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The failure of France’s Greens After an unexpected eco-surge, the French are already fed up with petty, priggish policies

New Bordeaux mayor Pierre Hurmic has cancelled the town's Christmas tree budget. Credit: NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images

New Bordeaux mayor Pierre Hurmic has cancelled the town's Christmas tree budget. Credit: NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images

September 23, 2020   6 mins

To be politically Green but hostile to bicycles and trees may seem an extravagantly contradictory point of view. But, to be fair, we are not speaking here of an aversion to all cycling and an opposition to all trees — just a hatred of the world’s most famous bike race and an allergy to Christmas trees.

Green mayors who captured a series of French cities in June — Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, Tours, Poitiers — have caused consternation in recent days with a series of self-righteous, or frankly priggish, announcements and decisions.

The mayor of Bordeaux, Pierre Hurmic, has cancelled the €60,000 budget for the 20-metre-high Christmas tree that usually decorates the city centre each winter. He disapproves of “dead trees”, he said. “They are not at all our concept of vegetabalisation.”

The mayor of Lyon, Grégory Doucet, attacked the country’s favourite sporting event, the Tour de France, as absurdly over-commercialised, grossly polluting and “macho”. The Socialist mayor of Rennes, Nathalie Appéré, bowed to her Green allies in the city council and withdrew an application to host a stage of the great bike race next year.

Meanwhile several of the Green mayors have opposed government plans for a rapid roll-out of a fifth generation, super-fast internet network in France. Eric Piolle, the second-term mayor of Grenoble — rumoured to be considering a Green run for the presidency in 2022 — described 5G in July as “useful only for watching porn movies in high definition on your mobile phone in a lift.”

The Greens’ criticism may, or may not, be justified. The Tour de France, for instance, is indeed a carbon-generating carnival of plastic largesse with a terrible doping record; it is also a much-loved symbol of French unity and variety — an international sporting event which literally comes “down your way”. Either way, these are scarcely the kind of pressing local issues which French voters expect their mayors to address.

The gesture politics has annoyed some of their Green colleagues, including the national leader of the Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV) party, Yannick Jadot (another 2022 presidential hopeful). He said this week that he was “tired of these insults” against the French people and the “popular” classes. “There is a kind of class contempt here which is absolutely unbearable,” he argued.

It seems that the French people agree with him. Green support in the polls has dropped rapidly, and according to an Odoxa poll, positive opinions of the EELV party have fallen by 14 points to 43%. Over 70% of French people say they disapprove of Green attacks on Christmas trees; 68% dislike Green attacks on the Tour de France.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the second round of this year’s municipal elections (delayed until June because of the pandemic) there was an eco-surge. The Greens leaped from the control of one city — Grenoble — to running nine of France’s biggest towns, either alone or in alliance with the Left. Five big cities — Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Grenoble and Strasbourg — went Green, as did four large towns: Annecy, Besançon, Poitiers and Tours. The EELV party (alone or in alliance with the Left) now has 36 mayors out of 35,000; it represents 2.8% of French citizens. The Green Wave, it was suggested, could impede President Emmanuel Macron’s run for a second presidential term in 18 months’ time.

Those who have followed the twists and turns of personal and tribal hatreds within French eco-politics doubted whether the Green victories would prove recyclable in 2022 — but few imagined that Les Verts would begin to shrivel and fade so soon.

And yet it’s worth remembering that the Green Wave was only made possible by a collapse in nationwide turn-out. The surge occurred only in big and medium towns, in economically thriving places with a large population of young, professional and educated voters. They have many local problems but they have been sheltered from the difficulties facing rural and outer suburban France, which generated the Yellow Vest movement in 2018. In these struggling areas, the Greens scarcely exist as an electoral force.

Moreover the Green surge may come more from votes against something than votes for something, and an alienation from mainstream politics. Urban support for the traditional centre-Right and centre-Left parties has collapsed  (although the centre-Right still dominates in smaller towns). While Emmanuel Macron has failed miserably to build a centrist, grass-roots political movement — a fact illustrated again this week by his La République En Marche party’s lamentable performance in six parliamentary by-elections.

Still, the Green surge — however lucky or accidental — offered the EELV party an opportunity to prove that it had matured politically. Would it be capable of balancing ecological issues and good municipal government? Could it match its commitment to the environment with pragmatism about contradictions in human nature (Let us be without sinful pollution, Oh Lord, but not yet)? The party leader Yannick Jadot promised that the new mayors would bring “an ecology targeted on solid achievements, an ecology of action.”

In some towns — such as Tours and Bordeaux — this has meant plans to drive out, or limit, private cars  on the model already adopted by the Socialist but Green-allied mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. This has brought angry local opposition but also much local support.

What has been missing so far — as Jadot admits — is any sign that the Green mayors have new answers, or any answers, to France’s urgent urban problems. What of the separation of  towns from their encircling, racially-divided housing estates? What of violence; distrust of the police; the cost of city centre housing; uneven health care provision? Jadot said this week:

“We should be finding answers to the fears of French people and their need for protection of all kinds — security, health, social as well as environmental. We need ecological policies which inspire, not those which push people away.”

Nevertheless, some French Greens and pro-Green commentators defend the mayors’ pronouncements on ideological grounds. The hour is growing late, they say. Global warming advances apace. Electric shocks to consumer culture are needed. Christmas trees (though a symbol of the renewal and permanence of life for centuries) are dispensable.

Others suggest that the Green wave of 2020 is damaging the cause by expending its political capital on unnecessary targets. They are alienating moderate voters by revealing  their ideological closeness to — and electoral dependance on — the hard Left.

Frédéric Says, a political commentator on France Culture radio, says that the newly-elected mayors are still in campaigning, not governing, mode. They had not expected to win in June. They have no proper programme for municipal government. To prove they have not been instantly corrupted by power — “that the sash of office is not a dog-chain” — they are parading provocative and divisive ideas.

An even harsher view is taken by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German leader of the May 1968 French student revolt, converted to green, pro-European politics and now semi-retired. He accuses the new Green mayors of not only ideological absolutism but a kind of eco-phariseeism. “Their attitude to sport symbolises their ideology,” he said. “For them, the world is in a mess. It is ruined. They are therefore terrified of joy — of taking pleasure in anything.”

Macron smells green blood. Last week he publicly mocked France’s “Class of 2020” Green mayors. He said that they wanted to impose an “Amish” and “oil lamp” economy in the 21st century. He said that they were “taking the French for idiots” by attacking the country’s “art de vivre (art of living).”

The President needs to be careful, all the same. He is himself walking a green tightrope. He has declared ecology to be the “fight of the century,” and demanded a much greener approach to government in the remainder of his term — including directing 30% of France’s €100bn post-Covid recovery plan to ecologically-friendly investments. To win re-election in 2022, the President has to hold onto his support in the traditional electorate of the centre-Right, which is often impatient with or dismissive of environmental arguments.  He also needs to appeal — in the second round at least — to the Greens’ mostly young, urban supporters. Some of them rather like the idea of an “Amish” economy.

In other words, the Green controversies of recent days may be ridiculous but they are also significant — and not just in France. They offer a burlesque preview of more important twenty-first century collisions to come. How to balance ecological pressures and economic imperatives? How to square western life-styles and climate change? How to replace the traditional politics of something-more with a new politics of something-less?

The French Greens were handed an accidental opportunity to prove that they are a fully-functioning, rounded, all-weather force in practical politics. They have been given a chance to adjust their sincere beliefs to the ragged edges of the real world. It is too early to judge them fully, but the first signs are not good. They have failed to make the leap from shouting to governing. They have proved just as attracted as most of the “old” politicians to the politics of the surface and the gesture.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.


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