PARIS — The French government on Tuesday said that it would drop its plans to enshrine the fight against climate change in the Constitution, effectively giving up on what was seen as a major step in the country’s environmental commitments.
Prime Minister Jean Castex, who announced the decision, said that it followed a disagreement between the lower and upper houses of Parliament on the wording of an amendment that would have added environmental protection to the Constitution.
“It’s deeply regrettable, but the fight goes on,” Mr. Castex told lawmakers at the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament.
It was a setback for President Emmanuel Macron, who had framed the constitutional change as the symbolic backbone of his environmental policies. Mr. Macron had even promised to hold a referendum on the issue, hoping to bolster his green credentials ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
In recent months, the Macron government has been confronted by large environmental protests and landmark climate lawsuits. Critics say it has increasingly been watering down its climate ambitions.
While Mr. Castex accused the French Senate of blocking the constitutional amendment, climate activists and the Green opposition blamed the government, saying it never worked on a compromise that might have allowed an amendment to pass.
The idea of amending the Constitution originated in a 150-person “Citizen’s Climate Convention” that Mr. Macron set up in 2019 to formulate proposals for ambitious climate legislation.
In December, Mr. Macron, eager to defuse criticism that he was not doing enough to protect the planet, announced he was taking up the idea. He planned to call a referendum on including the fight against climate change in the Constitution if a proposed constitutional amendment gained the approval of Parliament.
Under French law, both houses of Parliament must agree on a common version of the proposed constitutional amendment. The amendment can then be passed either by a vote in Parliament, requiring an absolute three-fifth majority, or by a referendum.
The National Assembly, which is dominated by Mr. Macron’s centrist party, La République en Marche, proposed adding to the Constitution that France would “guarantee environmental protection and biological diversity, and combat climate change.”
But members of the Senate — which is controlled by a right-wing party, Les Républicains — objected to the word “guarantee,” which they said suggested environmental concerns would take priority over other constitutional principles such as free enterprise. Bruno Retailleau, the Républicains’ leader in the Senate, denounced wording that, he argued, risked introducing “the virus of growth decline in our Constitution.”
The Senate suggested a new version of the amendment, committing France to “take action to protect the environment,” but the National Assembly largely stuck to its wording. And after a second rejection by the Senate on Monday, Mr. Castex announced the end of the legislative process.
Climate activists and green politicians dismissed the argument over the amendment wording as just a publicity stunt and said the government had never tried to reach a compromise on the amendment.
“It was easy to see through, it was an acting game for months,” said Matthieu Orphelin, a lawmaker who left Mr. Macron’s party in 2019 and later joined Green and left-wing forces.
An environmental group, “Our Ecological Constitution,” issued a statement calling it “a constitutional reform that has been hijacked and undermined by political maneuvering from the start.”
A climate bill proposed by Mr. Macron has come under similar criticism. Dismissing the measure as an overly cautious approach to climate change that favors corporate interests over ambitious action, protesters flocked to the streets over several weekends in the spring.
Environmental concerns have gained traction in France in recent years, turning cafe terraces warmed by outdoor heaters into climate battlegrounds. Students at top universities have mobilized to demand environmental action.
A series of landmark lawsuits has also increased pressure on the government to take action.
In February, a court ruled that France had caused “ecological damage” by insufficiently reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And on Thursday, the country’s top administrative court gave the government a nine-month deadline to take “all the necessary steps” to reach its emission reduction targets, or face possible sanctions.