The ‘radicality’ paradox of the French Greens

The problem is thus less one of ‘radicality’, according to Pingaud, than one of finding a gap in the political landscape that, for a long time, had the Socialist Party at the centre-left and Mélenchon at the extreme-left. [Obatala-photography/Shutterstock]

The left-wing alliance NUPES, which finished neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble! in the first parliamentary election round, has reinforced the view that French Greens are too radical to govern. The reality, however, is much more nuanced.

Wait until the second round.” Every French and EU parliamentarian will say this when asked about the future of the French Green party, Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV).

The result of the second round of the legislative elections on 19 June will matter for a party that mustered a poor 4.63% in April’s presidential elections.

EELV leaders then negotiated their way into NUPES ahead of the parliamentary elections, created by, and for, extreme-left La France Insoumise’s leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Along with the communists, the socialist party and La France Insoumise (LFI), NUPES secured 25.66% of the vote share last Sunday (12 June), which may translate into anywhere between 150 to 190 MPs.

The Greens could have up to 20 MPs and surpass the 15-MP threshold necessary to create a parliamentary group.

However, such a coalition has come at a cost: that of being associated with the radical left and, consequentially, deemed unfit to govern.

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A long-lasting image of radicality

This view dates back years. Created in 1984, the French Les Verts (renamed EELV in 2009) had already positioned themselves against ‘traditional’ politics and favoured a radical, anti-capitalist overhaul.

“Greens have been described as ‘dogmatic’, ‘immature’ and ‘cynical’ […] unfit to be in charge of political affairs,” Vanessa Jérôme wrote in her sociological analysis of green voters.

A 2021 poll found that 58% of French voters did not deem any Green manifesto “realistic”, while 62% did not find EELV credible to put forward “sound economic and social policies”.

The primary vote further showed how internally divided the party was, with the moderate-left figure Yannick Jadot winning just 51% of the vote against radical-left contender Sandrine Rousseau.

“There is this widespread belief that Greens are radical, even more so now that they have partnered with Mélenchon,” commented David Cormand, a Green MEP.

Not so radical after all

Yet placing EELV among the extreme-left is a stretch. As the party grew in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a general change of discourse to get closer to “traditional ways to do politics”, wrote Michael Bess, a European Studies scholar.

This more government-compatible approach paid off, particularly on the European stage, with Greens topping 16.28% in the 2009 European elections and 13.48% in 2019.

A lot is due to the party’s overall reorganisation in 2009, under the supervision of two Green MEPs, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and José Bové.

For Cormand, this was a turning point after the failed 2005 referendum on a European constitution divided the nation. “EELV was created to bring those from the left who had voted both for and against the constitution, but saw a convergence of ideas when it came to a federal and social Europe,” he said.

The focus was no longer to stand aside but to have a say on the French political stage and aim to “create a federal, social, ecological and democratic Europe”, the party’s Charter reads.

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A centre-left voter base

This softening stance closely reflects the sociology of the EELV electorate. “Our voters are centre-left, not radical left”, Denis Pingaud, one of Jadot’s closest advisors, told EURACTIV France.

In a paper taking stock of Jadot’s presidential failure, Pingaud found that only 57% of EELV voters consider themselves left-wing. All are pro-Europe and generally seek to distance themselves from La France Insoumise’s Eurosceptic stances.

“The problem is Mélenchon”

The problem, according to Pingaud, was finding a gap in the political landscape occupied for a long time by the Socialist Party on the centre-left and Mélenchon on the extreme left.

As a result, EELV partnered with the Socialist Party in 2012 and again in 2017. In 2022, they had to go with Mélenchon for the sake of “pooling financial resources to run a sound campaign,” Pingaud told EURACTIV.

But the ultimate goal is not to create a long-lasting radical-left movement in France as Macron’s coalition Ensemble suggests. Instead, EELV leaders believe the Socialist Party is in its death throes, and they are ready to replace it with a pro-Europe, pro-social justice movement.

“The problem is Mélenchon,” said Cormand. A controversial and openly Eurosceptic figure, Mélenchon creates the illusion of NUPES as an extreme-left movement and scares off German Greens with his “Germanophobic” views, he added.

Yet EELV has imposed many of its views on the NUPES programme. “Everything that relates to ecological planification is EELV’s”, a close coordinator of NUPES told EURACTIV.

EELV’s other success is that Mélenchon no longer speaks of “disobeying” European treaties. This concept has been watered down in the final version of the programme and only appears once.

The second round of elections will considerably influence the party’s future – and European Greens are observing to see how it plays out just two years before the 2024 European elections.

“Everything will change in a few days”, a senior EELV official told EURACTIV. “You just have to wait and see”.

French elections : Left alliance unlikely to win majority in new assembly

France’s recently formed left-wing alliance led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon finished neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble! group in Sunday’s first round of the legislative elections. However, everything is pointing toward it failing to get a majority in the second round on 19 June.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]

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