For the majority of the mainstream media, the performance of the French Greens (EELV) in the European elections was underwhelming. Set alongside the dominant showing of the nationalist-populist Front National, the worst ever electoral performance of the governing Socialist Party and the unimpressive performance of the corruption-mired Gaullist opposition , the Green vote in truth attracted little analysis, save to point out that it was barely above half that gained at the last European elections, and contributed to the collapse in the left vote to barely a third of the overall total.
EELV polled 8.91%, gaining 6 MEPs. This score is significantly below the party’s ‘breakthrough’ performance of 16.28% and 14 MEPs in 2009, and is thus, on the face of it, a large backwards step for a party which traditionally does best at European elections, given the issues, scale and electoral system (second order election, fought in eight large regional constituencies, under proportional representation). Prominent Green MEPs such as Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, Sandrine Bélier and Catherine Grèze failed to be re-elected. As is generally the case, the party did better in the west and south-west (where the EELV lists led by Yannick Jadot and José Bové gained 10.35% and 11.48% respectively) and worst in eastern and central France and the French overseas territories, where the Green lists polled between 6% and 7%.
Of course, these figures hide a large share of nuance, and it is important to take the long view and underline that EELV’s score is within the long-run average for the party’s performance . The 1,695,914 votes received by the party in 2014 is only about 20,000 below the number it polled in 1999 (when it gained 9.7%), and about 30,000 above the mean score of all its European election performances since 1989 (perhaps its first ‘breakthrough’ year, when it polled 10.6%). Historically, there is a reasonable case that the 2009 result is an outlier, a combination of context (the specific domestic political and global environmental circumstances) and leadership (notably, Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s charismatic ability to combine a liberal cosmopolitan worldview with an anti-elitist style).
This year, the context was very different, with the rarely on-message Cohn-Bendit stepping down, and the Greens recently giving up its two cabinet positions in a deeply unpopular Socialist government (but remaining part of the parliamentary coalition). Three aspects of the Green vote are therefore worth a closer look. The first is that EELV continues to poll comfortably better than the other major left alternative to the Socialists: the Front de Gauche, an alliance of Trotskists, the rump Communist party and other far left formations, gained 6.34% (3 MEPs).
The second is the party’s continued ability to poll highly in specific urban centres. These include Lille (16.32%), Nantes (17.68%), Rennes (18.9%) and Toulouse (16.88%), whilst in Grenoble, the Greens topped the poll with 20.44% (and won the town hall in March’s municipal elections). In Paris, EELV came second in four of the capital’s twenty districts, all in the north-east of the city (the 10th, 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements), and polled 13.77% in the city as a whole. Yet outside the main metropolitan centres, the Green vote is markedly lower, even where it does well: so to take the départements as a whole for the cities above, EELV polled 7.5% in the Nord (Lille), 12.97% in Loire Atlantique (Nantes), 12.61% in Ille et Vilaine (Rennes), 13.37% in Haute Garonne (Toulouse), 12.26% in Isère (Grenoble), and 9.3% in the Ile de France region (Paris).
In this, the Green vote is diametrically opposed to the far right vote: both because the EELV are strong in the specific areas where the FN is weak (compare the Green vote in Paris and Brittany with that of the FN, for instance), and vice versa: the strength of the FN in Alsace and the areas around the Mediterranean contrasts by and large with the poor electoral showing of the Greens in these regions. Further, whereas across France as a whole the Green vote is principally located in the liberal, cosmopolitan urban centres, the electoral map increasingly shows the FN to be much stronger in the interstitial, ‘peri-urban’ areas between major towns, though this of course masks considerable diversity.
What then should we make of EELV’s results? The association of the Greens with Jean-Marc Ayrault’s government and the continuing effects of the economic downturn, which has clearly displaced environmental priorities in French public opinion, made the circumstances unpropitious. In this context – and this is the third point about the French Greens’ performance – EELV’s European election campaign constituted a clear return to environmental issues, after a 2012 presidential campaign often characterised by cultural critique rather than the party’s core themes.
There remains a sense of dissonance about the French Greens: on one level, the internal arguments made public and often amplified by the media, but more profoundly a party that still, after two periods in coalition government since 1997, remains most associated with what it is against (in this campaign, TAFTA, fracking, nuclear power, diesel, GMOs…) than what it is for. Yet it remains committed to making politically difficult arguments: on eco-taxes, on European economic governance and constitutional reform, and on communitising aspects of fiscality, welfare protection, and access to healthcare, for example. According to the press communiqué released by the Greens in the wake of the results, the Greens are ‘resisting in a devastated political landscape’: overall, with its emphasis on retrenchment rather than development, this is probably a fair analysis.
Graeme Hayes, @graemehayes
*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics. The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*