French Green Party struggles to find its voice as presidential race heats up

French Green Party

French Green Party

France’s Green Party is struggling to gain political momentum eight months before the first round of the country’s presidential elections, even as the ruling Socialist Party takes a pummelling in opinion polls.

France’s Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) party will hold a two-round primary on October 19 and November 7 to pick a nominee for next year’s all-important presidential poll, but so far the internal race has failed to pique the public’s interest.

Cécile Duflot, who resigned as President François Hollande’s housing minister in 2014, is the favourite in the primary, which also includes European MPs Karima Delli, Yannick Jadot and Michèle Rivasi. Duflot is by far the most prominent of the four candidates, but recent opinion polls predict she will earn less than 5 percent support in the general election.

Hollande, who has yet to confirm he will seek a second term, has seen his approval ratings sink to historic lows, with only around 10 percent of voters saying they would back the incumbent. Other leading Socialists, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, have also seen their popularity plummet as the country struggles with years of near-zero growth, massive unemployment, and a string of terrorist attacks.

Losses among the Socialist Party’s sympathisers would suggest EELV is primed for important gains at the ballot box. And indeed, precedent exists. In 1993, Green candidates reaped the benefits of a spate of scandals that rocked the Socialist Party, gaining an unexpected number of seats in parliament that year. But a repeat of those results 24 years later appears, at least for now, improbable. So why are the Greens struggling to fill France’s void on the left?

Brain drain

According to Daniel Boy, a French researcher and expert on Green politics, EELV is not simply suffering from a public relations glitch, but a “structural” problem that it may not easily resolve before the presidential election, or even after it.

“The Greens are experiencing the same clutter and image problem as the Socialists, and that is because they face the same identity crisis. Confronted with a slowing economy and globalisation, some people within the party are drawn to a more centrist position, while others want to veer more to the left,” Boy said.

The researcher drew parallels to the struggle between PM Valls — who has increasingly steered the government toward more free-market economic policies — and the outraged left-wing branch of the Socialist camp.

For the Greens, that struggle has most recently played out in individual members’ decision to either join Valls or condemn his shift toward the right. A string of leaders, including Emmanuelle Cosse, Jean-Vincent Placé, François de Rugy and Barbara Pompili have abandoned EELV to more closely align themselves with the government.

“Voters realise that the Greens are incapable of presenting a clear position,” Boy said.
Other internal battles have also helped confound constituents. Nicolas Hulot, one of France’s most renowned environmentalists, confirmed Wednesday that he would not run as an independent after months of speculation over a potential bid for the Elysée Palace.

Hulot, a former television personality who remains massively popular among the public, was passed up as a presidential nominee in the EELV’s 2011 primary. The result surprised many, who saw in Hulot the party’s best chance to break into the mainstream and, in his defeat, further proof of the party’s poor judgement.

The departure of top brass has been accompanied, more quietly but en masse, by rank-and-file members, according to the magazine Challenges. The French business weekly reported in July that as a result of the exodus, and of operating beyond its means, the party was around 3 million euros in debt and desperately seeking a buyer for its headquarters in Paris.

Jacques Boutault, the EELV mayor of the second district of Paris, denied that the party remains fractured heading into its primary. In the wake of Cosse’s exit everyone is on the same page, he insisted. “All four candidates in the primary oppose an alliance with the Socialist Party and reject its descent to the right,” he told FRANCE 24.

Exploiting fear

Boutault nevertheless agreed that the current mood of the country does not play into his party’s strengths. Terror attacks in the past 21 months have left 238 people dead in and around Paris as well as the Mediterranean city of Nice, while the nation grieves and braces itself for the next tragedy.

Terror plots by men claiming allegiance to international jihadist movements have spurred bitter debates about France’s Muslim minority and the place of Islam in the secular country, with national security overtaking the economy as the issue most important among voters.

Right-wing presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that the French identity is under attack, pledging to ban Muslim headscarves in universities and alternative, non-pork lunches in school cafeterias.

“Our campaign focuses on air quality, opposing nuclear energy, improving the quality of life and fighting political interest groups,” Boutault said. “But what we are seeing are campaigns increasingly obsessed with identity politics.”

“Our message is directed at people’s reason, not their raw emotions. But this country has been traumatised and politicians are exploiting that fear. That is not what we are about, and yes, it’s not easy to be heard above the fray.”

Hopeful

Boy said it was unlikely the eventual winner of the EELV primary could outperform the party’s previous presidential nominee – in 2012 Eva Joly managed to win just 2.3 percent of ballots – but the expert also downplayed the importance of results.

“[Greens] are very conscious that presidential elections have never been their strong suit,” he said. “They present a candidate in order to remain in the political landscape and to influence the debate, not because they think they can win the presidency.”

Mayor Boutault said media coverage of the French presidential elections focused on “political strongmen” rather than party platforms or manifestos, which also hurt his camp.

However, he said he remained hopeful that French Greens would make political gains in the future. “I’m convinced that the party is in tune with the evolution of our culture, and that eventually our candidates will have an easier time being heard,” Boutault said. “I have not given into despair. History must run its course.”