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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

An Open Door for the French Greens

by René Wadlow, Editor, Transnational Perspectives

The French Greens (Les Verts) entered Parliament in June 1997 for the first time as part of a Left-Green coalition which resoundingly defeated the Right which had been in power in Parliament for the last four years. The Greens won eight seats in the 577 person French Parliament. The Green leader, Dominique Voynet, has been named Minister for the Environment and Territorial Planning. The French President, Jacques Chirac, representative of the Center-Right, had called for elections to the lower but more powerful house of the French Parliament a year earlier than the end of its term in the hope of creating a momentum to push his stalled political agenda. Chirac is an energetic and skilful campaigner, happy to address meetings and to participate in numerous "photo opportunities," but he is a poor administrative leader. He seemed uncomfortable in the role of President. He had as Prime Minster Alain Juppé, for a long time his second-in-command when Chirac was Mayor of Paris. However, Juppé has a closed, rigid personality which came across on television as arrogant. His standing as Prime Minister was increasingly weak, and he was unable to develop enthusiasm even among his own troops.

On the Left was Lionel Jospin, Secretary-General of the Socialist Party, who had been narrowly defeated by Jacques Chirac in the 1995 presidential elections. During the past two years, Jospin has skilfully built a Left-Green alliance, based largely on domestic issues with a quality-of-life emphasis. Jospin had to overcome the image of leftist manipulation and double standards which had grown acute during the 14 years of Socialist power under François Mitterrand from 1981 to 1995. Mitterrand, who had been at the center of French political life since 1945, was a sectarian man very capable at pulling strings within a vast network of friends and supporters and driven by personal ambition. During the last five years of his reign, the Mitterrand system slowly came apart as he was dying of cancer but refused to resign. He died shortly after leaving office. Mitterrand left a heritage of politics as manipulation and favors for friends, although he had advanced a certain number of important policies, namely close French-German co-operation and the need to build a new Pan-European security system in the post Cold War period.

Lionel Jospin projects in many ways an opposite image: sober, straight-forward, even-handed. Prior to entering politics he was in the French Foreign Ministry and later a university professor of economics. His speeches are not very exciting but are informative as he tries to win intellectual assent for his policies.

The "Neither Right nor Left" position weakened in favor of a well-structured Green Party but in an alliance with the Left which could win elections.

Thus, Lionel Jospin was able to build a working alliance with the Greens who had been much more mistrustful of François Mitterrand. During the Mitterrand period, the French Greens stressed a "Neither Left nor Right" policy. Although during this 1981-1995 period the Greens would receive from 5 to 10% of the vote depending on the type of election, they were seen more as an ecological movement rather than a political party. Political parties were thought of by many Greens as hothouses for personal ambition, manipulation, and under-the-table financing. Thus, the Greens would come together at elections times to run candidates but otherwise put their energy into local associations working for the defense of nature, against nuclear energy and the testing of nuclear weapons, in solidarity with the Third World, etc.

With the arrival of Lionel Jospin on the center of the political stage, the image of what a political party can be has started to change. This has benefited the Green Party which has started to develop local structures and permanent activities. The development of a party structure was also thought of as necessary to slow down the growth of the far right political party, the National Front. The Front, with a hard core of some 15% of the votes, has moved from being largely a protest vote at the time of national elections to developing strong local structures, present in town councils, in local trade union activities, in cultural events. The Front has done a good job in building local contacts and local publications. The Front builds its activities on an ideology of fear, especially of foreign workers, of foreign business, of losing French identity in an impersonal Europe with a faceless European bureaucracy.

In those districts where there was a danger that two candidates of the Right would be the top two, no Green candidate ran so that all support could be focused on the Socialist candidate.

Thus, the Greens saw the need to develop identifiable Green Party structures at the local level with identified representatives who could help people at all times and to deal politically with local issues. Those among the Greens who did not feel comfortable with political party activities continued in local associations for the defence of nature, while new, more politically-oriented leaders came forward. The "Neither Right nor Left" position weakened in favor of a well-structured Green Party, but in an alliance with the Left, which could win elections. The shift in policy was symbolized by the rise to leadership of the Greens of Dominique Voynet, a medical professional, and the fading of Antione Waechter, former Green presidential candidate, an agricultural specialist who embodied the "Neither Right nor Left" position.

Because elections were held before term, the campaign was short, only six weeks, and held in two rounds. The first on May 25, 1997, had a large number of parties participating, an average of 11 parties for each seat. In the June 1 run off, there were usually only the top two candidates. However, if a candidate has more than 12% of the votes in the first round, he can stay in the second. Thus, there were some 100 three-way contests; the National Front stayed in to split the Right votes. The National Front leaders' policy is to discredit the moderate Center-Right, to help a Left victory so that the moderate Right voters will shift their support to the Far Right in the next elections.

For the second round, the Socialists supported the favored Green candidate and vice versa. Thus, the Greens took eight districts.

Thus, in the first round, the Greens presented a candidate in 413 of the 577 electoral districts. There are 55 seats in France proper and 22 in the French departments of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific. Although ecologically sound development is an important issue in these overseas areas, the Greens are weak there, as politics is often a matter of local personalities and the ability to draw money from the government for local projects, giving an advantage to the large parties. In those districts where there was a danger that two candidates of the Right would be the top two, no Green candidate ran so that all support could be focused on the Socialist candidate. The Greens, including Green candidates running with other ecological labels, polled some 1,600,000 votes, a little over 6 percent.

For the second round, the Socialists supported the favored Green candidate and vice versa. Thus, the Greens took eight districts. Two Green candidates, Dominique Voynet and Noel Mamère, a former television news reporter well known for his defense of human rights, had national reputations. Michèle Rivasi, also elected, is well-known in the anti-nuclear energy milieu. Dominique Voynet has now been named Minister of the Environment and Territorial Planning. Territorial Planning, which had been a department under the Ministry of the Interior, is an important function in French political life, being a combination of both urban and rural planning.

The campaign of all the Green candidates focused on quality of life issues with employment being at the center of discussion. Unemployment is officially at 13%. In fact it is higher, as people on early retirement or in retraining classes are not counted as unemployed.

The Greens, now with seats in Parliament, will grow in national visibility. The have an opportunity to make their presence felt as close allies of the Socialists but not absorbed by them. Lionel Jospin will hopefully mark a new style of reasoned explanation of political positions. The Greens are sure to benefit from the changes in political style.

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