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France's Green Party: A local phenomenon or an emerging national party?

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French EELV (Europe Ecologie Les Verts) green party candidate for Lyon metropole Bruno Bernard speaks on June 28, 2020 in Lyon.
French EELV (Europe Ecologie Les Verts) green party candidate for Lyon metropole Bruno Bernard speaks on June 28, 2020 in Lyon.   -   Copyright  JEFF PACHOUD/AFP
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France's local elections last week resulted in what some have called a "green wave" as the Green Party secured victories in several major cities.

Local wins in cities such as Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg as well as Paris, where socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo formed a coalition with the Green Party, contributed to an election upset for the ruling party on June 28.

But do these wins represent a wider electoral victory for the Europe Ecology-Les Verts (EELV) party in France, and what does it mean for the greater European Green political movement?

Green Party politicians have performed well in recent European elections, particularly in Germany, Austria and the UK.

Yet, environmentalists often struggle to break into national politics which continues to be dominated by legacy parties.

Do not 'overestimate' victory in France

European parliamentarian Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield says the Greens' victory shouldn't be "overestimated" just because it was in large cities.

"The real big winners are the right-wing mayors in rural areas," the French MEP told Euronews.

Despite Green victories in northern and western Europe, they're not yet outperforming traditional right and left parties, experts say.

"We need to grow and become stronger as a party. We’re still very fragile," she added.

France's Europe Ecology-Les Verts (EELV) previously finished an impressive third in the 2019 European elections after the far-right National Rally (NR) and President Emmanuel Macron's party, La République en Marche (LREM). But they haven't had a real viable candidate for the presidential election, experts say.

EELV leader Yannick Jadot was polling slightly higher than usual after the municipal elections but still hovers at just 22 per cent.

"We have been strong on the local levels for 30 years in a number of member states. The national level has always been difficult for us," said Delbos-Corfield.

Some also see the Greens victory in France as an example of political transformation throughout Europe that stems from a breaking up of more traditional political parties.

"In most countries in Europe, political party systems are going through a period of transformation," said Antonio Barroso, managing director at political consultancy firm Teneo Intelligence, who cites the French election as a quintessential example of this.

"There is an emergence of new parties. The European elections have shown it. In France, the election of Macron has shown it... but the Greens are still not a grounded party," said Delbos-Corfield, who said they still needed more people to join the party.

Greens typically perform better in European and local elections

After the 2019 European elections, the Greens became the fourth largest party in the European Parliament, having won 74 seats in 2019, up from 50 in 2014.

"European elections are always for us quite a bit of a good moment," said Delbos-Corfield, who says polls and public opinion were both on their side in those elections.

The Green Party came second in Germany during the European Elections, just behind Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Green parties also hold seats in 14 of Germany's 16 federal states, but only have the sixth most seats in the German Bundestag.

Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP
Green Party top candidate Katharina Fegebank, left, celebrates with the party's chairwoman Annalena Baerbock in Hamburg, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP

In Austria, the Green Party came fourth in European elections and is the fourth largest party in parliament. They recently entered government for the first time, forming a coalition with Sebastian Kurz's conservative Austrian People's Party.

The Green Party meanwhile came fourth in the UK during the European elections but won just a single seat in the country's general election.

In France, "we're talking about a municipal election where green issues especially in big cities are very prominent because we can talk about a carbon tax at the national level but many of the issues connected to environment like pollution are very local," said Barroso.

What has changed to make the Greens more popular?

Increasingly, Europeans are paying attention to climate change, and in many European countries, the environment is becoming a more important topic that now people are voting on.

At least 94 per cent of citizens in EU member states said that protecting the environment is important to them while 91 per cent said that climate change is a serious problem in the EU, according to a Eurobarometer survey released in March.

"You can now see at the local level the real climate changes. I live in the mountains; I live at 1000 metres in the Alps. We used to have snow from November to March... and now it has been three or four winters where we had to shovel snow five or six times," said Delbos-Corfield.

It's the "same if you live next to the sea, you see the fish problem and the water problem...people are really seeing concretely what it means so they are feeling the danger much more."

In France, there is "something happening in the national public space which has consequences in terms of being able to access local power for ecological candidates," says Simon Persico, a researcher at SciencesPo Grenoble who specialises in environmentalist parties.

Persico said it's possible that there will be electoral and regional "consequences" from the regional elections, explaining that cities such as Lyon have large budgets and wield political power.

Before newcomer Grégory Doucet was elected in Lyon, the former mayor was Gérard Collomb who was Macron's interior minister from 2017 to 2018.

France's local elections could be an "accelerator of transformation," in Europe said Persico, changing them from a "peripheral or minor partner" into a party that "brings together a full spectrum of politics".