Greens poised for breakthrough on the Rhine in regional elections
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Take a look at a map of French regions and Alsace will soon look like the conservative equivalent of Asterix’s village of indomitable Gauls – one speck of blue in an ocean of pink. But, this time, France’s easternmost region could well turn green.
France’s opposition Socialist Party mopped up all but two of metropolitan France’s 22 regions in 2004 and is planning to make a clean sweep in the forthcoming regional election, to be held on March 14 and 21. But, with right-wing parties seemingly on the ropes, the main obstacle to the Socialists could well come from the left.
Of the right’s two remaining strongholds, Corsica appears likely to switch sides, though the island’s very own brand of politics tends to blur the traditional left-right divide. But the real prize for the left would be victory in Alsace, a staunch bastion of conservatism that has been ruled by the right for the past 50 years.
The death last year of Alsace’s long-time president, Adrien Zeller, has left the ruling UMP party of French President Nicolas Sarkozy scrambling to find a successor. According to the latest opinion polls, the Socialists would have a narrow edge over the incumbent UMP administration in the second round of voting – only to be pipped by the Greens.
A fertile ground for environmentalists
Alsace is located at the heart of western Europe and its capital, Strasbourg, was the first home of the European Parliament. Successive invasions by neighbouring Germany, including a 47-year annexation between 1871 and 1919, have given the region a distinct character.
Local politics are no exception. Though conservative coalitions have been in power for longer than voters can remember, few Alsatians would define themselves as right-wing. But, like their German neighbours across the Rhine, most would subscribe to the “environmentally-conscious” label.
“Alsace has always been a fertile ground for ecologists – it’s part of its Germanic heritage,” explains Claude Keiflin of the Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, one of France’s oldest newspapers and the leading regional daily.
It is also a heavily urbanised region, with a population density double the national average. As a result, every new building project adds to the strain and is the subject of intense debate.
At last, a united Green front
Yet, here as elsewhere in France, the Green camp has traditionally been plagued by internal divisions. That will change with next month’s regional elections, when the region’s manifold Green parties will stand together under the Europe Ecologie platform.
“We have a cultural majority in the region and, unlike in the past, we are now united,” says Jacques Fernique, Europe Ecologie’s frontrunner and the man tipped to become Alsace’s first Green president (pictured above).
Ever since their stunning performance in the European elections last year, when they scooped 16% of the national vote on a par with the Socialists, Europe Ecologie have been on a roll. Their national leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Franco-German national and former May ’68 leader, is a hugely popular figure on both sides of the Rhine.
In Alsace, Europe Ecologie had to face a splinter group in the European polls, but their combined vote dwarfed the Socialists’ score. “This has given them a new credibility and the confidence to stand alone in the upcoming elections as the main alternative to the right,” explains Keiflin.
A recipe for the French left
Fernique, a 48-year-old university professor, knows he will have to overcome traditional scepticism of the Greens’ ability to administer a large territory if he is to remain ahead in the final stretch.
Summing up the sceptics’ view, Keiflin said: “I doubt Europe Ecologie know much about their own programme, let alone the people of Alsace. For now, the party seems to be mostly ‘against’ a number of things – mainly the construction of new roads.”
But Fernique is convinced Alsace’s own brand of Green politics can breathe new life into the region and go on to inspire the left throughout France.
“Our proximity to Germany has left us with a political culture based on compromise and grassroots democracy,” he says. For the Green candidate, this political culture must form the basis of a strategic alliance with other left-wing parties.
“The Socialists know very well that they cannot win alone, whether in Alsace or in a national vote,” argues Fernique. “Environmentalism is the only force that can tip the balance in favour of the left.”
But, in order to save the left, of course, the Greens must first defeat the Socialists. Starting in Alsace.