Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux; Besançon, Poitiers and Tours: the list of powerful cities that turned green after the municipal elections in France last weekend was long and impressive. Marseille has been a conservative stronghold for decades. But a left-wing alliance has propelled Michèle Rubirola, candidate of Europe Ecology – France’s green party – into mayor. These totemic victories make the formerly peripheral green party an important player in urban France.
Sunday’s polls should have taken place in March, but were postponed, France being blocked. Perhaps due to this delay and the continued presence of Covid-19, participation was low. This may have disproportionately helped green candidates, whose voters tend to run fairly in local elections, and Europe Ecology is still lagging behind in national polls. But these warnings aside, the “green wave” in France offers encouraging evidence that environmental priorities are really starting to shape and influence policy in Europe.
In Ireland, the new grand coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael depends on the support of the Green party, which will insist that the commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 7% per year is respected. Austria is governed by an alliance of the right-wing populist popular party and the Greens. Eco-targets are accelerated and the Green Minister for Climate Protection, the Environment and Energy is seeking to make Austria carbon neutral by 2040. The predominantly green bloc of members of the European Parliament is also a force to be reckoned with.
The biggest prize of all could be won in next year’s legislative elections in Germany, where polls suggest that Die Grünen could overtake the Social Democrats as the country’s main progressive force. A Greencon coalition is seen as a plausible future government after the resignation of Angela Merkel after a 15-year presidency.
It seems certain that the Covid-19 policy has helped to generate green momentum in France. The origins of the pandemic and its effects on global supply chains have led to a renewed focus on food security, local products and environmental standards across Europe. A forced reassessment of urban life has led to new public funds for greener modes of transport and an emphasis on homework. We can now expect cities like Bordeaux and Lyon to be at the forefront of innovation and to experiment in the design of greener and cleaner cities for the future.
French President Emmanuel Macron – whose party suffered a bad election night – quickly made new environmental commitments in the wake of the results. Macron has pledged to provide an additional € 15 billion to ease the transition to a low-carbon economy and to implement some of the demands of the citizens’ assembly he called on the climate emergency. In negotiating rescue plans with the struggling automobile and aeronautical industries in France, he demanded stricter electrification and emission reduction targets. At the European level, Germany, whose bi-annual EU presidency started this week, is expected to push for more ambitious emission reduction targets by 2030.
All of these developments are welcome. But a crucial aspect of a great night for the Greens in France must not be forgotten. Famous victories were won by younger voters living in relatively prosperous cities. In much of rural France and small towns, where the protests of the yellow vests were sparked by an increase in the fuel tax, environmental radicalism is seen as a luxury option for the well-to-do metropolitan middle classes. Pleading for a green recovery after Covid-19, the new triumphant mayor of Lyon, Grégory Doucet, rightly declared this week: “Ecology is not the enemy of the economy, it is its best ally ” But in the frightening post-industrial heart of Europe, this is an argument that has yet to be won.