The meaning of the green wave in France’s municipal elections

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the question of climate and the future of the planet at the heart of politics in France
Photo: Mayor Anne Hidalgo is known worldwide for her emphasis on expanding the cycling infrastructure of Paris. (Paris en commun photos)
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What a difference confinement can make. France went into lockdown on the eve of the first round of municipal elections in mid-March. Fast forward three months and the country’s sociopolitical map looks transformed.

Before last Sunday, the country’s Green party, Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV), had only one mayor in power, in Grenoble. As the results came in on the night of the second round of voting on June 28, it quickly became clear that a green wave had swept France. The laboratory of Macronism, Lyon, France’s third-largest city, went green, as did Bordeaux, which had been a bastion of the right since the end of WWII. Other important cities like Strasbourg, Tours, Besançon and Poitiers also voted green.

This green wave at municipal level presents an interesting question for the French left leading up to the 2022 presidential election: Should they unite behind a green challenger to Macron?

EELV did not pull off this incredible feat alone. In most cities, the party had allied with the broader left — including in some cases the Parti communiste français and Jean-Luc Melanchon’s La France insoumise —but most importantly the Parti socialiste (PS). The former ruling party, now led by Olivier Faure, also returned from the doldrums on Sunday night. The PS won the mayorship of cities including Nantes, Rennes, Montpellier and Nancy. In Paris, its candidate, Anne Hidalgo, was reelected for another six years. Marseille will have a third round of voting but, as it stands, France’s second-largest city seems to have voted for Michèle Rubirola, who ran on a platform backed by every major left party in the city.

Macron’s party lost left-leaning voters who had supported him in the presidential elections.

As for the Parti communiste français, these elections confirmed it is increasingly losing ground. The party took pride in its local presence, especially in the banlieues of Paris, but it has now lost the city of Saint-Denis in the Seine-Saint-Denis department north of Paris, which it had held since the end of WWII and was the only city of more than 100,000 residents where it still had mayorship. While there were a few significant victories, such as in the Parisian banlieues of Bobigny, Noisy-Le-Sec and Villejuif, electoral losses overall were greater for the Parti communiste français. La France insoumise did not win a single mayorship on its own, which is worse than the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly Front National), which won the city of Perpignan in the southwest.

The only major win for President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche, came in the city of Le Havre, where Édouard Philippe, who is also the country’s prime minister, won the seat of mayor (he now has to decide whether to continue on as prime minister or become the mayor of Le Havre). In Paris, candidate Agnès Buzyn did not even win the arrondissement she was running from and didn’t win enough votes to earn a place at city council either. The traditional right, represented by Les Republicains (formerly Union pour un Mouvement Populaire and previously in power under Nicolas Sarkozy), performed modestly. It won numerous small towns, and perhaps its best performance was in Paris, where candidate Rachida Dati gathered 33 per cent of the total votes.

The picture is clear: the ruling party has negligible local strength, while the traditional right still retains some presence, albeit a small one. On this occasion, Macron’s party lost left-leaning voters who had supported him in the presidential elections. This leaves room for the left to mount a strong challenge in the next presidential elections in 2022. The left’s success in the 1977 municipal elections are seen as a precursor to François Mitterand’s emphatic presidential victory in 1981. There is reason to believe that scenario can be repeated.

This is a historic moment the French left should not waste.

However, if Sunday’s results are anything to go by, it will not be the traditional left led by the PS that is primed to take power. The new force on the left is now the Greens. EELV has succeeded in winning concessions from the PS, which historically has been productivist and, later on, accommodating of neoliberalism.

In Paris, Anne Hidalgo took on board many of EELV’s recommendations for the city in order to form an alliance with the party. In cities where an alliance was not reached, the PS either lost to EELV or came close to defeat, such as in Poitiers and Lille, respectively. As has been noted by commentators in France, the PS under its new leader Olivier Faure has been far less arrogant towards the Greens than in the past and has come to accept its secondary status in the country’s left-wing electoral landscape. The question now is whether the PS will step back further and support an EELV candidate for the presidential elections two years from now. It will only be logical for the French left to put forward a united front and use the municipal election results as a springboard to field a Green candidate and aim for the Élysée.

Emmanuel Macron is already preparing to stay at the Élysée. On Monday, the president hosted the Convention citoyenne pour le climat, a group of 150 French citizens picked randomly in October 2019 to propose to the government steps it should undertake to combat climate change. He has responded favourably to most of the 149 propositions made by the citizens’ assembly on subjects ranging from housing to food security, including a national referendum next year on adding “biodiversité, d’environnement, de lutte contre le réchauffement climatique” (biodiversity, the environment, the fight against climate change) to Article 1 of the French constitution, which defines the principles of the republic. Based on these propositions, another legislative question, expected to be finalized by lawmakers by the end of the summer, will be presented in a second referendum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the question of climate and future of the planet at the heart of politics in France. No serious political party can ignore it. This is a historic moment the French left should not waste.

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