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Green Wave?

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Share the post "Green Wave?" Yes, the Greens did very well in yesterday’s Covid-delayed second round of municipal elections. They captured some major prizes: Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg, and, most surprisingly, Bordeaux. They retained Grenoble. They came close to winning in Lille, the fiefdom of former Socialist PM Martine Aubry, and Toulouse. In short, a fantastic showing in all of France’s largest cities, save Paris. They have the wind in their sails–or should I say in their turbines? But what does it all mean? The Green vote actually signifies a number of different things. First, it surely expresses growing concern about the environment, especially among urban professionals. Second, it embodies a vague and not always clearly formulated protest against the current

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Yes, the Greens did very well in yesterday’s Covid-delayed second round of municipal elections. They captured some major prizes: Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg, and, most surprisingly, Bordeaux. They retained Grenoble. They came close to winning in Lille, the fiefdom of former Socialist PM Martine Aubry, and Toulouse. In short, a fantastic showing in all of France’s largest cities, save Paris. They have the wind in their sails–or should I say in their turbines?

But what does it all mean? The Green vote actually signifies a number of different things. First, it surely expresses growing concern about the environment, especially among urban professionals. Second, it embodies a vague and not always clearly formulated protest against the current organization of the capitalist economy. And third, it is an expression of disillusionment with previous forms of protest against the organization of the capitalist economy.

But such protest is ambiguous in its content. It can represent the aspirations of entrepreneurs to become the arms suppliers to the war on climate change, the purveyors of the “killer app” that will curb greenhouse gas emissions or supply healthier food or rid the world of endocrine disruptors and other chemical toxins. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do well by doing good, and there is no doubt that President Macron, who has lately discovered that in addition to being “ni droite, ni gauche,” he is also Green through and through, will do what he can to encourage a French version of the Green New Deal, which may indeed help with the hoped-for post-Covid recovery. His reception today of the Citizen’s Commission report on the environment, though skimpy on detail, suggests that he is aware of the job-creating potential in recommendations such as speeding up the effort to refurbish buildings to meet stricter environmental standards.

To the extent that the Green vote was driven by point 3, disillusionment with the existing left, the news is less encouraging. The vote for ecologists signifies not a resurgence of the social-democratic left but rather a draining of votes from the old left parties and to some extent a shift in the class and generational composition of the left-wing vote. Green voters are by and large younger, better-educated, and better off than those who constituted the old Socialist rank-and-file. Thus, yesterday’s vote in some ways represents a continuation of the trend documented by Thomas Piketty and others: the left vote increasingly represents the people who are relatively well-educated and well-paid, who are both thriving in the existing economic system yet critical of its byproducts.

The good news, however, is that, unlike in the last municipal elections in France, Le Pen’s party (then the FN, now the RN), did not do particularly well. In 2016, the headlines were all about the FN’s advances, which at the time were thought to augur a possible FN victory in the 2017 presidential election. Marine Le Pen did make it to the second round, but then collapsed ignominiously and has since transformed the party by jettisoning the architect of the 2017 campaign, Florian Philippot. The RN did capture Perpignan yesterday–a major city to be sure, and one which was won by MLP’s former companion, Louis Aliot. But the headline here is that MLP did not hold a rally in Perpignan, probably because Aliot did not want her to. He stood to do better as an advocate of local interests against a disappointing Republican rival rather than as a stalking horse for Marine.

For the Socialists, the news was probably as good as it could be: Anne Hidalgo held on to Paris, the ultimate municipal prize. Hidalgo, who was until recently seen as a loser, pulled out all the stops, aided by the collapse of the scandal-doomed LRM (Macronist) effort in the city. As for LRM, the news was dismal everywhere. The most notable defeat was the humiliating exit of Gérard Collomb after 16 years as mayor and a stint as minister of the interior under Macron, another post from which he was ejected without honor. His loss in Lyon was compounded by a last-minute alliance with the Republicans in the hope of staving off defeat by the Green candidate. This desperate ploy only made matters worse, and Collomb leaves office with this final stain on his record: he turned his coat to save his hide and still lost badly (as did his Republican ally, Laurent Wauquiez, who has thus suffered yet another self-inflicted defeat).

It is also important to note that turnout yesterday hit a record low of 41%. Covid was partly responsible, but so was a more diffuse disillusionment with the political parties and the entire political process. After voting for change in 2017, the French seem to have concluded that a) they didn’t like the changes Macron actually delivered and b) they were more likely to get palatable results by taking to the streets. So why risk going to the polls and getting ill? In some towns the turnout was so low that the winning candidate obtained the votes of only 10% of the electorate. Such scores are unlikely to yield officeholders emboldened by the sense of holding a strong mandate.

The Greens have nevertheless interpreted their big-city wins as a mandate of a sort and are already mobilizing for the 2022 presidential elections. Yannick Jadot, the party leader, sees himself as the natural candidate, but, the Greens being the Greens, opposition is already brewing. Still, it is clear that something is stirring on the left side of the French electorate. Discount, however, any expression of the view that “the united left” scored a stunning victory yesterday. What the results show above all is that there is no united left. If a candidate could be found to unite the left, he or she might indeed stand a chance of defeating Macron, but such a candidate remains as elusive as ever.

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Art Goldhammer
Writer, translator, scholar, blogger on French Politics, affiliate of Harvard's Center for European Studies, writes for The American Prospect, The Nation, etc.

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