Science has made an unexpectedly strong showing in the government of François Fillon, prime minister of France's newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy. The environment and energy, in both the French media and government, have become à la mode.

Grand gestures: Alain Juppé has taken the reins at France's new superministry for ecology and sustainable development. Credit: P. ANDRIEU/AFP/GETTY

Ecology and sustainable development, long relegated to puny ministries, have been propelled to a top-rank superministry. And at its helm is a political heavyweight — Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and foreign minister. The ministry will have responsibility for the huge sectors of transport, urban and rural planning, energy policy, and other ecological areas such as biodiversity, water and pollution.

Science and higher education have been granted a full-blown ministry, too, headed by Valérie Pécresse. The move was by no means guaranteed, given that Sarkozy has halved the number of ministers in his government to 15, and that the previous government allotted these sectors only junior status. Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of the medical humanitarian aid group Médecins Sans Frontières and a member of the opposition socialist party, has been appointed foreign minister. And Fillon, a moderate conservative, is himself no stranger to these areas: he served as research and higher-education minister in 1993–95 and 2004–05.

Much of the credit for getting the environment so high on the political agenda must go to Nicolas Hulot, a highly popular TV environmentalist, journalist and writer. During the presidential election campaign, the Nicolas Hulot Foundation asked candidates to sign up to a ten-point ecological pact pledging a radical revision of policies, including energy, transport and agriculture, and to address climate change, species extinction, pollution and other environmental issues. In the face of Hulot's massive popular support (polls showed that had he run, he could have won as much as 10% of the vote), candidates, including Sarkozy, queued up to sign.

It is too soon to say how the creation of France's superministry will translate into actions. But the scale of the government's environmental commitments on paper is “historic”, says Yvon Le Maho, a biodiversity researcher at the Hubert Curien Multidisciplinary Institute in Strasbourg. Le Maho, along with several green non-governmental organizations, attended a planning meeting with Sarkozy and Juppé on 21 May to help hammer out a comprehensive five-year plan for the environment. “To be at such a meeting just days after Sarkozy took office was completely surreal,” he says.

The government's surprising ecological bent could also make for an interesting G8 meeting, which is scheduled for 6–8 June in the more traditionally green Germany.