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Can France’s Greens unite the left and avert a Macron-Le Pen rematch?

A Green Wave or just a lot of hot air? Party chief Julien Bayou inflates a balloon at the Greens' end-of-summer gathering in Pantin, north of Paris.
A Green Wave or just a lot of hot air? Party chief Julien Bayou inflates a balloon at the Greens' end-of-summer gathering in Pantin, north of Paris. © Alain Jocard, AFP

President Emmanuel Macron’s drift to the centre-right of France’s political spectrum has opened up a sea of opportunity for the country’s fractured and rudderless left – a space the Greens, long a byword for factionalism and division, are hoping to span and unite.

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It’s “journées d’été” season in France, the late-summer bustle when political parties hold their first pow-wows since the holiday break – a chance to count their numbers, talk policy and set goals for the year ahead. Above all, it’s a time when freshly tanned politicians strut their stuff before the cameras and give away their thinly veiled ambitions, on the lookout for much-needed notoriety and publicity.

After years of oblivion, France’s fragmented left is once again in the news, buoyed by its recent electoral successes in municipal elections. But the landscape has changed dramatically since the days when the Socialist “journées d’été” set the tempo and satellite parties danced to the tune. This time, the ball is in the Green camp, long derided as a chronically divided amateur outfit that is ill-equipped for the challenges of France’s Fifth Republic. 

‘Green Wave’

After years of playing junior partner in coalitions dominated by the Socialists, France’s resurgent ecologists rode a so-called “Green Wave” of successes on June 28, conquering a string of major cities that included strongholds of the right.

Backed by an array of local left-wing coalitions, Green candidates notched up victories in the likes of Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux – a conservative bastion for 73 years. Humiliatingly for Macron, they did so by defeating centre-right coalitions that included his ruling LREM party, reduced to the role of auxiliary of the right.

Galvanised by these successes, members of Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), commonly known as the Greens, gathered in the northern Paris suburb of Pantin last weekend to discuss their next objectives. They agreed that uniting the left was of the essence, but that their ideas and platform must necessarily be at the heart of the process.

Along with climate change and ecology, discussions centred on societal issues such as women’s rights, racial discrimination and police violence. On the economic front, the focus was on relocating national production amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The idea was to build a “clear, coherent and bold programme” rather than focusing on “alliances between parties”, said EELV leader Julien Bayou, with the ultimate goal of “averting another second round between Macron and [Marine] Le Pen”.

Le Pen vs ?

With the all-important presidential election less than two years away, all parties know they are fast running out of time to avoid a repeat of the 2017 presidential run-off that saw Macron defeat the far right’s Le Pen. While Macron, who was elected on a centrist platform, is deeply unpopular, particularly on the left, his rivals are yet to produce credible challengers. And though she is detested by a majority of the French, Le Pen can count on a rock-solid support base.

That support base, in which France’s four-million-plus unemployed feature prominently, is destined to grow even further as the recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic takes its toll on the French economy, according to political analyst Thomas Guénolé. 

“In this respect, the only real question is who will take on Le Pen,” Guénolé said in an interview with FRANCE 24, suggesting that the incumbent president’s qualification for the second round is not a foregone conclusion.

“Macron’s strategy is to poach more voters from the right, while relying on fear of Le Pen to guarantee him a measure of support on the left,” he explained. The ploy worked three years ago, he added, but it could backfire the second time if – and it’s a big if – the left picks a different champion to take on the far right.

Backing the wrong horse

Back in 2017, with the once-dominant Socialists in full meltdown, the left-wing vote was split between Macron and leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But with both now severely weakened, Guénolé said “a huge space has opened up for a social-democractic candidate to emerge in between". Uniting that space will be difficult, he added, but not impossible.

According to the political analyst, there are three possible scenarios for such a candidacy to emerge: a primary involving all or most left-wing parties; an individual surge in the manner of Macron’s 2017 bid; or a free-for-all race in which one candidate eventually becomes dominant and siphons votes from smaller left-wing tickets, as Mélenchon almost succeeded in doing three years ago. 

The trouble for the Greens, he said, is that they currently look vulnerable in all three scenarios.

“Nobody in their ranks enjoys the notoriety required to vie for the presidency,” he said. “They are known only to pundits and the media.” Furthermore, he added, the Greens have a history of choosing the “wrong” ticket and picking nobodies over celebrities – “as though fame were something dirty”.

In 2002, Green party members ditched the largely popular Noël Mamère in favour of a leftist candidate whose bid floundered after he called for Corsican separatists with blood on their hands to be amnestied. Ten years later, they shunned environmental activist Nicolas Hulot, one of France’s most popular figures, in favour of an investigative judge with a distinctly lower profile and weaker appeal. And at the last election, they threw their lot in with an imploding Socialist Party headed for its worst-ever defeat.

Out of the cities

Perhaps mindful that time plays in favour of his rivals, Yannick Jadot, currently the Greens’ likeliest – or least unlikely – candidate, has called for a presidential nominee to be chosen “before January”, in order to have time to build the broadest possible coalition. But others, like Bayou, prefer to focus on intermediary elections, notably the forthcoming regional polls scheduled for March 2021, before moving on to the presidential contest.

“Every electoral step is important and will enable us to build environmental awareness and policies throughout France’s territory,” said the EELV secretary-general at the  “journées d’été” in Pantin, well aware that the Greens remain a negligible force outside of the main cities.  

In a sign of the party’s surging confidence, Bayou announced on Thursday that he would vie for the presidency of the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris and is by far the country’s most populous. Though currently governed by the right, Île-de-France was long a Socialist stronghold. Should a Green candidate lead a left-wing coalition there, it would cement the changing balance of power within the French left.

“The regional polls will be a crucial test for the Greens, a more reliable indicator of their actual strength than the municipal elections,” Daniel Boy, a political analyst at Sciences-Po Paris university, told FRANCE 24. “Should they win two or three regions, or even just Île-de-France, it would alter both their standing and their bargaining power.”

Too radical or not enough?

Until that happens, the very notion of a “Green Wave” needs to be qualified, according to Guénolé.

“The wave was not green, it was a victory of a united left,” he said, referring to the recent municipal elections. “There is still no tangible evidence that the growing awareness of environmental issues has actually translated into broad support for the Greens and their policies.”

Boy agrees that the Greens have emerged as “leaders by default”, largely as a result of the decline of other left-wing parties. But he is more nuanced regarding the divisive, self-destructive tag often pinned on the Greens.

“Of course they have their factions and divisions,” he said. “But which party doesn’t?” As for their allergy to leadership, he added, it will “fade away as they get accustomed to wielding power”.

Of greater concern are the policy divergences that are bound to become more apparent as the 2022 polls draw closer and national issues come to the fore.

“It’s one thing to unite the left on transport, the environment and other local prerogatives, but it’s an altogether different matter when you start discussing foreign policy, policing and immigration,” he said. “In that respect, much will depend on which candidate the Greens put forward and how forthcoming their partners will be.”

Olivier Faure, the current Socialist Party leader and a key advocate of a united left, has gone so far as to suggest his party may not field a candidate in 2022 – a stance many old-guard Socialists vehemently oppose. Should the Greens pick someone deemed too radical, like up-and-coming Grenoble mayor Éric Piolle, Faure may find it impossible to resist calls for a more moderate Socialist to join the race.

Likewise, a candidate with weaker left-wing credentials, like Jadot, would almost certainly face tough opposition from Mélenchon and others to his left – though Mélenchon is likely to throw his hat in the ring regardless of who the Greens chose. 

Last weekend, Piolle made a highly noticed visit to the “journées d’été” of Mélenchon’s party, France Unbowed, which supported his successful bid for a second term in Grenoble… unlike the local Socialist candidate. 

“The left is divided and for a good reason: Nobody can possibly encompass the full spectrum,” said Boy. “But it’s not too late for other figures to emerge, not with the level of exposure that a presidential campaign affords.”

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