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