Welfare and Social Issues

Austerity and the old dilemma of French political ecology

As with every presidential election, France is addressing national issues and shrugging off those promoted by the Greens. The debate over what would be the right solutions to the crisis and more particularly the debt crisis have faded into the background, even if resistance to austerity policy largely explains the success of the Left Front candidate. The successes of Europe-Ecologie (the French Green Party) in 2009 and 2010 now seem so far away. Yet, outside of the political landscape of parties, movements that are proclaiming ideas of degrowth or ecological transition are seducing supporters in increasing numbers.

The crisis hit France as it did other European countries, even if the scale of national debt (85.8% of GDP) and the national deficit (5.2% in 2011) is a big ticking time bomb for the future parliamentary majority, whatever it may be.

On the eve of the presidential elections, the country seemed to be both dumb struck and stuck in a wait-and-see attitude. After several months spent commenting on every mini European summit (the famous ‘Merkozy’ Franco-German), the media has scaled down the competition to mainly domestic issues (purchasing power, unemployment, education). The candidates’ campaigns only lightly touch upon the measures that will need to be taken to reduce the national deficit. The promised magic (or bitter) potion will only be distributed after the legislative elections.

Whilst we may have expected for this major consultation to focus on the issues of the debt and the deficit, it was  focused on ‘values’ and the issue of security that President Sarkozy has shrewdly chosen to promote his re-election, in order to avoid his record taking up too much space. A ‘shock’ strategy that seemed to provide results because the right-wing candidate, heralded as very unpopular, had caught up the socialist party’s candidate in the polls of the first round a few weeks ahead of voting (they were neck and neck between 26% and 28% of votes in the first round), but which did  not enable him to win in the second round, his total number of votes still being insufficient, despite his attempts to attract the support of the 6.4m Le Pen voters. On May 6th Hollande won the decisive 2nd round with 51.62%.

And in the end, it’s Marine Le Pen who advanced

All Presidential elections are different. Nevertheless, as the breakthrough of the FN was confirmed (17.9% of the votes), there was a feeling of “back to the future”. A return to the future of 2002, as Jean Marie Le Pen qualified for the 2nd round in that year’s presidential election. The daughter did not repeat this feat, but improves the score of the father (16.8% in 2002) and strengthens the grip of the FN on society by winning an additional 1.4m votes.

The future looks bleak because the performance of the daughter Le Pen raises again the difficult question that has hung around French society for 30 years: is the FN a major force in French politics? A referee capable of becoming the principal source of opposition from the right to a Socialist Government after the possible implosion of Sarkozy’s UMP?

Other candidates believed that they would appear as alternatives to the Sarkozism thanks to their success in recent years. It was the case of Francois Bayrou, as a “centrist humanist” who thought that he would be able to repeat his success of 2007 (18%) and make it to the 2nd round. His vote collapsed to 9% and was replaced by Marine Le Pen in the role of “3rd man”. Other revelation, Jean Luc Melenchon, at the head of the Front de Gauche (including the French Communist Party) managed to surprise commentators and go beyond the 10% barrier. But, the dynamic of his campaign had enabled him to hope push Marine Le Pen into 4th place. His failure to do so was a disappointment.

Ecology missed the elections

For the Greens, the scene ended in a descent into electoral hell. After the unexpected success of Europe-Écologie-The Greens in 2009 European Parliament election (16.2%), and the good score obtained in the regional elections (12.4% in Marche 2010), some believed that the new party born from the coalition (Europe-Écologie- The Greens, created at the end of 2010) could play a significant role in the next scene. However, the majoritarian system and the extremely personalised approach to the elections were still devastating for the Greens.

After an internal election which led to Eva Joly’s candidacy against Nicolas Hulot, considered much more media-friendly, those who hoped see her play a more important role in the campaign were disappointed. Over the course of the campaign, the former magistrate saw her ratings fall across all surveys, going from 10% (in summer 2011) to 2% in the run up to the first round (22nd April 2012). A fall in public opinion, coupled with a loss in credibility for the greens who have not managed to explain why they had forged an agreement with the Socialist Party beforehand, against the hope of finally having a parliamentary group in the Assembly.

For the new Europe-Écologie- The Greens (EELV, created at the end of 2010 amidst the enthusiasm of Europe-Écologie), the presidential elections is like bitter fruit. Political ecology has disappointed after having been so encouraging. And for its defenders, the fear is that of being judged by the height of the very low score obtained by their candidate, rather than by previous elections.  Indeed, the campaign excluded green issues and most of the candidates focussed on the usual topics: purchasing power and employment for the French. However, the issue to which green issues are losing out to when the economic crisis appears seems to be borne out. And yet, in 2009, the 2008 crisis had already hit. Of all the various issues that the news should have put emphasis upon (nuclear accident, energy crisis, financial crisis…) Eva Joly had something to say! Her alternative budgetary proposals in particular were shored up, both to ensure ecological transformation of the French economy, to invest in social justice and education and to reduce the national deficit by €30 billion[i][ii]. However, the message did not get across, in this extremely personalised election that has been reduced to a war of egos.

At the beginning of April, the French daily newspaper Le Monde assessed the situation by evaluating all the proposals on environmental issues. The conclusion: ‘In a campaign dominated by economic and social issues, the environment will have been missing from the debates, with the exception of the phasing out of nuclear power, a key debate in autumn 2011, which no longer seems to interest candidates in the slightest.’ And Nicolas Hulot, now returned to the head of his foundation after a defeat in the EELV, explained his disappointment: ‘The main political formations attempt to meet, with verve, the daily concerns of French citizens, but they do not consider the new constraint of the 21st century, which is the ecological  constraint.’

Beyond policy: the alternative as movement

Disappointed by the weak impact of Eva Joly’s candidacy, a large number of green sympathisers who don’t identify with the other competing candidates are tempted to abstain. A situation seen by many as ‘wasteful’, whilst, on the ground, initiatives are flourishing, around several movements that are clearly close to green ideas, that are gaining in influence and in followers, but aren’t really seeking to impact the elections or to make it a priority issue.

Outside of the parties, this search for solid alternatives is growing. Through disappointment, or by choice, more and more activists with ecological  sensibilities are turning towards grassroots movements that are oriented towards individual and collective action.

Former activists, or those from collective organisations, refuse the traditional forms of political commitment; they are forming an active and engaged galaxy around a few strong ideas.

Of all the various issues that the news should have put emphasis upon (nuclear accident, energy crisis, financial crisis…) Eva Joly had something to say! Her alternative budgetary proposals in particular were shored up, both to ensure ecological transformation of the French economy, to invest in social justice and education and to reduce the national deficit by €30 billion

Against the religion of growth

The movement for degrowth has been an example of this for some years. It is mobilised partly around a magazine (La Décroissance*), but also reviews (Entropia), and institute (http://www.decroissance.org) and more widely within a movement of ‘objectors to growth’, that informally brings together thousands of people who wish to question the ‘dogma of growth’ and to reinvent more sober forms of existence, often local and pragmatic: housing, food, education, transport. For supporters of degrowth, influencing society with ideas – leaving behind the ‘religion of growth’ and a complete review of lifestyles and consumption methods. Several activist anti-publicity movements (Les déboulonneurs, le Réseau Anti-Pub, or la Brigade Anti-Pub) are generally alongside those in favour of degrowth, in their criticism of a ‘consumerist society’, in a way that is both ‘denouncing’ and urban activist.

In the Colibris movement, everyone plays a role.

In the same spirit, with an even bigger dimension, it is the ‘Colibris’ (hummingbird in English) that have gained significant visibility over the last few years. At the source of new popularisation of this tale (the Colibris movement), Pierre Rabhi and his Mouvement pour la Terre et l’Humanisme (Movement for Earth and Humanism) have proposed pooling (along with other personalities) the hundreds of people working on various initiatives (degrowth, self-sufficiency, local exchange systems) into a vast cooperative: le Mouvement des Colibris. Alongside the agronomist Pierre Rabhi, several kindred spirits meet regularly at conferences and meetings: Edgar Morin, Patrick Viveret, Nicolas Hulot, among others. The link between the groups spread across the country is made through social networks (http://www.colibris-lemouvement.org/), but also during rallies, vectors for exchanging solid local and regional experiences: eco-villages, alternative schooling and energy and food self-sufficiency.  The Colibris seem to want to form a type of counter society, with solid alternatives, completely separate from the political scene and its media supremacy, to which they have responded with an ‘we are all candidates’ campaign (being photographed on posters), as if to show the need for each one of us to  re-appropriate policy.

Through activist forms of involvements, and personal and collective development, we are beginning to see the signs of a movement that is capable of pooling together ‘good will’ for effective, local projects.

Prepare the transition

More recently, it is the ‘Villes en transition’ (cities in transition) movement that has spread in France over the last few years. Started in 2006 by Rob Hopkins in the city of Totnes (Great Britain), the idea spread to a few neighbourhoods and large American and European cities. In France, he has merged initiatives that are currently in progress (degrowth, Colibris) and is attempting to unite groups forming across the country. Although dedicated, above all, to the popularisation of the concepts linked to transition (resilience, dependence…) by organising meetings, those who are heralding this new concept hope to see initiatives flourish in some cities and districts: local currency, permaculture, green transport and energy. For these activists, the main objective is to form local groups capable of implementing collective projects that will encourage districts to shake off the dependency on oil; a way of creating the social link based on personal involvement, which is increasingly seducing ‘dropouts’ and those who are pessimistic about the current crisis.

A ‘people of ecology’ not inclined to have an impact in the elections

The objectives of these groups and movements are quite similar. The facts show that most people involved in these alternatives take part, in one way or another, alternatively. However, behind these few examples, it is mostly an attitude that should be noted. The same attitude that we also refer to as ‘cultural creatives’, developed by studies on the attitudes of American and European populations. These people, with ‘post-materialistic’ values will account for approximately 1/3 of the French population (study conducted in 2005: Les Créatifs culturels en France (Cultural creatives in France) published by Y. Michel). For this phenomenon of substance potentially able to bring major change, the difficulty lies in the lack of awareness of the potential impact and influence that these people possess. Not being very supportive of voting, they have not become an issue for parties, as such. However, through activist forms of involvements, and personal and collective development, we are beginning to see the signs of a movement that is capable of pooling together ‘good will’ for effective, local projects.

Do these new forms of involvement hark back to the pioneering spirit of the greens back in the 60s and 70s, who wanted to ‘reinvent life’? Or more prosaically, do we have to look at ways to protect ourselves in the face of current concerns and the political dead-end that the systemic crises have brought into the light of day?

Moreover, for the Greens, it seems that an ambiguous relationship continues to separate the party and its ‘potential sympathisers’. Whilst those involved in the elections see their hope turn into a stable electoral force after each tawdry period, other, more effective forms of involvement seem to fuel the paradox that the French Green party had always to confront: how to continue believing that the situation could change through elections, when those who carry these ideas seem to have so much trouble surviving in the political landscape?

And whereas each new crisis reminds us of the urgency of our actions against the effects of the ecological crisis, by changing the policy of governments, the issue that has tormented the French Green party for decades comes back to mind: should we expect a positive through politics, or by creating alternatives? After more than forty years of existence in France, political ecology has undoubtedly not yet completely resolved this dilemma.


[ii] « Budget 2012, un new deal écologique et social, le contre-budget d’Eva Joly », www.joly2012.fr

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