4.14 Grenelle de l'environnement: Is France making up for lost time?

Ricardo Stanziola Vieira651, Julien Bétaille652


Grenelle de l'environnement653 was a broad negotiation process that took place between French national and local authorities and civil society (nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, and employers) in the second half of 2007. Following the May 2007 presidential elections in France, the new French president Nicolas Sarkozy decided to organize a set of negotiation sessions regarding environmental laws 654 in order to develop a five-year action plan on environmental policies. The process was conducted in three phases. First, during the summer 2007, six working groups met to exchange ideas and bring specific recommendations to improve the present situation (phase 1). The reports produced were then used as a basis for a consultation process with the public and members of the French Parliament (phase 2) held in September/October. Finally, a last set of negotiations were to take place in Paris at the end of October 2008 to finalize the action plan. This action plan includes almost all environmental protection sectors (climate, biodiversity, water, agriculture, and governance) and is now being implemented (phase 3). The fact that Grenelle took place is positive, but effective changes remain to be seen. Indeed, up to now, the action plan seems to emphasize only the need to adapt to environmental disorders. In terms of governance, NGOs have been widely associated with the process and some NGOs have criticised implementation phase.

4.14.1 Introduction

Grenelle de l'environnement has been a negotiation process that brought together the French government and civil society; it culminated in October 2007.655

The first phase took place in July and August of 2007. Work was divided among six working groups of 30 to 35 people each. Each group was further divided into five groups (representing different social sectors: state, local authorities, NGOs, trade unions, and companies)656 and was working on specific themes.657 A president and vice-president were appointed to each by the State. The groups met four to six times during the summer of 2007 to conduct an important reflexion process and made several proposals. Each group produced a final report that included the main environmental protection sectors (climate, biodiversity, water, agriculture, and governance). From a legal point of view, the fifth working group called To Build an Ecological Democracy: Institutions and Governance, is the one we emphasize in this case study.

The second phase took place in September and early October of 2007. Designed to be a democratic and participative phase, it was devoted to public consultation (via Internet, meetings, and debates at the French Parliament). A final roundtable of negotiation between the five parties took place on 24 October.

The third phase consists of the implementation of the decisions taken in the Grenelle. It can be divided in two steps: 1) the organisation of working sessions to develop decrees and laws, and 2) their legal adoption by the Parliament, which was expected to happen in July 2008.

4.14.2 Description

Le Grenelle de l'environment highlighted problems such as the need to 1) deal with ecological crisis at the national level, taking into account that related decisions will influence the action of the French government at the international level; 2) be an example of governance for all the actors dialoguing and working together toward a common goal; and 3) effectively apply environmental governance and demonstrate that only a democratic and participative process can respond to environmental issues.

Parties involved and their interests

Five parties were directly involved: NGOs, trade unions, employers, local authorities, and the national State. They where chosen for being actors in the civil society as well as for being closely related to environmental protection to different extents. It has been called ‘Dialogue of Five’.

Main issues and objectives

The negotiation process aimed at dealing with the existing ecological crisis and making up for lost time compared with actions taken by countries.

The French government has long wished to gather French society around environmental protection and sustainable development issues. That is what led the previously mentioned actors to consider working together towards building a large program addressing the French environmental policy for the next five years of the presidential mandate.

While formal governance structures – such as the State, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), local governments, trade unions, and companies representatives (such as the Mouvement des Entreprises de France – French Business Confederation) were directly involved in the negotiations process, other informal structures also played a key role.658 For instance, some NGOs formally involved in the Grenelle process decided to organize a civil mobilization in parallel. As well, the ‘Contre Grenelle de l'environnement,’659 a group of NGOs and individuals who did not take part in the official Grenelle, adopted a more critical perspective regarding certain issues, such as Genetically Modified Organisms and nuclear energy.


Initially, the word ‘Grenelle’ was associated with the social negotiations that followed the great Manifestations of May 1968, in France.660 To stress the idea of reproducing the concept and applying it to environmental issues, the word ‘Grenelle’ was re-used.

The president decided to organize this new Grenelle and the Ministry of Ecology took the initiative to create six working groups, each one dedicated to a subject that had attracted the five parties. Historically, this was the first time that the five parties worked together to find common solutions to the ecological crisis. It is relevant to mention that the NGO collective was divided into three parties: France Nature Environnement (FNE), the Fondation Nicolas Hulot (FNH)661 and Alliance pour la planète662 (Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and WWF).

The outcomes

Some of the major achievements were that the stakeholders made consensual decisions in almost all the fields of environmental protection,663 that the government will adopt and implement one or more important laws that reflect the final decisions adopted by the Grenelle; and that many of the fifth working group's proposals, especially those regarding governance, have been adopted. Institutional reforms, transparency of information, reforms in the public enquiries processes, definition of the criteria to determine NGOs' legitimacy, are some of the innovations that have been made at the private level of governance. Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility has been accentuated.664 The Grenelle also revealed differences of points of view among the NGOs.665

4.14.3 Evaluation:

In general, the project had both positive and negative (critical) aspects.

On the one hand, the Grenelle was a success in that it created an opportunity to exchange ideas about environmental problems faced by French society; the ‘Dialogue of Five’ has made possible for the first time the meeting of various key actors of the civil society; and new bi-lateral relations (e.g., NGOs and unions or NGOs and local governments) have been created and implemented.

On the other hand, many criticisms must be expressed although the results cannot be evaluated as long as the implementation phase is not finished. For instance the decisions adopted are not ambitious enough to address the complexity of the ecological crisis; there is no evaluation of the access to justice; neither is there an objective to aim for more control of polluting industrial activities; there is no legal or governmental structural change planned, only an adaptation of the current structure. In the Grenelle, the concept of sustainable development is implemented as a lever of economic growth – the environmental pillar is used to serve the economic logic (it might not be a good example of ‘governance for sustainability’). Indeed, the decisions taken through the Grenelle reflect the idea of ‘investment’ and, indeed, references to the concept appear in several places in the final document (e.g., references to the ‘Marshall Plan’, and the ‘New Deal’). For instance, the document suggests major development such as construction of more high-speed railways, which is likely to threaten biodiversity. The government's purpose in implementing the Grenelle has been to offer opportunities for investment and economic growth. During the meetings regarding implementation (phase 3), NGOs were less present than previously and the decisions taken at this step may misrepresent the body as a whole. Finally, no budget has been dedicated to the implementation of Grenelle de l'environnement.

4.14.4 Conclusion

In conclusion, despite the criticisms, we must welcome the process of Grenelle. Its existence is already a great improvement as it is the first time that NGOs are considered real interlocutors.

The Grenelle consultation process has seemed to promote social acceptance of environmental law. The Grenelle action plan is a guide for the French government for five years to come that will allow it to better organize and structure its actions in this sector.

Finally, the decisions taken through the Grenelle negotiation process, rather than giving France a leadership role in the environmental legal sector, allows France to make up for lost time at the European level. Grenelle has not yet brought about a structural change or a turning point towards sustainable societies. Its evaluation will depend on its implementation phase. However, the first execution of Grenelle decisions show that passing through the parliament can reduce the scope of the decisions taken (for example, a proposed law on genetically modified organisms, that was the result of the Grenelle process, was denounced by NGOs).

The Grenelle experience is important as it presents technically clear and feasible goals.

Ultimately, if the Grenelle enables unquestionable progresses, the proposed measures are strongly based on the ‘good governance’ perspective and not so much on the ‘governance for sustainability’ perspective. Indeed, voluntary approaches, according to the Anglo-Saxon inspirations on this issue,666 seem to have been privileged to the detriment of the binding regulations traditionally used in France.


Aries, P., et al. Pour repolitiser l'écologie – Contre Grenelle de l'environnement. (Paragon, Lyon , 2007).

Betaille J., ‘Grenelle de l'environnement, la France comble son retard?’ Revue Européenne de Droit de l'Environnement/European Review of Environmental Law (Limoges, No.4, 2007).

Forester, M., ‘Deregulation could do better’, Environmental Law and Management, October, 1993.

Hulot, N. Pour un Pacte Écologique. (Calmann – Levy:, Paris, 2006/2007).

Yeager, P. C. The limits of law, the public regulation of private pollution (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

651 Ricardo Stanziola Vieira is Professor of Environmental Law and Public Policies in the Program of Post-Graduation of Public Policies and the Program of Post-Graduation of Law/CPCJ, at the Universidade do Vale do Itajai, Brazil. His post doctorate 2007/2008 is from the CRIDEAU (Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Environmental, Planning and Urban Law), University of Limoges (CAPES Scholarship). ricardostanziolavieira@live.fr

652 Julien Bétaille is a PhD candidate at the CRIDEAU (Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Environmental, Planning and Urban Law) and a tutor and research monitor, University of Limoges, France. julienbetaille@gmail.com

653 For further information about ‘Grenelle de l'environnement’, see Julien Betaille, ‘Grenelle de l'environnement, la France comble son retard ?’, Revue européenne de droit de l'environnement (Francophone European Review of Environmental Law), No. 4, 2007, p. 437.

654 Nicolas Sarkozy had the worst mark when the Alliance pour la Planète assessed the candidate's program (www.lalliance.fr).

655 The Grenelle negotiations process took place 24 and 25 October 2008 in Paris, where a final negotiation between the various actors took place at that time. However, in this case study, the most interesting element is the various phases of Grenelle as a process.

656 The vice president of Group 5 (Governance) was Michel Prieur, Deputy Chair of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law.

657 Group 1, ‘Fighting against climatic changes and controlling energy requests’; group 2, ‘Preserving biodiversity and natural resources’; group 3, ‘Implementing a healthy environment’; group 4, ‘Adopting sustainable production and consumption standards’; group 5, ‘Building an ecological democracy’; group 6, ‘Promoting development standards that favour employment and competitiveness’. To take into account and face the complexity of emerging tensions, two ‘inter group’ (joint committee) workshops regarding generically modified organisms and waste were spontaneously created.

658 Some NGOs have informally taken actions outside of the Grenelle negotiations framework. For example, the Alliance pour la Planète made an evaluation of each candidate's environmental program.

659 Pour repolitiser l'écologie – Contre Grenelle de l'environnement. (Paragon, Lyon, 2007).

660 The name ‘Grenelle’ comes from the name of the agreements that followed the May 1968 Crisis in which there was a series of student protests and a general strike under the De Gaulle government in France. Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the ‘old society’ and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education system and employment. The original Grenelle agreement brought together three parties: the trade unions, employers, and government. The term Grenelle is used to emphasize the importance of considering ecological issues. At the moment, such issues are largely recognized, as illustrated by the Nobel Peace Prize given to Albert Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 12 October, 2007.

661 See: Hulot, N. Pour un Pacte Écologique, (Calmann – Levy, Paris, 2006/2007). For Hulot, the environmental crisis involves a larger responsibility for developed countries (such as France) to show an example: ‘Our financial capacities and techniques enable us to show the example while building, in the European context, the ecologically viable society. What are we waiting for? Let's show the example!’ p. 35.

662 The Alliance pour la planète is a collective of NGOs and trade unions gathering more than 70 organizations: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail – one of the main trade unions in France (see: www.lalliance.fr).

663 See www.legrenelle-environnement.fr

664 See Corinne Lepage's recent report on environmental responsibility in general. Mission Lepage, rapport final, 1ère phase, Février 2008 (www.grenelle-environnement.gouv.fr).

665 For example, France Nature Environnement refused the idea of a moratorium on GMOs as proposed by Alliance pour la planète (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund).

666 See, for example: Forester, M. Deregulation could do better, Environmental Law andManagement, October 1993, p. 126; and YEAGER, P. C. The limits of law, the public regulation of private pollution, (Cambridge University Press, UK,1991).

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