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“L’Affaire du Siècle”: Over 2 Million Supporters of Groundbreaking Climate Lawsuit

Wednesday, February 20, 2019
Miriam Aczel

Miriam Aczel

Visiting Researcher, Environmental Law Institute

Just weeks after the widespread Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) protests swept across France for the better part of December, a petition commonly known as the L’Affaire du Siècle—the Case of the Century—has garnered over 2 million supporters.

Brought by four nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—Greenpeace, Notre Affaire à Tous, OXFAM, and the Fondation Pour la Nature et l’Hommethe December 18 petition contains over 40 pages alleging the French government’s inaction on climate change, claiming that the government has “defaulted its environmental obligations” by failing to take crucial steps to halt rising global temperatures.

The Case of the Century

According to the petition, the NGOs are suing the government in “the name of public interest,” and are demanding that the French state respect its climate agreements and protect the lives, territories, and rights of its citizens. The petition argues that the effects of climate change, such as desertification, rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, and extreme meteorological events, have already arrived, and states that the effects are directly impacting “citizens’ lives and don’t spare anyone.” The petition also notes that the country’s agricultural processes are in danger, the droughts and floods are even more devastating, and that “the air we breathe is polluted . . . our energy costs are exploding,” leaving the most vulnerable of populations the most exposed.

Paris

The government has two months to develop their response following which the four organizations will proceed with a lawsuit in administrative court. The petition allows the government two months to respond with a plan of action on climate change. If the French government does not reply to the petition within the allotted two months, the initial petition will lead to legal action stemming from binding agreements such as the European Convention on Humans Rights and the 2004 Environmental Charter. Other non-legally binding agreements, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, and France’s national low-carbon strategy plans, will also form the basis of the legal action that will be brought in the event of France’s failure to submit a response.

President Emmanuel Macron’s Environmental Pledges

Although President Macron promised more concerted action to fight climate change than previous French governments, environmental activists and organizations argue that he has not delivered on his pledge. In September 2018, Nicholas Hulot, former French environment minister and founder of the NGO Fondation Pour la Nature et l’Homme, resigned from President Macron’s government on live radio. Hulot called his resignation the “most difficult decision of his life,” yet he cited President Macron’s lack of action and the mostly symbolic nature of the administration’s environmental plans as reasons for leaving.

Toward the end of 2018, President Macron’s government attempted to introduce a diesel tax to minimize the amount of fossil fuels used in cars, but the proposal backfired and led to widespread protests and billions of euros in damage. Coming on the heels of those protests, and just days after President Macron caved to demands from protesters to retract the proposed fuel tax increase, the petition made headline news.

Unprecedented Success

Despite the petition’s initial filing on December 18, the holidays did not prevent the petition from earning rapid support and gaining momentum. Nearly one week after the petition was released, L’Affaire du Siècle had collected almost 2 million supporters. The petition currently has nearly 2,100,000 signatures—the largest number of signatures ever in France. And in sharp contrast to the growing resistance to President Macron’s fuel tax hike, the “Case of the Century” petition eclipsed the Gilets Jaunes movement, which had just over one million signatures.

The rapid support of the petition is arguably a sign of the growing unease with increasing effects of climate change. According to Météo-France, 2018 was the hottest year on record in France since 1990, when temperatures were first measured and recorded. Moreover, recent studies show that atmospheric air pollution—and especially fine particulate matter—are “invisible murderers” that have claimed over 48,000 lives annually, nearly 9% of national mortality levels. According to epidemiologist Sylvia Medina, coordinator of the French Surveillance Programme on Air Pollution and Health, collective actions are the most effective: “we need to reduce our dependence on fossil energy.”

Citizens Demanding Justice

The petition is the latest in a wave of legal actions that are being taken against large corporations and governments worldwide. In October of 2018, a Dutch court upheld a legal order against the Netherlands requiring it to accelerate reductions in carbon emissions. The court found that due to the rapid rate of climatic warming, concerted action aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 was necessary.

The L’Affaire du Siècle petition asserts that “we too can win,” meaning citizens have the power to effect change if citizens unite for collective action. As Jean-Francois Julliard, the CEO of Greenpeace France stated, “It's not just a petition, but also a call for legal action.” Current Environment Minister Francois de Rugy commented that he was “very happy that citizens are mobilizing in the name of the climate.” Clearly, what happens in France remains to be seen. But the rest of the world will be watching.