Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot

You can hear the emotion in his voice. When Nicolas Hulot, Ministre de la Transition Ecologique et Solidaire, says that he has decided to leave the government, live on French radio station France Inter, his words shake with emotion. The announcement sent shock waves across the country this week.

Nicolas Hulot was a big catch when Macron formed his new government in May 2017. For years, French presidents from Chirac to Hollande had been vying to put his name on their environment portfolio. The fact that the well-known ecologist and TV personality of ‘Ushuaia’ fame finally agreed to join the new ‘En Marche’ government felt like a coup, and an indication that the president’s promise to ‘make our planet great again’ was more than just words.

Alas, the reality of this notoriously difficult portfolio was more than Hulot could bear. He is no career politician and I can only imagine that the daily meetings with dullards diplômés must have grated as the ice caps continued to melt. And the long, hot summer vacation gave him ample time to weigh up his options. Despite what many saw as significant progress over the past year, he could not reconcile himself to playing politics. Dumbing down what he sees as a planetary emergency in order to negotiate with lobby groups, each with its own agenda. Farmers, hunters, energy companies.

While some might see Hulot’s departure as a lack of courage, of abandoning ship in stormy seas, the French on the whole approve. For one simple reason: personal integrity. This unwillingness to sell out or compromise one’s beliefs is a value highly prized in France. Nicolas Hulot will be remembered as someone who had the courage of his convictions.

When I heard about the surprise announcement on the radio, I couldn’t help but think of Jacques Tati’s classic 1953 film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, aka Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I’ve never watched the entire movie, but this clip will give you its essence.

Are there similarities between Tati’s lovable but clumsy character and Nicolas Hulot? I see a few, from the fact that he has always seemed like a fish out of water amongst the smooth and smiling political elite, that he is rough around the edges and rather gauche at times. And, as I discovered while researching this post, Tati actually took inspiration for his ‘Monsieur Hulot’ from Hulot’s paternal grandfather, an architect who lived in the same apartment building as the filmmaker.

The word play is fairly obvious. As the French word for holiday is ‘vacances’ and the singular version of the word ‘vacance’ means a ‘vacancy’, the media have also played with this syncronicity of life imitating art.

https://www.letemps.ch/opinions/vacance-monsieur-hulot-agite-medias-etrangers

https://www.contrepoints.org/2018/08/28/323640-vacance-monsieur-hulot

So what do you think of Mr. Hulot’s post-holiday decision? Kudos or cowardice?

21 thoughts on “Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot

  1. Since he made a splash of it, he managed to highlight the stupid decision about the birds. People seem to think that if we just do everything like in the 1950s, it will be great, ignoring that we are no longer in the world of the 1950s. You can look out to the future and see that of course we are going to have to save every centimeter of wilderness, that we are going to have to stop using cars the way we have, that we are going to have to change our sources of energy, that we are going to have to stop polluting the air, water and land. The thing is that too many people want their familiar comforts now and aren’t willing to entertain the idea of different, perhaps even better, comforts that are less destructive. “I hunted these birds since I was a kid” doesn’t make it right. Then there’s the question of sanglier, which are so “destructive.” But they are squeezed into smaller and smaller areas to live. Of course they end up crossing paths with people. To me, it’s the people who need to go, not the boars.
    Where I live, the vineyards are being ripped out under an EU program to reduce the glut of wine, and formerly small plots are being gathered into big fields, with the wild brush between them torn out. Lost habitat. A vigneron friend who threw in the towel and retired said he didn’t like to spray his vines because it cost him €4K each time–“une belle vacances.” He also didn’t use “bio” products because he said they killed not only the few pests that plagued vines but also bees and butterflies. He preferred using nothing, and then, if pests arrived, to use a product designed to kill only that pest. But his winery was him and his brother. In big industrial operations, the workers spray on schedule, not according to need, and they aren’t the ones who see the money if they decide spraying isn’t necessary.

    1. Thanks for this, as depressing as it is… 😩 I didn’t know about the EU program and inasmuch as I am generally a supporter of the union rather than separate entities, this is the kind of nonsense that caused Brexit. I don’t have a solution but I am increasingly convinced it will take a revolution in order to get the changes we need, both institutional and individual, in order to effect real change in a way that makes sense. That means standing our way of thinking on its ear and reasoning in terms of smaller, sustainable ways of doing things, not the eternal pursuit of the buck. Perhaps we can each make a difference but it feels too much like a drop in the bucket to inspire action.

      1. Yet, was a monoculture of vines a good thing? Probably not, though they were well-adapted to withstand the dry summers (now I see irrigation pumps spraying circles over other crops). If I were benevolent dictator of the world or at least of France, I would stop all greenfield construction except for infill inside cities. No more creep. And keep the wild spaces that we have and even expand them.

  2. Thank you so much for this, I had been wondering… I don’t often comment, I know, but I find your insights into French life and politics really interesting, I spent years learning French, used it when I was a trade journalist, it’s good to have your posts to remind me how much I love the language. What little I can remember!!!

  3. Yes and No…. I have bought Les Vacances de M Hulot when I started to live in France, having heard about it so much – and it’s a truly great cult film. I love, love, love it and the 8′ “rewind” made me smile….
    The ‘other’ M Hulot is somewhat a different kettle of fish. I would have thought that he would have informed his ‘boss’ first and that we all didn’t have to learn the news in that way.
    Not having TV, I didn’t know the first thing about Ushuaïa and therefore cannot comment on this obvious clash of his personal convictions and interests. The only time I knowingly read about him was when his luxury car park was discussed. Which was something of a red herring, wasn’t it?!
    I have now read every newsletter, comment and seen every tiny snipped of film on this man and I’m still none the wiser. Wouldn’t he have made a real difference had he stayed and stood his place, tall and proud, energetic and convinced? Or should we admire him because he left a government not following up their promises? I know one thing: I would never go into politics and I wouldn’t want to be in anyone’s shoes at any given time of any political scene. It’s ALWAYS a messy business.
    Thanks Mel for your excellent work – I have many posts to catch up with – but that will be for another day.

    1. Cheers, Kiki! Agree that politics is messy business and I, for one, am not made of the stuff it takes to shine in such circles. Can’t comment as to Hulot’s personal integrity but think stepping down is probably the right decision for him. From the sounds of it, it was soul-destroying (and he did apologize as to the ‘manière’. As for the government, they need someone with both firm convictions and a thick skin to make them reality. Hopefully Mr. Hulot will be able to contribute as an outsider.

  4. I have seen the movie and it is a classic worth seeing in full if you get a chance. Actually, all of Tati’s movies are worth seeing. He was one of the great French movie makers.

    As for the other Hulot, it is difficult for me to have an opinion as we only get partial information here in Montreal. I guess that are pros & cons on his departure. Sometimes it is better to fight from the inside and other time from the outside. I guess politics is a brutal game everywhere and it is difficult to survive it intact. It is difficult to save humanity from its own feeble willpower to do anything that will impact its own privileges. Anytime someone suggests a way to improve the situation, we all protest because we would have to make some sacrifices. Sometimes I wonder if humans are worth saving! (Suzanne)

    1. Humanity not worth saving? That is an interesting perspective, because we are the ones who presumably are responsible for this mess, yet I’m not sure it will be a popular one! 😉 I agree there are times when it is better to fight from the outside and I think Hulot is better adapted to that role. He is also protecting his own brand and reputation so it will still have value beyond the current government. Let’s hope he puts it to good use.

      1. I know it wouldn’t be a popular idea though sometime I think as a race we are so stupid that we aren’t truly worth saving. I am certainly hopeful that more people will see that we need to do something soon or have to adapt our way of living to a different world…

  5. O
    Obviously a naive idealist who cannot tolerate pushback on his opinions. Politics is the art of the possible through compromise and discussion. Extremists do not make good politicians or good decisions.

    1. Agree that neither extremists nor naïve idealists are best placed in government. You are right about politics, and I suppose we need politicians, yet I recognize not being among those who thrive in such settings. A true statesman manages to get his own way while leaving you feeling that you got yours.

  6. I’m not going to attempt to affect some sort of pseudo political commentary because I am in no position to do so. All I will say is that I understand his decision. I am sad. But sometimes trying to make a fish ride a bike is really not the wise thing to do. And this fish needs to be working in his own way, at his own pace and in his own environment. It was a wonderful dream and perhaps, rather than hold our heads in sorrow, we should hope that a more workable compromise is able to follow. Someone who won’t be a square peg in a round hole but who will continue the work that has started and who has the resilience, the patience and the dogged nature to eek away petits pas a petits pas to effect a real change. Because God knows it is crucial and God knows France needs to be leading in the right direction.

    I hope that those tirelessly working to try and stem the disastrous march towards a catastrophic point of no return can feel that little by little they are doing are gaining traction to achieve enough and that their legacy will outlive them to the joy of countless generations to come.

    And the other M. Hulot? I first saw that film in 1982 at The Barbican Cinema and I fell in love with it. Jacques Tati was a genius. I thank you for that little oasis in my mire 😊

    1. Thank you for sharing that memory. The Barbican? Great location to catch a classic film. Like you, I totally understand his decision on a personal level. Few are cut from the cloth to make a difference in that cut-throat world. As for those tirelessly labour to help stave off the doomsday scenario we all fear is coming, I wish them much courage. And I do hope that Macron can find a replacement with the necessary ‘cohones’.

  7. Anyone with the Hulot name is good enough for me… I think integrity is the thing – and almost impossible to hold on to when in office, so bravo to Monsieur, even if his trousers aren’t quite as comical as Tati’s.

    1. Tati’s trousers would be hard to fill! And Hulot will be a tough act to follow. Very interesting to see who Macron finds for the job. I heard rumours (hopefully only that) of a merging of agriculture and ecology portfolios in one ministry. Integrity would be impossible to ensure if that scenario happens, I fear.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments and reblog! I will definitely try to watch the original film next time it makes an appearance. In the meantime we are eagerly awaiting news of Hulot’s replacement…😬

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