Hollande campaign promise leads to historic agreement

‘A lot of us didn’t even know what a COP was’. Now the whole world knows

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, COP21 president Laurent Fabius and François Hollande after the climate change accord was adopted in Paris. Photograph: François Mori/AP Photo

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, COP21 president Laurent Fabius and François Hollande after the climate change accord was adopted in Paris. Photograph: François Mori/AP Photo


Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister and president of the COP21 UN climate conference, announced that an accord had been reached at 4.30am Saturday.

Fabius, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and French president François Hollande each delivered speeches in the middle of the day, exhorting 195 member countries to accept the text. The conference broke up for lunch while it was translated into the UN’s six official languages.

Then things fell apart. The Americans objected to the words “climate justice”. Nicaragua objected to just about everything else. Hollande offered to telephone the leftist president, Daniel Ortega, in Managua.

Negotiators had spent three sleepless nights living on coffee and chocolate. Aides slept on sofas in the French presidency’s first-floor office. They couldn’t risk returning to hotel rooms because their expertise was needed every time a word was disputed.

As the text was whittled down, the French noted with pleasure that the number of “shoulds” diminished, while the number of “shalls” increased, making the agreement more binding.

Dangerous moment

“The developing countries wanted ‘shall,’ but the Americans wanted ‘should’,” says a member of Fabius’s staff. “It was a dangerous moment because other countries wanted to start renegotiating things. “The Turks had been very difficult. [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan kept calling Hollande, who told him Turkey could not have special status.”

Fabius defined his method as “listening, transparency, ambition for the agreement, and a spirit of compromise. ” Over three nights, he and his top negotiator, Laurence Tubiana, received small groups from problem countries.

Fabius asked John Kerry, the US secretary of state, to ask Barack Obama to telephone Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The Indians needed US reassurance on patents, royalties and technology transfers.

It was like herding cats, but Fabius is the most experienced member of the French administration.

Now 69, “Fabiulous,” as some called him in the wake of the agreement, was France’s youngest prime minister at the age of 38. He served seven years as speaker of the national assembly. Finally, at 7.30pm on Saturday, Fabius rose with his green, leaf-shaped gavel.

“I look over the room, I see the reaction is positive, I hear no objections. The Paris accord for the climate is adopted!” he said, striking his gavel.


The 2011 COP in Durban committed all 195 UN member states to reaching a universal agreement on fighting climate change by the end of 2015.

“The big difference with previous COPs was the sheer number of parties involved,” says Pierre Radanne, a veteran of 16 COPs and a climate adviser to governments and NGOs for three decades. “At Kyoto in 1997, only 38 developed countries made commitments.”

In September 2012, Hollande announced that France would host COP21. “He had no idea what he was getting into,” Radanne says. Fabius was appalled. “I discussed it with him at the Doha COP in 2012. He said, ‘It’s going to be very, very difficult. Extremely complicated. I don’t know if we can do it.”

When Hollande travelled to Washington, Beijing and Berlin, the main question leaders asked him was: “What are you going to do with the Paris conference?”

“Hollande realised that his place among the greats of this world depended on the climate question,” Radanne says.

Initially reluctant, Fabius threw himself into preparations even as he grappled with crises in Syria and Ukraine, and with Iran’s nuclear programme. The most effective French foreign minister in two decades, Fabius clocked up the equivalent of an around-the-world trip every month.

Strong contacts

“The last time France held a big UN conference was in 1948, for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Pierre- Henri Guignard, the career diplomat who Fabius asked to organise COP21. “A lot of us didn’t even know what a COP was.”

France’s diplomatic network, which ranks second in the world after the US, was a big advantage. Ambassadors were instructed to wine and dine contacts to impress upon them the French seriousness of purpose. Fabius asked for monthly reports on climate policy and foreign opinion.

And he avoided a major pitfall. “There was a huge risk that France, which has a high opinion of herself and of her place in history, would sin by arrogance,” says Radanne. “France had to be very present, very active and very humble.”

Fabius and Tubiana invited the ministers who concluded the negotiations at Le Bourget to three Paris summits in the months preceding the conference. “It enabled the French to test ideas and to test people too,” says Simon Roger, who covered COP21 for Le Monde. “They saw who they could rely on as ‘facilitators’ in the negotiations.”

There are reports that Fabius will soon leave the foreign ministry. “Having worked as hard as he has,” says Roger, “he probably wants to leave with the stature of the man who, with president Hollande, saved the planet.”