Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the Dangers of ‘Eco-Nationalism’

France’s ascendant far-right claims to care about climate change. Activists in Paris explain why that’s a problem--for France and the rest of us.

Kate Aronoff December 11, 2015

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right Front National, has a plan for climate change. (Global Panorama / Flickr)

In front of a rau­cous crowd in South Car­oli­na on Mon­day night, White House hope­ful Don­ald Trump called for a total and com­plete shut­down of Mus­lims enter­ing the Unit­ed States.” Across the pond, the woman who has already one-upped Trump’s big­otry just had the best night of her career. The Front Nation­al — France’s pre­vi­ous­ly fringe ultra-right par­ty — swept six of the country’s 13 elec­toral regions in first-round elec­tions on Sun­day. My aim is clear,” pro­claimed par­ty leader Marine Le Pen: Stop immi­gra­tion, both legal and illegal.”

Le Pen’s “eco-nationalism,” and similarly “eco-friendly” right-wings in Hungary and Denmark, might be a preview of how the environmentalism of the U.S. Right will evolve as denialism becomes less viable in the coming months and years.

Pun­dits in the Unit­ed States have right­ly drawn com­par­isons between Le Pen’s xeno­pho­bic, anti-immi­grant rhetoric and Trump’s, not­ing their shared Islam­o­pho­bia and surg­ing poll num­bers. Less dis­cussed have been their respec­tive stances on cli­mate change, despite the 21st Con­fer­ence of Par­ties that has been tak­ing place in Paris over the last two weeks. Le Pen’s over­all approach on cli­mate is far more sophis­ti­cat­ed than Trump’s, and if the ascen­dan­cy of far-right xeno­phobes around the world — includ­ing in the Unit­ed States — is accom­pa­nied by the spread of her brand of eco-nation­al­ism, so-called solu­tions to the cli­mate cri­sis could spell dystopia for society’s worst-off.

Denial vs. cooptation

Trump denies cli­mate change, like the rest of the Repub­li­can Par­ty. When the tem­per­a­ture dropped in Octo­ber, he quipped, Man, we could use a big fat dose of glob­al warming!”

But as Trump and the rest of the GOP beat the drums of denial­ism, the French Right oper­ates in a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal con­text. In France, deny­ing cli­mate change is seen as out of touch with polit­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic real­i­ty. Le Pen laments the 50 per­cent rise of green­house gasses since the Kyoto Protocol’s 1997 sign­ing. The Front Nation­al even have their own cli­mate ini­tia­tive: New Ecol­o­gy,” which seeks to dis­tance envi­ron­men­tal­ism from the left’s utopi­an solu­tions” and under­stand ecol­o­gy prag­mat­i­cal­ly.” Fam­i­ly, nature and race” are at the core, along­side mil­i­tant bor­der pro­tec­tions and the rejec­tion of both free trade agree­ments and the UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change respon­si­ble for the Paris talks, which they call a com­mu­nist project.”

Some items in the New Ecol­o­gy” plat­form might sur­prise a U.S. audi­ence not used to hear­ing con­ser­v­a­tives talk cli­mate. A decar­boniza­tion of the econ­o­my” is men­tioned, as well as eco­log­i­cal patri­o­tism, respect for wildlife and ener­gy tran­si­tion by mon­e­tary independence.”

French cli­mate orga­niz­ers can attest that a polit­i­cal land­scape free of cli­mate deniers is not one full of allies. In a debate last Decem­ber, Le Pen accused French Green Par­ty Nation­al Sec­re­tary Emmanuelle Cosse of pro­mot­ing a pro­found­ly anti-eco­log­i­cal mod­el through the Euro­pean Union and through the absence of bor­ders.” While New Ecology’s dog whis­tle is shinier than Le Pen’s, FN envi­ron­men­tal­ists still see the ques­tion of anthro­pogenic warm­ing as a very tech­ni­cal ques­tion.” Though not deniers, some mem­bers may well be cli­mate skep­tics, and are cer­tain­ly less seri­ous about actu­al­ly address­ing glob­al warm­ing than their mes­sag­ing might lead you to believe. There are pros and cons to the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence,” a mem­ber of the FN’s envi­ron­ment com­mit­tee told The Guardian last year. We have to find out what real­ly comes from human activ­i­ty, or doesn’t.” Accord­ing to one activist here in Paris, I’m not inter­est­ed at all about what they think about the envi­ron­ment. I know that they have those plat­forms — but it’s the Front National!”

New Ecol­o­gy is just one part of the FN that forms a coher­ent and reac­tionary whole: decar­boniza­tion with a side of ramped-up bor­der secu­ri­ty and fas­cist lite” author­i­tar­i­an­ism, as some are call­ing the recent­ly madeover Front National. 

Why it appeals

Le Pen’s eco-nation­al­ism,” and sim­i­lar­ly eco-friend­ly” right-wings in Hun­gary and Den­mark, might be a pre­view of how the envi­ron­men­tal­ism of the U.S. Right will evolve as denial­ism becomes less viable in the com­ing months and years.

Beyond racism, anti-estab­lish­men­tar­i­an­ism, patri­o­tism and nos­tal­gia, per­haps the strongest defin­ing qual­i­ty of far-right pop­ulists is flex­i­bil­i­ty. Insur­gent pol­i­tics are often bet­ter at adapt­ing to evolv­ing polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances than the entrenched par­ties that stick to their dog-eared polit­i­cal scripts.

The FN’s rise was due in large part to Le Pen’s abil­i­ty to take polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness seri­ous­ly. As his­to­ri­an Hugh McDon­nell has detailed for Jacobin, she set out sev­er­al years ago to mod­ern­ize the Front by purg­ing jack­boot­ed thugs and Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers — includ­ing her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who head­ed the par­ty for near­ly 40 years. Cer­tain kinds of racism and anti-Semi­tism (like call­ing the Holo­caust a detail” of his­to­ry, as Jean-Marie has repeat­ed­ly) had become a stum­bling block for the FN in win­ning over local gov­ern­ment seats and more cen­trist con­ser­v­a­tives. Her de-demo­niz­ing” of the Front paid off at the polls, with 11 new­ly FN-con­trolled munic­i­pal­i­ties and a first-place fin­ish in 2014’s Euro­pean Par­lia­men­tary Elec­tions. The dri­ve also sewed resent­ment among long-time FN appa­ratchiks. A for­mer sec­re­tary gen­er­al McDon­nell quotes once groaned, “[Jean-Marie] was capa­ble of defend­ing his ideas even if they weren’t pop­u­lar. His daugh­ter defends what is pop­u­lar what­ev­er the ideas.”

Marie Le Pen was try­ing to main­stream her polit­i­cal par­ty,” says Juli­ette Rousseau, coor­di­na­tor and spokes­woman for the 130-plus-mem­ber Coali­tion Cli­mate 21, a French-anchored bloc of civ­il soci­ety groups, social move­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives and net­works that’s been lead­ing up many of the out­side orga­niz­ing efforts around COP21.. At some moment, it became evi­dent for every­one that they had to some­how talk about the envi­ron­ment if they want­ed to look responsible.”

Cas Mud­de, author of Pop­ulist Rad­i­cal Right Par­ties in Europe and oth­er works on the sub­ject, defines pop­ulism as a thin-cen­tered ide­ol­o­gy,” an idea orig­i­nal­ly coined by polit­i­cal the­o­rist Michael Free­den. Pop­ulism, says Mud­de, argues that pol­i­tics should be an expres­sion of the volonté gen­er­al (gen­er­al will) of the peo­ple.” As belief in denial­ism los­es ground in the US, Trump’s will­ing­ness to buck polit­i­cal con­ven­tion could see him turn a cor­ner on cli­mate faster than his run­ning mates. And that has con­se­quences even if Trump doesn’t become the nom­i­nee: Adopt­ing the plat­forms that have riled Trump’s mass­es would be a log­i­cal, if ter­ri­fy­ing, step for a GOP now in crisis.

A Huff­in­g­ton Post/​YouGov poll con­duct­ed just before COP21 showed that 57 sup­port of Amer­i­cans sup­port a U.S. pledge to cut emis­sions by 2050. Dur­ing this week’s cli­mate talks, a spread of unlike­ly actors have got­ten, behind some kind of cli­mate action, how­ev­er vague­ly defined. Bill Gates, Richard Bran­son and Mark Zucker­berg all pledged their for­tunes to sup­port research into renew­able ener­gy, and multi­na­tion­als like Coca-Cola, Apple and Pfiz­er have also used COP21 to jump on the cli­mate bandwagon.

Whether or not the U.S. Right under­goes a cli­mate change con­ver­sion, how­ev­er, COP21 has made clear that the next fight on cli­mate change will be about how — not whether — to slow it, and who will bear the costs. An Oxfam study released last week found that the rich­est 10 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion pro­duces 50 per­cent of its emis­sions; those already feel­ing the brunt of cli­mate impacts tend to be poor­er, brown­er and more pre­car­i­ous. What will either a cor­po­rate-led or xeno­pho­bic envi­ron­men­tal­ism do for them?

Cli­mate crackdown

At the talks, gov­ern­ments like the Unit­ed States have moved past ques­tion­ing whether or not glob­al warm­ing exists to mak­ing their best effort to wig­gle out of their dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed [finan­cial] respon­si­bil­i­ties,” as the Paris Accords’ draft-text states, for warm­ing as his­tor­i­cal emit­ters. It was only at the urg­ing of Glob­al South del­e­gates and grass­roots forces that they final­ly agreed to a 1.5 degree cap on ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. The chances of a legal­ly bind­ing agree­ment remain slim. Most like­ly, this means it will be up to move­ments in del­e­gates’ home coun­tries to ensure that gov­ern­ments stick to whatever’s agreed to next week­end — and do much, much more. 

I spoke with Rousseau in a base­ment cor­ner of the Cli­mate Action Zone (“ZAC”) north of Paris, as green-vest­ed vol­un­teers took over­due naps in chairs around us. The artists’ res­i­dence has become the base of oper­a­tions for the cli­mate actions tak­ing place in Paris in defi­ance of a gov­ern­ment ban on protests and out­side events.” French police have con­duct­ed 2,000 raids since the State of Emer­gency began after the Novem­ber 13 attacks, and 24 cli­mate activists were placed under house arrest. Yet protests inside and out­side of COP, par­tic­u­lar­ly those call­ing for a 1.5‑degree tar­get, have per­sist­ed, and played a cen­tral role in push­ing COP nego­tia­tors to adopt more aggres­sive poli­cies. Orga­niz­ers promise that more protests will fol­low, despite the crackdowns.

We have a social­ist gov­ern­ment at the moment, which is restrain­ing our free­dom to demon­strate and to speak freely,” Rousseau says. So I can only assume that the FN will do worse.”

Giv­en the spec­ta­cle of Trump’s sup­port­ers pum­mel­ing a #Black­Lives­Mat­ter pro­test­er for inter­rupt­ing his speech, Amer­i­can orga­niz­ers might well har­bor sim­i­lar concerns. 

The move­ment beyond climate 

When it comes to regres­sive envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies like the Nation­al Front’s, it could also be pro­test­ers’ job to ensure that progress on the cli­mate doesn’t mean tighter bor­ders, vio­lent tar­get­ing of refugees already with­in them, and a gen­er­al­ly more hos­tile and dan­ger­ous envi­ron­ment for peo­ple of color.

Over the next 35 years, the UN esti­mates that cli­mate change could cre­ate any­where between 200 mil­lion and 1 bil­lion cli­mate refugees, adding to the many already being dis­placed by war and asso­ci­at­ed polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty. A pro­gres­sive response, con­tra Le Pen and French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hollande’s own rein­state­ment of strict bor­der con­trols, would be an open­ing of bor­ders and expan­sion of real eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties to ensure that solu­tions” to cli­mate cri­sis aren’t sim­ply sus­tain­able enclaves for the rich and white with mil­i­ta­rized borders.

I’m not inter­est­ed in a world that is still unequal, where some parts of the envi­ron­ment are pro­tect­ed, and inequal­i­ty is based on the col­or of your skin, your class, the place where you live,” says Rousseau“We’re not [only] defend­ing Plan­et Earth. What’s behind the cli­mate ques­tion is the ques­tion of what kind of soci­ety can we hope to live in in the future.”

Despite the FN’s vic­to­ry, Rousseau, for her part, sees a way for­ward. Where peo­ple are mis­tak­en is that I don’t believe that we can fight that kind of ide­ol­o­gy in a sin­gle elec­tion. I think you fight it on a dai­ly basis. You fight it not accept­ing that peo­ple are being — every day — pro­filed by police because of their skin col­or. You don’t accept that you have so many migrants sleep­ing on the streets with their chil­dren,” she tells me, before rush­ing off to anoth­er meet­ing. That makes me con­vinced that what we do here is absolute­ly essential.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH