President Francois Hollande’s ouster of Environment Minister Delphine Batho after she criticized the government’s budget plans for next year comes at a critical time for the country’s energy policy.
Batho, 40, was summoned to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s office yesterday after calling Hollande’s 2014 spending plans “bad” in a morning radio interview because they cut her department’s available funds about 7 percent. She leaves in the midst of debate about France’s future energy mix, now heavily dependent on nuclear.
The departure is the second by a key cabinet member in Hollande’s government since Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned in March after admitting to holding an undeclared Swiss bank account. By dismissing Batho, who held both the energy and environment portfolios, Hollande is signaling his determination to shrink government spending that last year accounted for almost 57 percent of gross domestic product.
“Hollande is showing brutally that he’s the boss,” said Laurent Dubois, a politics professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “The longer he’s in power, the more Hollande is shifting towards the center.”
Socialist lawmaker Philippe Martin was named to replace Batho, Hollande’s office said. Martin, elected in the southwestern Gers department, is a member of the National Assembly’s sustainable and regional development commission and the shale gas study group. He is a critic of genetically modified organisms.
Hollande pledged to lower the country’s dependence on nuclear energy to 50 percent of total output from the current 75 percent, the highest proportion of any country in the world. An energy law was to be formulated in the coming months and sent to parliament at the start of 2014, Batho had said. It was to follow months of organized debates during which Batho regularly called for “massive” development of renewable energies and job creation through green technologies.
Environmental groups called Batho’s firing unfair and a poor signal of the country’s ecological credentials.
“Delphine Batho is collateral damage of the complete absence of environmental ambition of the government and president,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
The stakes of the energy debate are high for Electricite de France SA, operator of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors, because it wants to extend the lives of its generators rather than have any of them shut down.
As energy minister, Batho was the government’s most vocal critic of hydraulic fracturing for shale energies, a technology banned in France under the administration of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The drilling method is causing “considerable” environmental damage in the U.S. including earthquakes, aquifer pollution, heavy metal contamination, increased truck traffic and damage to the countryside, Batho said last month.
The country’s business lobby has stepped up pressure in recent months to have the ban lifted as a way to make France less dependent on fuel imports and to create jobs.