The French municipal elections were a reason to rejoice not just for Europe Ecology — France’s Green party, whose strong vote count helped it capture totemic town halls such as Lyon and Bordeaux — but for its sister parties elsewhere.
Last Sunday’s achievements in France are the latest stage of the Greens’ slow encroachment on the terrain of Europe’s centre-left. Ska Keller, leader of the Green group in the European parliament, thinks they reflect “a general trend towards Green success”, pointing to the Irish Greens’ entry into Ireland’s new coalition government.
Such results show “the fragmentation of party politics we’re seeing across Europe”, said Sara Hobolt, a professor of European politics at the London School of Economics. Not just greens, but “challenger parties” generally have benefited from a more volatile electorate. She pointed out that French president Emmanuel Macron, whose La République en Marche did poorly in Sunday’s poll, was once himself such a challenger. So is the populist right in many countries.
Challenger parties benefit most from fragmentation in local and European parliamentary elections where voters “don’t worry about who is going to be in government”, said Ms Hobolt. Ms Keller argued that Green voters also particularly “value local and European politics” and could be counted on to turn up to such elections. In Sunday’s record-low turnout in France, this made a significant difference.
Ms Hobolt cautioned against extrapolating too much from Sunday’s local results for Mr Macron’s prospects in the 2022 presidential election. “Many think this is a verdict on Macron but this was always going to be very difficult for him . . . he faced not having the ground game” such as a corps of incumbent mayors, she said.
Even if it does not say much about what may happen next in France, the result is indicative of where things are moving elsewhere. Increasingly, it is Greens and not Eurosceptic populists who are benefiting from the breakdown of traditional party systems. In Germany, they regularly outpoll the Social Democrats and are a credible future coalition partner with the centre-right. Such a coalition is in government in Austria.
Where Greens have been victorious, they have benefited from having the zeitgeist with them. “They very much compete on the cultural dimension of politics [as the] polar opposite of the radical right,” said Ms Hobolt. This, as well as the climate issue itself, holds strong appeal especially among younger, educated voters.
“It helps them that there has been a movement outside the Green party,” she said, mentioning Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist. “She has helped get the green agenda into mainstream debate more than parties themselves.”
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For Ms Keller, the fact that environmental movements also exist in east and south-eastern Europe is reason for optimism that Green parties can eventually also break through electorally there. “We now have Polish Green MPs,” she pointed out. Yet, insisted Ms Hobolt, it remained “very much a western phenomenon”.
The Green wave does not manifest itself in electoral success only. Much like with the anti-immigrant right previously, the influence of a party is just as often seen in how it forces established parties to adopt its programme. The greening — or, as critics think, “greenwashing” — of European politics has been remarkably swift.
While his defeat was still sinking in, Mr Macron on Monday received the members of a citizens’ assembly to hear their recommendations on climate change policy — almost all of which he vowed to pursue. At the level of the EU, a focus on climate and the environment is now ubiquitous, from the European Commission’s “green new deal” to the talks over a post-coronavirus recovery fund.
Ms Keller, however, is not worried about being sidelined by other parties co-opting the green agenda. “You see more ecological rhetoric” from other parties, she said, “but usually not for very long . . . If they don’t do anything, that is clear to the electorate. So I see no such risk — unfortunately.”
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