have an impact.

The River Seine running through Paris

‘For the first time in over a century, you will be able to swim in the River Seine in Paris.’ ©Jarod Barton, Pexels

That need is only becoming more pressing. Last year has been declared the hottest in human history, with record-breaking heatwaves, flooding and wild fires resulting in thousands of deaths and even more displacements worldwide. ‘We are living through climate collapse in real time, and the impact is devastating,’ said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

While France has a relatively small carbon footprint per capita compared to many of its European neighbours, its proactive policy approach to the challenges presented by the climate crisis see it as one of the most influential countries in the region.

‘The EU and other European countries are taking inspiration from what we’ve been doing in France and trying to better understand how it could be applied to their country,’ explains Ellie Dahan-Lamort, advocacy and community manager at circular fashion body Fédération de la Mode Circulaire. Reforming fashion is one industry where French policy has particularly leaned in.

One example is repairs. As of October 2023, French people are able to claim back between €6 and €25 from the government to mend their clothes and shoes. The aim is to reduce the estimated 700,000 tonnes of clothing discarded in the country each year.

Other key policies impacting fashion include a ban on the destruction of unsold garments, compulsory environmental labelling on all items, and an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulation that means producers have to pay for the collection and recycling of their products at end of life.

As with anyone first out the gate, there are plenty of lessons to be learned. ‘It’s a starting point,’ says Dounia Wone, chief sustainability and inclusion officer at French luxury resale platform, Vestiaire Collective. ‘But any country or institution that wants to be inspired by the French model should think at least of how they can do it better.’

Vestiaire is lobbying within the EU particularly on the volume of textile waste that gets exported to low-income countries. It is only by tackling overproduction and overconsumption that we will get to the true heart of the problem, explains Dounia.

In a study of carbon footprint related to fashion consumption across G20 countries by the Hot or Cool Institute, France was shown to have the lowest per capita consumption among high-income countries. And yet, this is still too high.

In order for fashion to contribute to the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement on climate, fashion consumption will need to reduce by 12 percent in France by 2030. The richest 20 percent of the population will need to go even further, cutting how much they buy by 50 percent. In the UK, this number is 83 percent.

Close up of person in stripe shirt with a sewing kit sat next to pink tulle fabric

‘As of October 2023, French people are able to claim back between €6 and €25 from the government to mend their clothes and shoes.’ © Kris Atomic, Unsplash

Katia Vladimirova, senior researcher and lecturer at the University of Geneva, and one of the authors of the report, points to recent history as to how this could be possible. In the 1950s-60s, Parisiennes used to own an average of just 30-40 garments, she shares. The idea of a sufficiency wardrobe, something Katia promotes, is thus in living memory.

‘Getting an outfit [at that time] was a rite of passage and respected art, so you chose carefully and it would last,’ explains fashion expert and consultant Camilla Morton.

‘There is much to learn from French society. There is a joie de vivre that I feel in other cultures, which are more consumption oriented, is lacking,’ Katia continues. ‘The French pass time in bookshops rather than in clothing shops; they go to the boulangerie. It’s a different way compared to the UK, for instance, where shopping is a way to console or reward.’

This focus on sufficiency is also coming through at the policy level. In 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron and Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire wore roll neck sweaters instead of shirts and ties to introduce the ‘energy sobriety’ plan. Its aim is to encourage restraint when it comes to one’s individual energy consumption.

That same thought was reflected on consumption more broadly in an awareness campaign from the French ecological transition agency (Ademe) for Black Friday 2023, which encouraged shoppers to buy less and buy better. It suggested a second-hand phone in one of the ads and keeping the sweater someone is already wearing in another.

Christophe Béchu, French minister of ecological transition and territorial cohesion, said: ‘If we want to complete our ecological transition while preserving our prosperity and freedoms, we have no choice but to move towards greater sobriety in the way we consume.’

The campaign was condemned by various commercial players for potential harm caused to business and employment, but this is perhaps what made it all the more a talking point, suggests Ellie.

A survey from Ademe found 83 percent of French people believe we consume too much. Previous research showed 85 percent are ready to make changes to their day-to-day behaviour.

The balance between what serves the planet and what serves people is a ne one to tread. It’s something the French know well from the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement of 2018, which saw protests against a planned tax rise on diesel and petrol to support the green energy transition, held across the country. But it is also this sort of citizen action that will lead France to continued progress. ‘This protest mindset puts the topic at the forefront of the political agenda, and that’s where we see change happen,’ notes Dounia.

Do the French do sustainability better? They’re certainly laying the groundwork for the rest of us to follow. We can start with a swim in the Seine – ideally wearing a swimming costume we already own.