July 4, 2020

After the drubbing Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche (LREM), took in last week’s municipal elections, everyone knew a reshuffle would be on the cards. But firing his well-loved Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, with great acrimony, was a bit of a shock. Macron doesn’t like to share the limelight.

Philippe’s been replaced by the little-known technocrat, Jean Castex. Once a well-respected adviser on social matters in Nicolas Sarkozy’s Élysée, Castex is an uncontroversial and capable figure. He is the perfect hire to handle the unglamorous slog ahead (there is a recession coming); the President will be able to take the lead on the lofty world stage stuff — while excitedly burnishing his Green credentials.

The greens are suddenly all the rage following the election’s “Green Wave”, in which France’s green party, EELV, snagged various major French cities. Strasbourg, Lyon, Bordeaux, Tours, Nantes, Paris, Nancy, Marseille, Poitiers, Besançon, Grenoble. All are now either led by Greens, or by Left-wing coalitions in which the Greens (who made the difference between victory and defeat) shape policy.

The brand new Green mayors jumped into the news cycle with shock announcements. In Bordeaux, the new City Hall incumbent, Pierre Hurmic, a man who’s never managed to pass his drivers’ exam, declared he would ban all cars from the city. Lyon’s Grégory Doucet demands an end to all works on the new high-speed train line from Lyon to Turin, and also want to plants “real, big” forests in the heart of his city. (He is famous for declaring that the “only political divide” he acknowledges is “between Earthlings and extra-terrestrials”.)

But all this noise hid an incontrovertible fact: last Sunday, the Green vote in France did not exceed 10% — which means a measly 4% of the registered electorate, since abstention last Sunday broke all records at 61.4%. In fact, the Greens only won 10 of France’s 273 cities numbering more than 30,000 inhabitants. Even Anne Hidalgo’s clear Paris victory was won with a mere 18% of the city’s registered voters.

Meanwhile, Les Républicains gained 120 municipalities (52% of all towns of more than 9,000 inhabitants in France are now in conservative hands), while the Socialists, boosted and sexed up by Green coalitions, gained 58 — down from 106 in 2014. Even smallish Green contingents were often asked to front coalitions, in order to make them more attractive to the voters as “new faces” (now a known entity, Macron is no longer a choice if you want to give the establishment the finger).

Yet the illusion of the Green Wave, which Emmanuel Macron banks on riding to victory in 2022, endures because its successes were scored in all the places that resemble him, and for that matter the intellectual and media establishment: Paris and the country’s most prosperous cities.

It’s worth noting that in France, unlike in the UK, “cities” only means city centres: in, say, London terms, Shoreditch or Kensington, but reaching as far out as Croydon or Walthamstow. France’s 20 largest cities remain independent from their surrounding, more populous “métropoles”.

Métropoles are a recent creation, devised to simplify the national bureaucratic behemoth. The plan was that once a Métropole entity was forged out of dozens of towns, creating a corona of suburbs around a historic city, the whole would be amalgamated to create, say a Greater Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Nantes etc. It never happened, though: City mayors always found good reasons to avoid seeing their power diluted, or, worse, risk being ejected altogether from their job, by those pesky voters in the periphery.

In David Goodhart’s taxonomy, cities in France today belong to “anywheres” ; the surrounding coronas (the Métropoles) are where the “somewheres” dwell, who are far less enthusiastic about the environment or multiculturalism, with little love for those urban electric tram lines that terminate long before their homes.

This disconnect explains the Green-allied Socialist Anne Hidalgo’s clear victory in Paris. She won over a compact, gentrified city of Bobos and “Anywheres”, in which high house prices have shot up even faster since Brexit. I doubt many banlieusards would be wooed by her support for veganism.

Hidalgo represents a big threat to Macron. She has led an aggressively green policy in Paris, closing down urban highways and introducing pedestrian areas in most of the historic centre. With Olivier Faure, the lacklustre Socialist national leader, garnering only 3% voting intentions in a recent Ifop poll looking at the 2022 presidential election field, Hidalgo, who denies any interest at this stage, is an obvious Socialist presidential candidate. Macron, whose Paris candidates crated so badly that his few representatives in the Paris Assembly won’t even sit in the Conseil de Paris (the municipal “Parliament”) took her success like a punch in the gut.

The ultimate “Anywhere”, Emmanuel Macron loves grand green gestures. He constantly pushed the Paris Climate accords even though they had been signed under the stewardship of his predecessor, François Hollande. Greta Thunberg was duly received at the Élysée, with the President greeting her on the palace steps in front of a five-deep cameramen gauntlet. Last week, France closed a perfectly functional nuclear plant at Fessenheim in Alsace, to great applause from EELV — and from the neighbouring Land of Baden-Württemberg in a Germany that refuses to live 25 miles from a nuclear plant, but buys annually 11 TWh’s worth of nuclear-produced electricity from France. During his first State visit to Washington, three years ago, Macron made a long speech to a joint session of the US Congress, and a shorter one at the White House, hoping to convince Donald Trump not to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords by adapting his campaign slogan into “Make Our Planet Great Again”. (He failed.)

Macron has vowed to make France, which accounts for 1.5% of all greenhouse gases emissions on the planet, a model green nation as well as a European green leader. Hence the series of green-inspired measures in his first Budget in 2018, including a heavy carbon tax on gas and fuel, together with a speed reduction on roads.

These raised the cost of driving and heating by over 25%. It hit French “Somewheres” particularly hard. Those living in houses rather than flats in small towns, needing their cars to work, take their children to school, make the weekly shop, in the absence of proper public transport. The 18-month Yellow Vests revolt that followed started in small gatherings on roundabouts close to those France Périphérique in those towns who felt Parisian elites understood nothing of their lives, and cared even less.

Hoping to stem the rage that fuelled the Yellow Vests revolt, Macron staged a series of townhall rallies. He made a point of assembling groups of citizens, often picked by lots, to come up with solutions. This, he hopes, will counter regular charges that his ruling style is entirely top-down. Others see it as a way of defusing responsibility.

In an attempt to claw something back from his wounding at the weekend, and to remind France of his Green cred, Macron decided to put his Convention Nationale pour le Climat centre stage. One hundred and fifty randomly-picked citizens were brought together last winter to come up with 150 proposals for green measures. They were invited to present these the very day after the municipal elections. “Look at me, I’m green and humble”, was the spin.

It’s best not to dwell on the proposals, a mixture of impractical, well-meaning and the kooky — such as reducing the speed limit and the working week as well as banning domestic flights altogether and prohibiting construction of any new airports. They will be discussed with a view to possible implementation during the next five years. It’s unlikely many will make the cut.

It’s not that the French don’t care for the environment and climate change — the trouble is our specific breed of environmentalist is hard Left. So while so many politicians are keen to add a bit of green to the agenda, the people know that the EELV’s aggressive de-growth platforms will damage the economy and kill more jobs.

It is difficult to account for Macron’s cognitive dissonance in believing that his trump card is green. With recession about to bite and with a wronged former PM waiting in the wings, putting the environment before the economy may prove to be a serious mistake.