As well as asking what is distinctive about French nature protection and environmentalism, particularly in comparison to Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, many of the chapters engage with Michael Bess’s compelling and influential arguments in The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (2003). According to Bess, France has become a “light-green society” in which environmentalist ideas are widespread but shallow; “the result is a social order in which virtually every activity is touched by environmentalist concerns--but modestly, moderately, without upsetting the existing state of things too much.” It is noteworthy how the volume turns towards Bess and other Anglophone environmental historians for inspiration, rather than the approaches outlined by the Annales school or other French historians interested in the human-nature relations, such as Andrée Corvol.
Some legal highlights from the review:
The work of another Anglophone historian--Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (1995)--has exerted a clear influence over the volume’s three chapters on nature protection in France’s colonies, which all stress colonial environmental thinking, natural resource management, and the early establishment of nature reserves in the colonies. Hakim Bourfouka and Nicolas Krautberger show how the extension of a 1885 forest law in Algeria sought to protect alfa plants from indigenous and commercial exploitation in a bid to prevent desertification and thereby preserve the colony’s wealth. Alfa therefore went from being a plant used by Algerians to one mobilized by colonists. Although they show how it was in Algeria where the French state’s desire for land met with the interests of certain actors (in this case foresters), Bourfouka and Krautberger do not assess the effectiveness of the alfa policy or how local people reacted to it. But their highlighting of the central role of the state dovetails with the findings of other chapters and points to one of the specificities of French environmental protection: the importance of the state.
One of the volume’s major strengths is its willingness to situate French nature protection within the international context. The Muséum national d’histoire naturelle offered an example of French initiative when it organized the first international conference on nature protection in 1923. In addition, France has exerted a strong influence over policies and practices in other countries, such as Lebanon and Italy, where the law of 1922 on the protection of sites (including those of “natural beauty”) in the latter country was inspired by a French law of 1906.
Jan-Henrik Meyer picks up the theme of national/international tensions in relationship to French involvement in the European Union’s environmental policies in the 1970s. On the one hand, France wanted to be seen as a leader in European environmental policy. But on the other hand, the Gaullist desire for intergovernmental cooperation rather than supranational policies meant that it resisted measures that threatened French sovereignty. As in other areas, therefore, France has played an ambiguous role in transnational environmental policies, institutions, and networks.