The Greens and/or Macron: the fight to hold the centre

Pauline Graulle

Far from birds and flocks and village girls,

What did I drink, as I knelt in the heather,

A tender hazel copse around me,

In the warm green mist of the afternoon?

~Arthur Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”

Two political parties – Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) and President Macron’s The Republic on the Move (La Republique En Marche, or LREM) – are now vying for the centrist vote in France. But while LREM is veering to the right, the French Greens are being ‘blocked’ from following suit by a militant base that’s pulling them to the left.

One election, two winners. The European elections held in May 2019 confirmed the standing of two parties in the French political landscape. Still bogged down in the crisis surrounding the yellow vests – the longest-running social movement of its kind in the history of the Fifth Republic – the young party led by Emmanuel Macron successfully consolidated its position in this first mid-term election since he was elected president. LREM won 22.4% of the vote, just a few points behind the National Rally (Front National, recently rebranded the Rassemblement National, or RN), which came in first, as it had in 2014.

The Greens – a party in shambles, having lost its iconic figures and activists, so weak it did not even present a candidate in the last presidential election – managed to more than hold its own. Not only did the EELV muster nearly 3 million votes, it also made a spectacular breakthrough among young voters, gaining the support of a quarter of 18-24 year-olds. This solid performance propelled EELV into third place, securing 13.5% of the vote on 26 May, far ahead of La France Insoumise (LFI) and the rest of the left. And today it fuels the party’s hope that it might establish itself as the ‘progressive’ alternative to Macron’s strain of neoliberalism.

Who will win the race to occupy the social-democratic space?

EELV vs. LREM: that’s a contest the Greens would love to see in the 2022 presidential election. However, LREM and EELV currently seem more like two sides of the same coin than opposing forces. Fundamentally, both groups have more in common than one might think. Strategically, both are fighting over a similar electorate: centrist voters.

A promising electorate? For anyone who remembers the successive failures of MoDem, the party led by François Bayrou, and the impossibility to consolidate a strong French centre, there is every reason to be sceptical. Yet things are different now. The death throes of the social democrats, embodied by the rout of the Socialist Party (PS) following François Hollande’s five-year term as President, opened a wide gap between the far right and a left that accounts for a quarter of the electorate. By making gains on issues where they tend to agree (albeit with some differences), and by combining economic liberalism with social progressivism, EELV and LREM each hope to win over voters from both the right and left as they strive to win the 51% of votes needed to rise to power.

For now, victory is far from certain. Given the ongoing strikes against pension reform, the rising number of demonstrations opposing the dismantlement of the public healthcare system and the reform of unemployment insurance, there is no reason to assume that a ‘more expansive’ centrist offering would find any takers in these troubled times, with opinions tending to polarise rather than bring people closer together.

Still, the European election campaign has given a foretaste of what might be in store for French voters in the ongoing and wholesale reconfiguration of the political landscape following the Big Bang of 2017. Both parties resonated with pro-European voters (non-critical of EU institutions), conveying a message of pragmatism centred around ‘making do’ with the European Commission’s existing liberal policy. Both also vowed to put old rifts behind them. Emmanuel Macron is sticking with his ‘both right and left’ battle cry, a vestige of his victorious strategy in the presidential election, whereas EELV leader Yannick Jadot is advocating the autonomy of the political ecology paradigm, which pretty successfully reconnected him with voters, adopting a line close to the ‘neither right, nor left’ tack followed 30 years ago by Antoine Waechter, the Greens’ candidate in the 1988 presidential election.

Furthermore, Yannick Jadot, currently a Member of European Parliament, has made no secret of modelling his strategic approach on that of the German Greens, the ‘Realos’ who are today co-governing a number of German federal states with the right and liberals. This may well inspire Jadot, who for a time supported the candidacy of Michel Barnier (from the very liberal European People’s Party) for President of the European Commission, to believe that in the second round EELV could support right-wing candidates in the 2020 local elections. As he explained to Le Journal du Dimanche on 18 August:

“A mayor who prefers organic canteens, who fights to save businesses in town centres, who welcomes migrants with dignity and who promotes social diversity, is now a ‘green’. Previously classified on various occasions as right-wing, a supporter of LFI, a socialist, unaffiliated, a centrist or communist, his past label is of no consequence: what counts now is the major challenge faced and the values we champion”.

Flexible alliances…and flexible ideologies as well?

LREM experimented with a flexible alliance strategy in its early days. Emmanuel Macron sought out his top aides from Socialist Party networks, but once in power appointed a Prime Minister close to the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) led by Alain Juppé, the Mayor of Bordeaux and former Prime Minister during Jacques Chirac’s presidency. EELV adopted the same tack just after the European elections. Early in July, the Greens teamed up with minor green-liberal parties (like Corinne Lepage’s Citizenship, Action, Participation for the 21st Century (CAP 21) and the Independent Ecological Movement (MEI) led by Antoine Waechter), shifting their centre of gravity from the left towards the centre.

Ideologically, too, EELV and LREM are not as far apart as they might look. Both organisations have inherited all or part of their DNA from the political thinking of the Second Left. Many of the ideas hatched by the Greens stem from the United Socialist Party (PSU), of which Brice Lalonde – the Greens’ candidate in 1981 – was a member. As for LREM, a fair number of ‘Rocardists’ – as the former Socialist Prime Minister François Mitterrand called them – supported the rise of Emmanuel Macron. This shared influence no doubt partly explains their common rejection of Marxism; a marked preference for decentralisation (as opposed to a very ‘First Left’ form of Jacobinism); emphasis on personal initiatives (in the entrepreneurial domain for LREM, in the civic domain for the Greens); their acceptance of globalisation (liberal globalisation for LREM, alter-globalisation for the Greens); a defence of federalism on the European level, and so on. In fact, there are so many commonalities that it is difficult to say whether it was an LREM or EELV supporter who recently came out “in favour of a market economy, free enterprise and innovation” (the answer is Yannick Jadot).

This ideological closeness helps us understand the exodus of so many top Greens who have (seemingly without too much political soul-searching) joined Macron’s group over the last few years. Two such transplants that failed are Nicolas Hulot and François de Rugy, who each briefly served as Environment Minister in Edouard Philippe’s government. Others were Pascal Durand, EELV’s former National Secretary, and Pascal Canfin, a former minister under François Hollande, both of whom wholeheartedly (and with great fanfare) switched to the LREM list headed by Nathalie Loiseau just before the European elections. There they rejoined their former comrades from the ‘Europe Ecology’ branch of EELV, first and foremost Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The porous border between these two worlds impacts not only political leaders but also the electorate. In the European elections, 15% of those who backed Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy in 2017 voted for EELV. The Greens have no intention of stopping now. Convinced that it will ultimately attract disappointed Macron supporters in 2022, EELV would also like to win over supporters of the moderate left who feel rubbed the wrong way by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s style, and even supporters of the social right put off by excessive privatisation (e.g. of the Paris airports and lottery operator Française des Jeux) or an overly authoritarian governmental style (seen in the repression of the yellow vest movement). Hence the great caution shown by Yannick Jadot, who, in October, in a joint Le Monde interview with Robert Habeck, leader of the German Greens, declared that he had never “considered [EELV] an opposition party”, but rather a “proposition party”.

The same fight… to the death?

So, are LREM and EELV fighting for the same thing? In fact, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. First and foremost because both groups face opposition from within their own ranks. LREM’s rapid shift to the right, designed to suck in Republican Party voters, is not without its risks and could indeed result in Emmanuel Macron alienating the ‘left wing’ of his party. Both the debate on immigration, launched by the parliamentary majority in the autumn of 2019 to deflect attention from the high-risk pension reform, and the publication in October of the president’s first ever interview with far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles, shocked many of the social democrats who had given him their vote.

Meanwhile, EELV’s lurch towards the centre is meeting with a fair amount of resistance. During the European election campaign, clamorous voices from both inside and outside the party denounced what they deemed to be excessively liberal statements by the Greens’ top candidate. The party congress held at the end of November also showed that the line taken by Yannick Jadot was riling the party’s militant base, many of whom believe that the Greens need to shift back clearly to the left. Summing up the situation, Julien Bayou, EELV’s new National Secretary, who rose to prominence in the youth movements opposing inadequate housing in the 2000s, reiterates: “We want to be central, not centrist!”.

For months, too, former National Secretary David Cormand has tirelessly swum against the Jadotist tide. In an interview with the website Le Vent Se Lève, Cormand confirmed, as if to remind his own troops, that “there could be no possible compromise with capitalism.” This statement seems to be backed up by the unanimous vote against free trade agreements by French Green MEPs, a stance that fundamentally distances them from Macron’s policy.

From a more tactical point of view, the Greens now know that unless they come across as somewhat radical, they will lose some of the young people who participated in the climate marches and who expect profound, systemic changes designed to save the planet.

In the meantime, EELV has decided to make its mark in the municipal elections by putting up autonomous candidates in all towns and cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. This is what’s happening in Paris, where in the first round of the campaign it will pit itself against both pro-Macron factions and the left-wing unity list headed by Anne Hidalgo. Meanwhile, up against the far right in Perpignan, its strategy will entail running a campaign capable of winning over right-wing Republicans. In any event, the Greens are largely pinning their hopes on towns where the outgoing Socialist mayor is not standing again.

For the Greens, it is a first step toward replacing a social democracy in decline, before perhaps then going on to meet LREM eye to eye in the 2022 presidential election.

After studying art and sociology, Pauline Graulle was a journalist for 10 years at the weekly news magazine Politis, where she was a social affairs and then political columnist. Since 2018 she’s been working for French website Mediapart, where she covers news about the French left.

Les Verts et/ou Macron : la lutte pour le centrePDF file