The case of the century

Beside the yellow vests demonstrating in France for the past two months, there was another significant event hitting the headlines in France in December 2018. Four NGOs including Greenpeace and Oxfam have launched a campaign to sue the French government over “insufficient” climate change action. This campaign is called “L’affaire du siècle”, in English: “the case of the century”. The idea is to force the French government to follow its commitments to protect its citizens. Environmental actions have often been used by French politicians during their campaign to gain the votes of a growing share of the population concerned by the damaging impacts of climate change. However, little has been done so far, even if some of those commitments are now written in the French laws, with clear targets set.

As a lever of pressure, NGOs launched an online petition to support their intention. In only two days, the petition received one million signatures! A national record in France. By early January 2019, it was not one but two million signatures. As a first step, a request was sent to the government asking for compensations and more importantly proof that its environmental commitments are being executed. The state has two months to reply before the case is brought to the court. If the NGOs win this case, the judge could sentence the government to implement all actions required to reach the objectives set by the law. This campaign was directly inspired from a similar law suit carried by the NGO ‘Urgenda’ in Holland.

So, what made this campaign so successful?
– First, the timing: The findings of the latest IPCC report were widely broadcasted in France. Biodiversity loss, devastating fires and other social and environmental impacts of climate change are making daily news.
– Second, the format: Suing the government is a direct confrontation. It’s a powerful symbol of what French political experts call the “ecological civil rights”.
– Third, the legitimacy: The four NGOs involved in this campaign are well known in France and have been historically involved in various actions for climate.
– Fourth, the voices: Some prominent French celebrities from various backgrounds (arts, media and web) talked about the initiative in a video (12 million views, unfortunately in French only).
– Fifth, social media: There was a great work done on social media to promote the campaign. Considering that the biggest supporters of those NGOs tend to be quite young, it was certainly a key factor to run a successful campaign.

On a side note, it is fundamental to note that the ‘yellow vests’ movement was triggered by a new fuel tax that the government was trying to implement to force the reduction of fossil fuels. It is a fascinating case showing the critical importance of ‘system thinking’ in sustainability leadership.


One Comment

  1. Thanks, Nicolas! I hadn’t heard of the L’affaire du siècle campaign, though, I am somewhat familiar with the concurrent and highly visible Yellow Vests demonstrations. On the surface, at least to this outsider, it would seem that the campaigns are in direct conflict with each other. As you have described, the NGO-led L’affaire du siècle campaign is seeking to sue the French government for lack of action addressing climate change. At the same time, the social mobilization of the Yellow Vests campaign was ignited by the 20% increase in the price of diesel fuel that Macron said was needed to “combat climate change” [1]. However, beneath the surface, the differences between both campaigns are more nuanced. The Yellow Vests actually “highlight ecology as a top priority,” demanding a fairer climate transition with fuel and kerosene taxes on ships and airplanes, for instance [2]. Since the L’affaire du siècle campaign has been less visible, at least internationally, and often publicized in French, as noted in your post, I am wondering how the campaign, led by international NGOs, is promoting equitable climate policies within France. After all, who pays for action on climate change is one of the big questions of out time.




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