France looks to forge ‘leading power’ status as host of climate talks

By Jean Chemnick | 12/07/2015 09:11 AM EST

LE BOURGET, France — From the Treaty of Versailles to the Paris Peace Accords ending the war in Vietnam, this nation has played host to some of the most consequential international agreements of modern history.

LE BOURGET, France — From the Treaty of Versailles to the Paris Peace Accords ending the war in Vietnam, this nation has played host to some of the most consequential international agreements of modern history.

It’s poised to do so again. Sometime in the next week, the French government will wrangle 195 countries into a new global agreement on climate change, and many observers say it is uniquely equipped for the task.

"France is used to being a great power," said Nigel Purvis, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Climate Advisers, who was raised in Francophone countries because his stepfather was a French diplomat. "It was for centuries one of the world’s leading powers, and it is still wanting to play at that level. And this is an opportunity to do that."


As the country’s ministers today take the reins of U.N. climate negotiations here in this former airfield on the outskirts of Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, now acting as the summit’s president, and climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana have the weighty task before them. Together they must prod 195 nations to turn a nearly 50-page negotiating draft loaded with controversial issues yet to be decided into a final agreement that could help the world turn the corner on climate change.

If they fail to deliver a substantive deal on emissions and finance, it will cast serious doubt on the world’s ability to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The most consequential international conference to be held on French soil in recent decades will have failed. And it could be a blow to French President François Hollande’s already uncertain 2017 re-election chances.

They have about a week to pull it off. But fortunately, they have centuries of French diplomatic history to help them do it.

The value of French diplomatic expertise can perhaps be seen in Fabius himself. A former prime minister of France, Fabius has been a leader in antiterrorism and Middle East issues, including the response to millions of Syrian immigrants arriving in Europe.

He has little background in climate issues but in an address in October said a climate agreement "could be the greatest diplomatic achievement in the world in recent years."

He began the ministry-level negotiations this weekend by pledging to "muster the experience of my entire life to the service of success for next Friday."

Making ‘damn well sure’ of success

The French diplomatic corps in general have a lot of experience to muster.

The former colonial power punches above its weight, both in its extensive diplomatic infrastructure and its position within the United Nations. The world’s 20th-most-populous nation has the largest diplomatic corps next to the United States and China — and, some say, the most skilled. Even the language of diplomacy — protocol, accord, alliance — all comes from the French.

France has devoted its vast assets to the cause of reaching a climate deal, starting even before last year’s meeting in Lima, Peru.

"As host country for the 21st Climate Conference of Parties (COP), France has engaged in making its own international network at the disposal of the Climate Change in order to make the COP 21 a real success," said the COP presidency’s press office in a statement to Climatewire. "With 164 active embassies and more than 90 consulates spread worldwide, France can rest on very large community of state representatives reaching out to every corner of the globe."

The Washington embassy maintained a team of about 40 full-time employees working on the conference this year, many of whom were borrowed from other ministries.

"They clearly have gotten the directive from Paris that this is the priority," said Andrew Holland, who works on these issues for the American Security Project in Washington, D.C. "Once they decided that they were going to host, they were going to make damn well sure that it wasn’t going to fail."

Over the last two years, Fabius and his team have made 100 official visits related to the COP and held 400 bilateral meetings with other countries, the COP presidency said. Two hundred of those high-level meetings were handled by France’s prime minister or president.

Melinda Kimble, a senior vice president at the U.N. Foundation who was a State Department negotiator for the Kyoto Protocol, said Hollande had prioritized the talks, and Fabius and Tubiana had his ear. He evidently saw climate change as an opportunity for France to lead, she said, "and they kind of picked it up and ran with it."

The network of large, well-staffed embassies that France has brought to bear ahead of these talks is a vestige of its colonial past, and the country still has strong economic and humanitarian connections in Africa and the Levant. Former colonies in Africa, for example, are still major markets for French products like cars and appliances.

Because of these relationships, France aimed to be in closer touch with developed nations and to have more credibility with them on issues like climate finance. Hollande has talked about the need for a "balanced" deal, and during an appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in September increased his country’s climate aid pledge from $3.3 billion to $5.62 billion annually by 2020 (Climatewire, Sept. 29). The United States has not yet specified what it will provide from public coffers after 2020 but has pledged to provide a four-year total of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund by that year.

"Having a presidency that is sensitive to developing countries’ concerns but that at the same time is part of the developed world and understand that perspective, as well, is good for the negotiations," said Purvis. "There’s very little chance of having a deal that they will support unless one takes to heart their concerns."

A multilateral approach

The French also wholeheartedly embrace multilateral institutions like the United Nations as venues for solving global problems.

"These are also countries that because they were the great global powers for centuries have an inherently global perspective and mentality and want to continue to be countries that have outsized influence," said Purvis.

Holland of the American Security Project said France and the United States are similar in that they both have a cultural belief in their own "exceptionalism." But while the United States’ preferred form of leadership is to act unilaterally or engage in bilateral negotiations with other countries, France sees itself as a leader in multilateral forums.

"We don’t want to have to deal with this sort of old European politics," said Holland, "whereas I think the French see themselves as the master of that sort of politics and getting their way through diplomacy and leading through a force of will."

Holland was an aide to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who later became President Obama’s first Defense secretary. Hagel supports the kind of "hybrid" deal on emissions that U.S. negotiators are pursuing.

In fact, the United States and France have both been leaders in these talks. But the Obama administration — spurred in part by political limitations at home — has mainly touted its domestic agenda and pursued bilateral agreements that fed into the talks, like last year’s joint announcement with China, which saw that country agree to cap its emissions for the first time. Those actions have already had their impact, while France’s success in wrangling nearly 200 parties into backing a consensus agreement is still to come.

The French enthusiasm for multilateralism may have something to do with "liberté, égalité, fraternité." But it’s also a result of France’s position within the United Nations, which again reflects its past status as a world power.

With World War II allies the United States and Britain, France is a member of the P3. Those countries — plus Russia and China — are the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. And that status has become increasingly important to France, Kimble said, especially since Germany’s reunification made it a resurgent power in the European Union.

France in recent decades has sometimes had to play junior partner to its larger, wealthier neighbor, Kimble said, as it did during recent efforts to save the eurozone. It has been on the lookout for ways to exert leadership, and these talks have been an opportunity.

"In this situation, the French can be a senior partner," she said.

Less appetite for ‘hardball’ after terrorist attacks

The terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead last month in Paris caused the cancellation of some side events, but it is unclear whether they will have a lasting impact on the talks.

But observers say the events, though tragic, create a sense of solidarity with the host nation that could help it forge a consensus. Purvis said it is less likely that parties will use "hardball" tactics as in past COPs.

"They’re more likely to give the French some breathing room to do what the French think is necessary to get a balanced deal," he said. "They have that running room."

Kimble said the French probably won’t have trouble getting an outcome. But a paradox might be that parties would accept weaker language on areas that are still controversial because they are reluctant to block consensus — leaving some battles for later.

Hollande has staked substantial personal capital in these talks, as well. His once-dismal polling numbers have rebounded somewhat since the attacks, but a deal in Paris could help further repair his fortunes, showing him to be a resilient leader able to deliver a result that is important to his left-leaning base. The boost would be welcome after the far-right National Front party made gains in regional elections.

"Overall, the French team is well-positioned to bring the talks to an outcome next week; hopefully, it will be the most ambitious outcome possible," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.