FRANCE’S Green party, which for decades operated at the shallow end of mainstream politics, caused an earthquake this year by winning control of several of the biggest cities outside Paris, whose own socialist mayor shares many of its aims.
Europe Ecologie les Verts (EELV) plans to use its sudden access to local power to showcase controversial policies whose success could make the party a contender in 2022’s presidential and parliamentary elections. It intends to show how green government can tackle climate change and ingrained habits through radical economic and social departures.
The municipal elections were completed in June but the shock fall of Bordeaux and Lyons, and Marseille where the EELV shares power, dropped off the radar during the summer when the country mostly ticks over while everyone relaxes on long holidays.
For the French, the return to work in September after taking July and August off is as much of a reinvigorating new start as January 1. The political parties make a splash to remind everyone they exist; the EELV mayors led the headlines this time with intimations that they mean serious business during the six years they will be in power. Big-city mayors are powerful national politicians in their own right with roughly the same status as government ministers.
EELV shares the anti-industrial, capitalism-unfriendly aims of green parties everywhere: saving the planet by ending the use of fossil fuels and reversing the constant pursuit of growth. It has a programme that covers every economic and social activity imaginable in minute detail and would need to be in national government to carry out most of it. The idea is not to stop the world but to slow it down.
During the municipal elections, the party concentrated on what it can do locally without interference from Paris, attacking all forms of pollution, promising to stop big building projects (no more giant supermarkets), declaring war on plastic and on cars by pedestrianising and greening the cites with tree-planting projects. Also on the agenda is the creation of green jobs and a switch to local industrial and food production making urban centres more self-reliant and less dependent on the polluting national haulage system. Less bitumen is another cry. Life for everyone will return to the gentler pace which preceded the technological revolution that came with the computer microchip. In fact, stopping 5G internet is a big priority.
‘Let Bordeaux breathe again,’ said Pierre Hurmic, the traffic-jammed city’s new EELV mayor, when he won. Hurmic and Gregory Doucet, who captured Lyon, are the face of the EELV urban revolution and their radicalism has frightened some in the national leadership. Conscious of a public recoil from too much fast change, Yannick Jadot, an MEP who hopes to be the EELV presidential candidate in 2022, said: ‘Nobody cared before what the ecolos said. Nowadays, all it takes is for an EELV town councillor to say something extreme and it becomes a national event.’
What put the wind up him was Hurmic’s return-to-work announcement that there would be no official Christmas tree in Bordeaux this year because a dead tree was no part of his idea of greening (or ‘vegetalising’ in green parlance) the city. We have the right to get rid of traditions, he added, doubtless seeing hackles rise as he spoke. The same week, Doucet denounced the Tour de France, as sacrosant to the French as camembert and Brigitte Bardot, for being macho, polluting and misogynistic because there was no equivalent race for women.
This was like firing nuclear warheads into the middle of the public arena, and the media exploded on cue. There’s no doubt Hurmic and Doucet set out to provoke a stir about their intentions to begin a country-wide transformation and to challenge more timid spirits head-on. The political Right compared EELV to the Khmer Vert – a reference of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge – and muttered about Green Bolsheviks who will be as ruthless in power as the Leninist originals.
Green parties have been gadflies on the fringe in French politics since the 1970s, collecting the protest vote when it didn’t matter and dependent on the Socialist party to throw them a handful of parliamentary seats they would never win otherwise. The socialists gave them responsibility for unpopular policies such as winding down nuclear power production and replacing it with renewables. The French are sympathetic to environmental issues on paper but have been resistant to the price Greens want them to pay.
EELV, a collection of smaller parties that fought each other as much as the establishment, has been around since 2010 and can no longer be dismissed as amateurish and eccentric. The men and women who won control of the big cities democratically and without hiding their objectives are focused and determined.
How did the green breakthrough, which is genuinely astonishing, come about? The big political parties of Left and Right failed under the recent presidencies of Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. This didn’t translate into a mass move towards Greens but it fed a growing disillusion with the status quo. Covid was another factor in their favour, pushing election turnout under 60 per cent.
What clinched it for the EELV was electoral discipline. Homeless socialists and supporters of the Left in all its forms obeyed their leaders and voted Green. Like Britain’s Labour, EELV has attracted entryism by activists who hope to bend it towards their own anti-capitalist aims. The membership and voter base ranges from the Left to the hardest of the hard Left as well as to genuine environmentalists. Greenery and anti-capitalism have made common cause in a country that has always had a combative relationship with capital.
The Right is alarmed that although the EELV is not for the moment in parliament, the non-socialist Left holds more power than since the heyday of communism which President François Mitterrand destroyed in 1981. The weakness of the moribund socialists and the Gaullist Right opens the road to Paris for EELV if national electors buy what they do in the big cities. They are unlikely to topple President Macron but they could be power brokers or more in the national assembly in a little more than 18 months.
This is where doubts about how candid the EELV are about their aims arise among centrists and on the Right. The streak of puritanism and authoritarianism is evident and the commitment of some to democracy is ambiguous although it shouldn’t be overdone.
Non-ecological concerns are represented in party members’ thinking. Paris EELV councillor Alice Coffin told the media: ‘Not having a husband means I’m not exposed to being raped, killed or beaten up.’ Echoing the anti-police sentiment rampant in the US, one EELV mayor compared the police who checked immigrants’ papers to the wartime gendarmes who rounded up Jews for the Nazis to deport to Auschwitz.
Coffin is typical of the militants who trained in far-Left fringe parties and organisations such as Greenpeace who have brought their techniques to EELV where they co-exist with middle-class activists like Doucet and Hurmic.
The problem is that the far Leftists are ‘no surrender’ militants who may seek divisive fights with the mayors as they try to reconcile ecological purity with people’s need to make a living at a level they are used to, and that will be tough.