A Green Feminist Foreign Policy for the EU

From Sweden to Mexico, an avant-garde of countries is pioneering feminist foreign policy. The European Union has made progress in promoting gender equality in its external action, but much remains to be done before it will deliver structural change. Juliane Schmidt calls for a green feminist foreign policy rooted in intersectionality that will enable the EU to live up to its values of freedom and equality.

In April 2021, gender equality entered the spotlight after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was left without a chair at a summit in Turkey. Whether or not “sofagate” was blown out of proportion, the incident demonstrated just how much remains to be done across the EU, its institutions and member states to raise awareness of gender-related issues. For many, the incident was just another drop in the ocean of the male-dominated world of foreign policy.

World politics today are increasingly complex and adversarial. The EU is struggling to find its place while not betraying its fundamental values of freedom and equality and its commitment to human and minority rights. Adopting a green feminist foreign policy would enable the EU to keep these values front and centre.

Challenging EU structures and power dynamics

Feminist foreign policy seeks to mainstream gender equality in foreign and security policy. Fundamentally, it is about protecting the human rights of women and girls and recognising that this is a prerequisite to achieving broader foreign policy goals such as peace, security and sustainable development. It most often focuses on combating sexual violence and promoting women’s education, economic empowerment, and representation in politics and decision-making (including in peace negotiations).

Green feminist foreign policy goes a step further. It is deeply rooted, acknowledging that gender is a social construct and that global challenges such as conflict, climate change and natural disasters have gendered impacts that exacerbate intersecting forms of discrimination. It questions the status quo, calling for a rethink of inequitable gender norms and patriarchal power dynamics. Importantly, a green feminist foreign policy takes an intersectional approach, aiming to achieve equality for all people and genders (not only white, heterosexual, able-bodied and cisgender women). It promotes change based on rights and inclusive, non-discriminatory interactions through a multidimensional approach across all policy areas with an external dimension. Security, human rights, migration, trade, development aid, humanitarian assistance, and climate change: these must all be addressed in an interconnected way.

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What does all this mean in practice? Firstly, addressing unequal structures and power relations within the EU institutions to improve the presence of women and marginalised groups in policy-making and to raise awareness of gender-related issues. Starting at the top level, a series of measures should be implemented across EU institutions and services. Among others, these should include mandatory training for EU staff; a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and gender-based violence; guidelines on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and gender-responsive recruitment procedures. These must all be underpinned by specific, measurable targets (including diversity targets for EU institutions, delegations and missions) as well as monitoring and follow-up.

In terms of policy content, a green feminist foreign policy implies a rethink of several fields. In security policy, it means leaving behind an androcentric understanding of security with its strongmen figures and images of masculine power. This should be replaced by a long-term view of security and stability that is feminist and inclusive. Research has shown that policies that do not strive to end inequality and injustice will not be successful in bringing lasting peace. Similarly, EU development policy should move from a neo-colonial approach based on aid dependency and resource extraction to one focused on empowerment and rights. In part, this requires gender-responsive EU humanitarian action and changing the narrative around women and marginalised groups to acknowledge them as agents of positive change rather than simply beneficiaries of support.

Policies that do not strive to end inequality and injustice will not be successful in bringing lasting peace.

It also means harnessing the EU’s power as an actor in global trade by including specific and binding gender chapters or due diligence requirements in all EU trade agreements. The EU should establish a clear commitment to promoting LGBTQI+ rights in its foreign policy, and it should seek to ensure that women and marginalised groups are included in international decision-making on climate action.

A green feminist foreign policy must rely on close cooperation with civil society, in particular women human rights defenders and advocates for marginalised groups. They should be natural allies when it comes to fostering inclusive research strategies with an intersectional perspective, something which is still relatively absent in EU policy-making. Rigorous intersectional analysis and systematic impact assessments should be the basis for all EU policies, with specialised advisors to monitor progress and dedicated resource and budgeting to fund these changes.

In spring 2021, the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament took a step in this direction by releasing a strategy calling for a feminist foreign policy and detailing how to get there. The strategy puts forward a four-pronged approach: representation of all genders and participation in decision-making processes; a rights-based approach that ensures the fundamental freedoms of all people, not just the privileged few; dedicated funding and resources; and the use of data, research and inclusive consultations to inform and shape solutions that address multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination.

Slow progress towards gender-equal EU foreign policy

A global trend towards a new approach in international politics has been emerging over the past two decades. In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted its landmark resolution on women, peace and security. In 2018, the EU adopted its Women, Peace and Security Agenda including its strategic approach and 2019-2024 action plan. In 2020, it also launched its Gender Action Plan III (GAP III), setting out its agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment in EU external action. All of these have contributed to gender mainstreaming in the EU’s foreign policy and could form the basis of an EU feminist foreign policy. However, several countries are ahead of the EU when it comes to establishing a feminist foreign policy.

Sweden has been a pioneer in this field, being the first country in the world to announce the adoption of a feminist foreign policy in 2014. In 2018, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs published a handbook based on its approach as a resource to inform and inspire further work in the area of feminist foreign policy. As part of its framework, Sweden has a coordinator of feminist foreign policy, focal points across services, and an annually updated action plan. Sweden also earmarks 90 per cent of its development aid for gender equality. Swedish feminist foreign policy is part and parcel of a larger gender equality agenda in the country and the government has even defined itself as feminist.

Following in Sweden’s footsteps, several EU countries have announced their adoption of a feminist foreign policy, including Luxembourg, Spain and Cyprus, while France established a feminist approach to diplomacy. Since 2014, 79 other countries have created national action plans to improve the inclusion of women in foreign and security policy. Beyond the EU, Canada launched a feminist development policy in 2017. In 2020, Mexico became the first Latin American country to adopt a feminist foreign policy and Malaysia indicated it would pursue one.

The reality today is that women and marginalised groups are still in the minority in high-level positions in the political systems, diplomatic services and militaries of EU member states. At the current rate of progress, they will remain so for a long time. GAP III is a big achievement, but it does not go far enough to promote structural change. Like most EU documents, its language is not inclusive enough, being based on a binary notion of gender. GAP III lacks gender-responsive budgeting, and, despite how it identified gender mainstreaming as a “responsibility for all”, there has been insufficient implementation of existing action plans and policies – including those which are part of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Moreover, many EU policies remain gender blind, insufficiently gender-sensitive or inconsistent in terms of intersectionality. For example, shortly after GAP III was published, the European Commission released its strategy to renew multilateralism, which completely lacked a gender or intersectional dimension.

GAP III also fails to sufficiently address an increasingly challenging international context which, in recent years, has seen backlash against the rights of women and marginalised groups and a shrinking space for civil society. This has been witnessed in the severe funding problems faced by civil society organisations, the reinstation of the global gag rule under Donald Trump, increased resistance to the Istanbul Convention on combating gender-based violence (including among EU member states), and a growing anti-gender discourse internationally. The latter can be observed in the difficulties in passing the latest UN resolution on women, peace and security. Within the EU, its effects are seen in the Council of the EU with the lack of conclusions on GAP III, as well as the contestation by some member states of almost any text that refers to gender equality or LGBTQI+ rights.

EU diplomatic service fails to walk the talk

In terms of EU structures, the biggest challenges for green feminist foreign policy are found in the management of the European External Action Service (EEAS) led by the High Representative Josep Borrell. Men hold almost 80 per cent of senior- and almost 70 per cent of middle-management posts in the EEAS (the latter is the only indicator where women’s representation has improved since Borrell took office in December 2019). The action plan to address gender imbalance in EEAS management is a good start, but it has a long way to go in terms of implementation, ensuring inclusion and work-life balance, addressing the lack of applications from women and marginalised groups, and integrating an intersectional perspective in job descriptions and performance reviews. Beyond the usual rhetoric, Borrell does not stand out as an advocate for gender equality and intersectionality. Politico recently reported EEAS employees describing a male-dominated work culture in which gender equality is not taken seriously by leadership and mostly left up to women.

Men hold almost 80 per cent of senior and almost 70 per cent of middle management posts in the EEAS.

The recent reappointment procedure for the post of EEAS Principal Advisor on Gender and Women, Peace and Security was also a concerning indication of how inclusion is seen as a low-priority issue among the EEAS leadership. After the post expired at the end of 2020, the procedure to appoint a replacement was only launched after several complaints by MEPs and civil society. The Dutch diplomat Stella Ronner-Grubacic was appointed as Adviser to the Secretary-General for Gender and Diversity in April 2021, but the changed job title suggests that the role will have new tasks, a lower profile and limited resources. Merging the responsibility for general diversity and gender equality does not point to both issues being granted the necessary attention and resources.

Another problem is the EEAS’s lack of cooperation with civil society. A notable example of this was when Miroslav Lajčák, the EU’s Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, was called out for failing to meet with any women’s rights organisations on his trip to Kosovo in November 2020. In response, he claimed that he did indeed meet with “Kosovo’s women”, thereby failing to recognise the issue at hand. There are also reports that EU delegations are outsourcing work related to GAP III, including consultations with civil society, resulting in extremely limited ownership of these processes and very little contact with grassroots experts. In addition, this exposes a lack of expertise and resources to carry out this work internally.

Green feminist foreign policy: from concept to reality

Green feminist foreign policy is not a tick-box exercise. To be successful, it demands real systemic change within the EU. Europe’s foreign policy is currently made mainly by older white men who tend to make policies for older white men. Unless we change the face of EU foreign policy, it will remain male, pale, and stale. But representation alone – the “add-women/minorities-and-stir” approach – does not automatically translate into more inclusive and transformative policies. The implementation of a green feminist foreign policy requires a comprehensive approach and progressive leadership that takes ownership of these processes across the board. Change within the EU’s institutional culture will be important, and awareness campaigns, guidelines, and training can all help shift mindsets.

Intersectionality must be a fundamental principle that guides EU feminist foreign policy.

Feminist foreign policy is not a new concept, and many experts in the field have emphasised the need for an intersectional approach. However, examples of feminist foreign policy in practice, including in Sweden, have been criticised for failing to pay adequate attention to other marginalised groups, including LGBTQI+ and racialised people. Intersectionality must therefore be a fundamental principle that guides EU feminist foreign policy. This needs to be backed up by appropriate measures (including policy documents, strategies, action plans, public statements, and dedicated resources) as well as the support of all EU member states.

Given the resistance to gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights that is growing in some member states, such a paradigm shift still seems far away. While there is an avant-garde of countries that is moving forwards with feminist foreign policy, there are also countries where this is still unthinkable. A similar divide can be observed between conservative/right-wing and liberal/left-wing parties in the European Parliament, where introducing progressive language on gender in any text remains a challenge. But since the EU is based on compromise and consensus, it may still become a front-runner on the issue.

To achieve this, it will take people who are courageous enough push for transformative change rather than small reforms here and there. When the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström first declared her country’s feminist foreign policy in 2014, she was met with ridicule. Several years later, this idea has entered the mainstream and there is increased awareness and action. Looking to Germany ahead of the September 2021 federal election, there are hopeful signs as the Greens support a feminist government and foreign policy [read more on the German Greens].

Green feminist foreign policy is part of the wider debate on reconciling fundamental EU values with foreign policy. Equality is enshrined in the EU treaties. Implementing a green feminist foreign policy would effectively mean carrying this value through to foreign policy practice. The EU needs to stop treating rights and values as a low-priority issue in foreign policy. It has set itself the standard of putting equality and universal rights and opportunities front and centre. Now, it should fight for this with all means available.

The Radical Centre: German Greens Won’t Sit at the Fringes

High poll ratings have put the German Greens in the spotlight ahead of the September 2021 federal election, with the party’s structure, polices, and leading figures under heavy scrutiny. But beyond the hype and headlines, what is the vision Greens are campaigning for and how well equipped are they to lead? We spoke to German Green Member of the European Parliament Sergey Lagodinsky about the key issues shaping public debate in the run-up to the elections, where the Greens stand, and what the outcome could mean for the future of Europe.

This interview is part of a series that we are publishing in partnership with Le Grand Continent on Green parties in Europe.

Green European Journal: The campaign for the German federal election in September is in full swing. What issues are driving the campaign?

Sergey Lagodinsky: The public debate in Germany is not much different to the debate all over Europe. The first major issue is about the transition of our society and economy, especially in a world impacted by the Covid-19 crisis and following the fatal flood catastrophe in Western Germany. We all are witnessing how unsustainable many aspects of our life and economy are, from how we manufacture goods to modes of work that involve daily commutes by car or on over-crowded public transport where passengers breathe into each other’s faces. Society has woken up to the reality and urgency of current and future crises, and issues of climate, environment, and consumption have entered the mainstream public conversation.

The second big issue is the future of democracy. What is our response to authoritarian attacks, and what would a resilient counteroffer look like? This question is a global issue, which immediately leads to the question of what role Germany will play. Now is the time to talk about the global responsibility of Germany and, for the Greens, this is always linked to the global role of Europe.

The Greens have very clear stances and can position themselves as forces of change on sustainability and foreign policy issues. Have they managed to lead and shape these debates? Or are they just in step with the rising public sentiment?

At the start of the campaign, almost a third of German voters were ready to vote Green. Of course, it’s a very volatile and dynamic situation but this figure shows the resonance of our decades-long agenda and that it is in sync with the predominant sentiment in society. Naturally, some societal groups and actors resist change. Change brings us out of our comfort zone and generates resistance, both from the vested interests of powerful economic actors but also those not prepared to share space and power. The Greens are making a democratic claim to power, to rule and to govern. Their intrusion into the domain of traditional power elites is also a matter of generational difference and how we perceive society. The reaction of German parties, especially the Conservative parties, to the growing importance of the Greens shows that they have a lot to lose and they don’t want to let it go.

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Talking about interests, the Greens advocate much greater public investment in the energy transition and sustainability. The Conservatives and Social Democrats, traditionally the two main parties, have always been rooted in German industry, especially the car industry. How is Germany’s shift away from a fossil-dependent economy shaping the campaign?

Germany is struggling against becoming economically irrelevant. This is a real risk for the future. Germany in the Merkel era missed its opportunity to give a visionary answer to this challenge and to go beyond competent, solid management of the status quo.

Take the backbone of the old-school German economy: the car industry. For too long, the political goal was securing new markets instead of transitioning to a post-CO2 era. The Greens have been making an offer of transformation. To the people that work and invest in the car industry – which includes many small savers, not just major investors – we offer to secure their position and investments through green innovation. Of course, there’s a debate within the German Greens about the sense and sensibility of cars in principle. But in any case, we offer a path to managing change instead of managing status quo. It would be fair to say that such an approach was put on the agenda many decades ago by the Greens, both nationally and globally. We were the early agenda setters of this century.

Greens offer a path to managing change instead of managing status quo.

Now Greens will yet again have to prove that we’re up to this transformational claim. But what distinguishes us from other political forces that talk green is that they do so only reluctantly. It’s the credibility of decades of fighting for environmental issues that makes us distinct from our Social Democrat or Conservative counterparts. When I talk to people in Brandenburg, it’s clear to most that it wasn’t the Conservatives that for years were against the transition in Lausitz and other coal-producing areas, but the Social Democrats and the Left. For years they torpedoed the region’s transformation, and now suddenly they flip their position? If the Greens don’t enter government, take responsibility, and credibly safeguard the transition, I’m not sure whether it will happen in a way that’s as fast and effective as the desperate climate situation demands.

Europe is an important element that often ends up excluded from national political debate. Does Europe feature in the German public debate so far and what are the Greens bringing to this debate?

Europe naturally forms part of our political outlook. On foreign policy, we don’t see a global role for Germany without a global role for Europe. It has to be embedded in European politics. Similarly, the question of economic transformation cannot be isolated nationally from European issues, as is shown by the transition funds and the question of resilience when it comes to foreign investment. There’s a lot to discuss and improve regarding Germany’s role in Europe. Look at the number of infringement procedures against Germany, for example. Or look at how Germany muddled through with many important issues during the German presidency in late 2020. The point that Greens make is that Germany needs to start thinking as a responsible European actor. The slogan for a German government must be: “Europe first, Germany second”.

The summit with Russia proposed by Merkel and Macron in June 2021, which was opposed by other EU member states, exposed the difference between responsible leadership on the one hand and arrogance of the big powers on the other. It’s the thin line that Germany must walk and Greens want to walk it on the side of responsible leadership. This means that the capitals take responsibility for transition, environmental and global issues and that the challenge is building majorities and bringing others on board rather than dominating them. Too often, the German government has held back with a constrained position and blamed Brussels for moving too fast and not protecting German interests. We want to make the case that European interests are our interests, common interests. If you want to call something a European way of life, then this is it.

Germany has often leant towards inaction or weak compromises on European issues. Where do the Greens’ priorities lie on European issues?

On the rule of law, there has been a tendency to surf compromises rather than trying to create a new status quo. The rule of law conditionality mechanism on EU spending was an example of settling for the lowest common denominator, skillfully presented by countries like Hungary and Poland as a big sacrifice. The Greens supported it only because there was no other choice at that point. However, saving the rule of law should be a priority issue for Europe.

Taking responsibility on this topic also means talking to German businesses invested in Hungary. The Hungarian economy is very dependent on German companies and that’s why we’re not powerless vis-à-vis Budapest. I don’t like how people talk about “those Eastern Europeans we subsidise”. There’s no commitment to a common market without a commitment to a common democracy. You can’t have the European cake and eat it. For too long, the EU has been living in a limbo of indecisiveness. It’s a position of weakness rather than a position of mutual dependency.

There’s no commitment to a common market without a commitment to a common democracy. For too long, the EU has been living in a limbo of indecisiveness.

When Greens take responsibility in any form, we’ll be sure to prevent situations such as the eroding rule of law in Slovenia today. Because if we don’t intervene now, it will be too late – as it is already with Hungary. This is something that Merkel missed and it must change because if this is the start of a new model for Europe then, at some point, there will no longer be the European Union as we know it. The EU’s urgent triple crisis of rule of law, green economic transition, and its inability to act on the international stage hasn’t been truly understood by Germany’s governing parties. If they had understood it, they would have acted more decisively and ambitiously. Greens offer change on this point.

How should Germany best operate in Europe? France has historically been its preferred partner but what about other partners across Europe?

Our preferred partners are the 26 other member states. Of course, we should coordinate with France, but not just France – also Spain, Italy, and Poland. With Poland, Germany has a specific historical relationship and legacy, both positive and negative, that can’t be neglected. That’s why Macron and Merkel’s move to organise a summit with Russia without prior consultations with others was so damaging. They were trying to use their weight to put Eastern Europe and the Baltics in their place, and it didn’t work. Let’s not forget there are elections in France next year, and even though the Right currently appears weakened, we don’t know how things will play out.

The important point is being aware of your country’s power but deriving from this responsibility rather than dominance. The Greens are well equipped to do so because their natural political mode and origins lie outside of a position of power. It’s a movement and movements are based around encouraging people to follow.

More than ever, there’s rising competition between the US and China. In Europe, France wants a more independent role for Europe, while the Baltic states and Poland prefer a trans-Atlantic approach. Germany seems to sit somewhere in the middle. What would the Greens bring to this debate about Europe’s place in the world?

Greens would seek to re-define alliances based, on the one hand, on the necessity to act on issues like environment, disarmament, and fair trade, and, on the other hand, a foundation of common values. That doesn’t mean excluding the rest of the world but creating an open alliance of those who see that civil society, minority rights, and female empowerment are assets and values in themselves. Nobody wants to revive the Cold War, but there’s a constructed ideology coming from the Kremlin and it’s a growing part of international dynamics. We’re competing with an ideology of traditionalism that dismisses and attacks the human and minority rights that we’ve all agreed upon.

Faced with that competition, we must re-define our natural friends and allies. From that perspective, it isn’t just about NATO or the United States but about marrying values and geopolitics, or at least being open to defend values and think geopolitics at the same time. It’s complex and we should be careful not to fall into a neo-conservative agenda or value colonialism. But the entire world agreed on universal values and multilateralism and everyone was on board for many years. They should be put to work and made resilient. The alternative is to watch them be dismantled by corrupt, power-hungry men.

Returning to the German Greens, the party has steadily grown over the decades. The Greens are now in government in most regional states, they’re aspiring to lead or join a federal government, and they’re increasingly influential on the European stage. How has this been achieved and where next for the German Greens strategically?

The key success is occupying the progressive centre. The Greens have proved themselves able to leave a certain left-wing niche behind and move to the centre without losing the radical longing for transformation. Where next? Some structures could be improved and the party needs to be ready to face attacks if it claims to take over political leadership. It needs to get used to the new role it is playing in German society.

I admire the founders of the green movement who understood 30 to 40 years ago what the key issues were going to be. Today, being at the radical centre means being able to gain support from large parts of the population and standing there ready with an agenda that fits this point in history. The unique luggage of experience and concepts that Greens carry brings credibility, but you can only deliver it if you’re no longer happy to sit on the fringes.

Today, being at the radical centre means being able to gain support from large parts of the population and standing there ready with an agenda that fits this point in history.

What’s your reading of the potential of the Greens to grow elsewhere in Europe?

The green transformation won’t be possible without a movement that transcends borders. This is also part of our DNA. Just having a strong Green party in Germany won’t deliver much change without similar positions for Greens everywhere. If current problems transcend borders, the solutions cannot be national, nor can the agents of change. From that perspective, I’m looking forward to a bigger role for the French Greens and I think we have a good position in western and northern European countries.

We do need to talk about, generate, and empower the Green movement in Eastern Europe. I recently visited Slovenia where there are attempts to establish a real Green party – and there’s a need for one – as a third movement beyond the post-communist centre-left and the post-communist right wing. In large cities from Zagreb to Budapest, we see a thirst for an alternative to those dichotomies that Greens can overcome. Supporting the Greens in Eastern Europe is a huge but rewarding challenge for the years to come.

The symbolic and emblematic picture was that of Annalena Baerbock meeting the Green Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony. Both are taking responsibility and facing attacks and they still say, “No, we want to go against the ruling elites.” That’s the embodiment of the change which is felt in Germany and can go in the direction of Central and Eastern Europe.

Fighting the “Privilege Hazard”: A Feminist Data Intervention

In a world where power is wielded unequally, data science is no exception. When it is largely the most privileged who are gathering the data and writing the codes within a corporate culture of profit maximisation, it is unsurprising that the results reproduce social and economic inequalities. But it is not inevitable, argue the authors of Data Feminism, Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein, who are taking a stand for data justice. Rooted in intersectional feminism, power analysis and a commitment to act are central to their approach.

Green European Journal: What is data feminism?

Catherine D’Ignazio: Data feminism is an approach to thinking about all aspects of data science – everything from data collection to cleaning, analysis, visualisation and communication, and the deployment of data-driven systems – that is informed by intersectional feminist thought. Broadly speaking, the question that Data Feminism tries to answer is: “What would feminist data science look like?”

Lauren Klein: By looking to intersectional feminism as our model, we aim to bring together ways of engaging with issues that are both theoretically informed and backed up by action. Feminism has many different meanings for many different people, not all of them unequivocally good. Certain feminisms have been very exclusionary in their approach to equality and how they define their goals. We deliberately anchor our approach in intersectional feminism because it comes with a conceptual understanding of how power works in the world. This is coupled with a commitment to act, to try to rebalance the unequal power relations that we encounter both individually and collectively.

Why is it so important to bring a feminist perspective to data science?

Lauren Klein: We need an intervention into data science and systems because today they’re everywhere. They’re making decisions for us of personal, national, and international importance, and they’re doing so in ways which are unequal along the lines of gender, race, class and more. This is because these systems are created within our unequal society, and as a result they reflect that inequality.

The starting point is to recognise that these systems are out there, that they are hugely influential, and that they are perpetuating rather than ameliorating unequal power relations. But what can we do about them? Intersectional feminism has been working over decades, if not centuries, to challenge unequal systems of power, and we can apply the lessons of intersectional feminism to data. Put another way, we try to learn from how activists and thinkers have opposed unequal systems of power in the past, and we try to apply those ways of challenging power to present-day data systems.

Data systems are created within our unequal society, and as a result they reflect that inequality.

Can you give some examples of how data is marginalising minorities?

Catherine D’Ignazio: My MIT colleague Joy Buolamwini has shown that facial recognition systems are failing, with especially high error rates for women of colour. When she dug into the data sets used to train the systems, she found that they overwhelmingly relied on the faces of white men.

There are other cases as well. Amazon, for example, was developing an internal resume screening tool that would allow HR to automatically sift through large amounts of resumes to “filter up” the good candidates. But because Amazon was using the resumes of their current employees to train their system, and their employees were predominantly men, the system had a built-in gender bias. It was systematically demoting applicants who had attended all-women schools, like Wellesley College [a prestigious women’s liberal arts college in the US], or applicants who had done women’s sports or other activities that included “women’s” as an adjective. In the end, they scrapped the system. They couldn’t figure out how to purge the gender bias from it.

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Lauren Klein: Another example is the algorithm that was used to grade students in the United Kingdom when A-level exams were cancelled due to the pandemic. The UK government introduced an algorithm that was intended to predict the scores that each student would have received had they sat the exam. But the model didn’t just consider students’ individual records; it also factored in their school’s historical performance. So, if a student attended an under-resourced school that historically hadn’t performed as well as other schools, their individual score was automatically lowered. If a student attended a well-resourced school that had historically done very well, their score would automatically be bumped up. Students took to the streets protesting, holding signs saying, “Fuck the algorithm”. In the end, the government had to rescind the use of the algorithm.

How could your book’s insights be applied to deal with the current problems?

Catherine D’Ignazio: Our book looks at how data science can be used to challenge power, and we’re seeing a good amount of that happening already. Some of the most exciting work at the intersection of data and justice is being done not in computer science departments, but in data journalism, community-based organisations, activism and social movements. It’s coming from artists, librarians, public information professionals, and so on. One thing we argue for in Data Feminism is a broader definition of data science. If we define the field more broadly and include these civil society data practices, then we already have some great models for how we can use data to challenge and change power structures.

We also look at strategies like collecting counter-data. Some groups are collecting data as a way of counting and quantifying information about issues that institutions aren’t adequately measuring. A good example is the Mexican activist María Salguero who is counting feminicides, gender-based killings of women. Or the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in the United States, which is using a broader definition to count evictions. As a result, it’s recording more than the government has on record.

Lauren Klein: There’s also auditing algorithms. A major issue is that the organisations that have the capacity to mobilise large amounts of data are usually run by the people who experience the most privilege in the world. Tech in general tends to be predominantly white, male, and centred in the Global North. All this leads to what we call the “privilege hazard”: the idea that those in the positions to make decisions – about what is worth counting, what problems are worth addressing, or what the potential pitfalls might be – are unaware of the potential harms. They just don’t know how to look for them.

Tech in general tends to be predominantly white, male, and centred in the Global North. All this leads to what we call the “privilege hazard”.

One example of the privilege hazard at work, and how an audit can help call attention to it, is an algorithm designed for pre-trial risk assessment in the US justice system. In the US, a judge usually decides whether those who stand accused of a crime and are awaiting trail can be released on bail. An algorithm was designed to replace the judge in these situations, and its designers thought that they were removing bias from the decision-making process. But, because they didn’t think about the biased data they were feeding into the system, they were unaware of the clear and significant harms that their system would bring for minoritised communities. One of the roles of data journalists, academic researchers, and others is to test these algorithms to check that they’re performing their claimed function and whether they’re doing so in an unbiased way.

The share of women in data science or IT jobs and related university programmes is still very low (and shrinking in the US, as your book shows). What are the reasons for this?

Lauren Klein: There are many reasons. One is how the expertise of women – and for that matter, anyone who isn’t coming from the majority perspective – has been historically devalued. And even if people come to the table with the same amount of expertise, those who occupy these minoritised positions find themselves questioned more and their ideas adopted less. Eventually this becomes very disheartening. So, people leave.

The other aspect is structural. There’s a long history that shows that knowledge often originates from those who experience something most closely or directly. But as that knowledge gets more systematised and professionalised, those with experiential knowledge find themselves being pushed out of the fields by people who have studied the subject at university or received professional credential. The women computers are a classic example of this. The earliest computer programmers were women because they were essentially repurposed secretaries. Many of them had to learn how to use computers on the job, although some did have advanced degrees but could only find work as secretaries. Grace Hopper essentially came up with the idea to abstract instructions into algorithms to avoid having to do the same task repeatedly. That is how the abstraction that underlies so much of computation came to be.

But the problem of women being pushed out of fields as they become professionalised or gain more prestige predates computation. A large body of work looks at how medicine became professionalised and, after the creation of medical schools, certain knowledge was taken from women, like midwives, who learned through experience and was given over to obstetricians, who were men with medical degrees. It’s the same thing with home cooks and professional chefs. There are so many patterns where lived experience is devalued when the possibility of professional credential is presented. The same thing is happening in the computer science fields.

In December 2020, the co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team Timnit Gebru was fired for jointly authoring a critical paper on the potential pitfalls of large language models. This wasn’t the first time Google was in the spotlight for its unwillingness to change the status quo. Does this signal that there’s been no substantial change in the work cultures of big tech companies?

Catherine D’Ignazio: The firing of Timnit Gebru really sent shock waves through academia and industry. She was a high-profile hire and one of the very few Black women working in AI. She was in a position of co-leadership with a white woman, Margaret Mitchell, who then was also subsequently fired. Gebru’s case exposes the limits of what’s possible from inside a corporation. It pushes us to ask when to take further steps such as regulations to constrain corporate actions. We simply cannot leave it up to corporations to ensure that their products are ethical. Ultimately, a company is accountable to its shareholders, not the public. They will always make decisions to maximise profit, and they will only incorporate ethical principles when convenient.

Gebru’s paper was not even that critical! It just pointed out that large language models have human bias, and that using those models runs the risk of re-inscribing those biases. Or that generating the models has environmental consequences. These are important things to say. The paper’s authors were not necessarily going after Google. They were just pointing out the risks that apply to anyone working in this space.

We simply cannot leave it up to corporations to ensure that their products are ethical. Ultimately, a company is accountable to its shareholders, not the public.

I have very little faith in the CEOs of corporations to check their own power, but I have optimism in workers. In tech companies, the workers are increasingly getting organised. Google’s workers, for example, recently unionised. That’s a really encouraging sign. Policymakers are also starting to get on board and think in a more future-facing direction, not only reacting to the technologies that corporations create but starting to think of innovative ways to regulate so that these technologies can work for everybody.

Lauren Klein: We’re also seeing a desire to imagine what an ideal set of guidelines or regulations to keep these large and powerful corporations in check might look like. The US is usually reactive in its governance; it tends to first be presented with a problem and only then does it try to figure out how to regulate against it. But in the EU – first with the General Data Protection Regulation and now with the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI – there’s an effort to outline core principles that might  find implementation in the years ahead. It’s really promising to have a recognition that these are questions of power and inequality, and thus they require a large-scale governmental response.

Projects like the free online book database Gigapedia or Sci-Hub (which makes paywalled research papers accessible) have helped bring knowledge to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. There have been many attempts to close them down and both stand accused of copyright infringement. To what extent is improvement possible in the currently dominant political and economic systems?

Catherine D’Ignazio: This recalls the work of my former advisor, Ethan Zuckerman, on what he calls the “digital public infrastructure”. The current internet has centralised power in the hands of big corporations and platforms which have been able to mobilise large resources and attract large user bases. They essentially provide public services and a kind of public commons – we could even say a democratic public space – except, of course, it is not public. It’s a privatised space subject to rules, regulations, policies, and the norms of corporations. I love hearing examples like those in the question, and I think the history of the internet is to an extent a history of these examples, all the way back to Napster. A lot of important questions have been raised by new models for knowledge sharing or production that challenge the existing business model for monetising information.

I see the concept of the digital public infrastructure as a call to action for government and civil society, and to the public more broadly, to claim a stake in what these systems can be. To actively think about them and not leave it up to corporations to decide which set of values their technologies and platforms should operate by. The American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” We need to make demands, and those demands need to come from different sectors of society. Maybe that results in the breaking up of the corporations. We need to fundamentally reimagine the public organisation of knowledge and social sharing. These are the public spaces of this century and I’m not OK with leaving public space up to Facebook.

Do the insights of your work on data justice have broader political relevance?

Lauren Klein: I’m inspired by how progressive political movements are usually composed of coalitions who represent different perspectives but who are aligned in their larger goals. This model fits very well with one of the central tenets of feminist thinking: the best and most complete form of knowledge doesn’t come from any one individual source, but rather it’s the aggregate picture that emerges when individuals or groups bring their perspectives to the table. Brought together, those perspectives assemble a more complete picture of the problem at hand.

Data, for the most part, captures a very small part of the richness of human experience. Because of that, data should never be used on its own. To make decisions, data needs to be coupled with personal experience, attention to history, culture, and seen in the context of the structural inequalities we’ve been talking about. Progressive political movements know this instinctively, and they should remember it when encountering datasets and evaluating data systems. They should remind themselves that data systems work in the same ways as the rest of the world: they’re influenced by the fact that power is wielded unequally in the world. So the same advice applies to data justice as to other forms of social justice. These problems are real, they’re ongoing, and they need to be taken on. And in taking them on, political groups – even progressive ones – must remember to look to those who are most impacted by a particular issue for knowledge and guidance about how it should be addressed.

“The Most Challenging Term Since 1989”: Uphill Struggle for the Polish Greens

Rising corruption, shrinking democratic freedoms, and a crackdown on free media: the political landscape in Poland is challenging to say the least. After a long struggle, Polish Greens made it into parliament in 2019, where they have been standing in solidarity with protestors and fighting to put green issues on the agenda. We asked Green MP Urszula Zielińska how the environment and Europe fit into the Polish political debate, and how Greens are gearing up ahead of local and parliamentary elections in 2023.

This interview is part of a series that we are publishing in partnership with Le Grand Continent on green parties in Europe.

Green European Journal: 2020 saw presidential elections in Poland as well as a great wave of protest provoked by further restrictions to abortion rights. The pandemic is ongoing in Poland as everywhere. How are the Greens approaching the main issues in Polish politics in 2021?

Urszula Zielinska: This period is significant for the Greens. We entered parliament for the first time after the October 2019 election with three MPs as part of a coalition with the Christian Democrat party Civic Platform (PO) and two other partners (The Modern Party and Initiative Poland). It’s taken the Greens 14 years to reach this point and the coalition helped us gain our first MPs. But at the same time, it has been an extremely difficult parliamentary term in general for Poland. In some respects, it may have been the most challenging term in 30 years of free, democratic Poland.

The 2020 presidential elections took place in a context of shrinking democratic freedoms and human rights. They were run in an increasingly oppressive and anti-LGBT atmosphere with hate speech from top political leaders going unchecked. The dismantling of the rule of law in Poland has continued since 2015. By now, new judges of courts at all levels, including the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal, are political nominees. The positions of Head Prosecutor and Minister of Justice have been merged into one politically nominated position. Our last democratic institutions are being taken over. Corruption and nepotism are also on the rise. Public investigations and trials are postponed, avoided or cancelled by the politically nominated national public prosecutor.

The media is also increasingly under pressure. These days a large petrochemical company in which the state is a significant shareholder is purchasing the leading local media company Polska Press, whose outlets reach about 60 per cent of the population. The government plans to “re-Polonise” Polish media so that it publishes what the government wants rather than free information. Journalists increasingly complain about being cut off from information that should be legally accessible and experience police violence. For example, on 11 November 2020, police shot a reporter in the face with a rubber bullet and beat another female reporter with batons. Since 2015, Poland has dropped by more than 40 places in the World Press Freedom Index, putting it at 64 out of 180 countries in 2021. It’s Poland’s worst result since 1989.

It may have been the most challenging term in 30 years of free, democratic Poland

The European Recovery and Resilience Fund is another extremely important topic right now. The opposition is concerned that EU funds will be used by the Polish government entirely to its political benefit, including for projects that further undermine the rule of law. Central government wants to single-handedly distribute 90 per cent of the funds and only allow local councils and governments to distribute about 10 per cent. Previously, similar funds were used to fund political programmes and tailored to win votes. The European Commission should pay attention to this.

How are the Greens approaching these threats to democracy and the rule of law? Is mobilisation against these trends still ongoing despite the pandemic, and are the Greens part of it?

Poland experienced a huge wave of street protests in autumn 2020 despite it being the peak of the pandemic’s second wave. The protests followed the October ruling by the (already politicised) constitutional tribunal which introduced an almost total ban on abortion [read more on reproductive rights in Poland]. They were at their largest in October and November before starting to fizzle out towards Christmas. Small protests are still ongoing here and there, but not like before.

As an MP, I was out in the streets during the protests, trying to diffuse conflicts with the police – which were really severe at points – and protect people, who were mostly peaceful throughout. The police, however, weren’t always peaceful. We organised searches for people taken to police stations and held for up to 48 hours. Police often made it difficult for detainees to phone relatives and even to get medicine if they needed it. The Green MPs were out in the streets almost daily at one point, helping to deal with this, sometimes until 3 or 4am.

Our latest edition – Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation – is out now!

READ & ORDER

Green and ecological issues have been pushed far down the agenda, but are they still on it? The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has used coal as a symbolic issue. Does the carbon economy structure Polish politics?

We’re on the verge of a transition to a greener economy. This transition must happen now, because otherwise Poland’s energy system may not be stable in the years to come. Energy consumption is steadily growing but the system is still about 70 per cent based on coal. Meanwhile, renewables are growing fast but from a very small base, still below the EU’s 20 per cent target and out of line with the Paris Agreement.

We’re on the verge of a transition to a greener economy. This transition must happen now, because otherwise Poland’s energy system may not be stable in the years to come.

As an MP, I’m a member of two parliamentary committees that are key for Greens: energy and climate, and environment and forestry. There’s a lot of talk and legislative work about moving away from coal, albeit very slowly and in a direction I wouldn’t necessarily endorse. There are plans to build a “gas hub” and nuclear energy is very much on the cards, with six nuclear plants planned by 2040. Renewables are there too, but as an add-on rather than a base. Poland was also very reluctant to commit to the European Commission’s 2050 climate neutrality objective in December 2019. It did so eventually at “an EU level”, but it isn’t ready to commit to this goal at a national level.

Is this shift coming from within Polish politics or society, or is it the influence of Europe and its Green Deal? Is it being forced on the government or is it more organic?

Both. On the one hand, EU climate policy and legislation is slowly being integrated into the Polish legislative system. In that way, the transition is being forced upon the Polish government, which is always happy to blame Europe for any negative impacts. These include Poland’s extremely high energy prices which the government blames on the EU’s carbon emissions pricing, for instance.

On the other hand, bottom-up pressure is coming from environmental NGOs and simply from Poland’s very outdated infrastructure. Most Polish power plants are extremely old – some were built 50 or 60 years ago – and should have been decommissioned years ago. Other coal plants were built recently and will run until at least 2037. The energy transition is a specialist topic that the Greens along with a few NGOs discuss. Our approach is to be as constructive as possible because it’s in everyone’s best interest to quickly find solutions. But there’s little will from the government to discuss it and most dialogue happens behind the scenes between the government and the European Commission. It doesn’t involve parliament unless we force the debate or take the opportunity of energy-related legislation passing through parliament.

The climate issue seems like a technical, behind-the-scenes agenda in Poland. Are environmental issues more broadly salient in society?

They are, and more so than is covered in the media. Poland has a strong and active NGO movement which really helps MPs in our work. Specialist ecological NGOs support us almost like think tanks. The youth movement through Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion is small but active in bigger cities.

Forest management is a matter of growing public discussion. The government-run forestry corporation operates with little public oversight and is logging intensively across the country. Recently one NGO created a map with a red dot indicating each logging site in Poland. It looks as if our country was on fire. This caused huge public outrage. There’s also a new plan to log the Bialowieza Forest – one of Europe’s last-remaining natural forests. But the fact that environmental issues are more salient among Poles than they used to be brings hope.

Poland is a specific case when it comes to Europe because there’s a discrepancy between a Eurosceptic government and a largely pro-European population. How do European issues play out in Polish political debate? Is there anything beyond the “good versus evil” Europe stand-off?

The pandemic has turned the focus towards domestic problems, and I sense it’s the same for many countries. People are asking how Europe will support us in the biggest challenges we face, such as the vaccination programme and rule of law. They’re looking to Europe for stronger support and quicker action. There’s some frustration over why Europe hasn’t taken action on rule of law in Poland for so long since triggering Article 7. It’s been an ongoing issue for the past six years and there’s great uncertainty. Is rule of law no longer a priority for Europe, or is the Commission putting the issue on hold while it deals with the pandemic? This would be understandable to an extent, but there’s still frustration.

Rule of law may have stopped being a priority but it continues to impact people in Poland as well as Europe as a whole. The discussion isn’t all black and white, for and against. There’s also an ongoing debate about whether Poland should rely on the European Commission and the European Court of Justice to support us in a growing number of issues, or whether we’re on our own.

Do politics in neighbouring countries such as Germany and the Visegrad countries impact Polish politics?

Yes. Although in general Polish politics are very inward looking, the country which impacts Poland the most is probably – sadly – Hungary. In many aspects, PiS follows the tracks laid by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz. Recently, there has also been tension with the Czech Republic around the Turów open-pit coal mine.

The upcoming German federal election in September is also increasingly being discussed. Polish media is interested in [the German Green chancellor candidate] Annalena Baerbock. This attention to developments in Germany is a source of hope for all those who want more green politics to feed back into Poland.

So Polish politics has been very inward looking. But throughout Europe, there’s been a discussion on the future of Europe and Europe’s place in the world. Is this discussion present in Poland and how do Greens position themselves?

The discussion is quite limited. Poland has historically looked to the United States, which has always been seen as more of an ally than the EU by conservatives, including the current government. Donald Trump was an ally for PiS. Just days before the 2020 presidential elections, Trump even extended a last-minute invitation to visit the White House to President Andrzej Duda in a bid to help him win the election. Now the US has a new, climate-focused president, I hope it will help Europe to press ahead with its Green Deal and more progressive targets.

When it comes to projects like Nord Stream 2, we speak in one voice with the European and German Greens: the pipeline undermines European energy solidarity and should be stopped.

With respect to other powers such as China and Russia, as Greens we always strive to build a stronger Europe and emphasise the need for European solidarity. When it comes to projects like the Russian-backed gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, we speak in one voice with the European and German Greens: the pipeline undermines European energy solidarity and should be stopped. But all in all, there’s not as much discussion on this in Poland as there should be. For instance, cybersecurity – another major concern when it comes to China and Russia – is barely discussed. [The interview was recorded just before the major cyberattack which leaked emails from top Polish officials.]

The Greens are now present in the Polish parliament, local and general elections are scheduled for 2023, and it seems as if green policies at the European level act as a lever for the Polish Greens. Which level of politics is most important for you?

Local politics have always been our strength. People are most engaged and excited when they do something positive in their community, even through the smallest projects. Greens come from local politics. The priority now is to stand out on the national scene, especially since the Greens are still very small as a party with three MPs and relatively few members. New political projects are always appearing and gain traction rapidly. Almost every year – or ahead of every election – a new political party is created. Within six months, this new party gains up to 10 to 12 per cent of voter support because they haven’t done anything wrong yet. In the actual elections, they tend to gain between 6 and 12 per cent and then they fade away just as quickly as they emerged. We’re constantly battling this dynamic. Recently, the well-known television figure Szymon Hołownia set up a new conservative-liberal party, Poland 2050, and he’s going from strength to strength.

Standing out nationally is key right now; we need to build a stronger identity and use the success of other Green parties to our advantage.

The Polish Greens have never been one of those fast-risers on a big budget. Instead, we grow slowly, organically. Standing out nationally is key right now; we need to build a stronger identity and use the success of other Green parties to our advantage. The German Greens are attracting attention and so are the Greens in Scotland, England, and Wales, who seem to be on the rise. As Polish Greens we’ll try to build a strong national identity while also strengthening our European identity. Developments like the European Green Deal and its new forest and biodiversity policies go in our direction. If it’s not the Greens who will deploy Polish versions, who else will?

The local and parliamentary elections in 2023 are sure to be challenging. The question is how closely together they will come – at the same time, or three or six months apart? Will PiS manipulate the election law in their favour? What we know for sure is that in 2023 we’ll have to make smart choices.

The Polish Green party has always been a small and democratic organisation. Has the structure of the party changed compared to a decade ago?

Since the local and parliamentary elections in 2019, the Greens have doubled in size – at least in the number of local groups. It has been a challenge to keep people engaged and active during the pandemic but the numbers of local activists and actions have increased. The party has also shifted from being a big-city force, mostly present in cities like Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk, and Wroclaw, to being a party with groups in small to medium-sized cities too. We’re also much more visible in the media, with a small but steady presence in national news. In terms of party structure, we’re working on a strategy for 2023 but also looking ahead to 2030. It’ll be a long-term strategy backed by a new, regional structure. We’re laying the groundwork to grow. Our steering committee will include representatives from regions as well as parliamentarians. We’re planning for success.

Imitando la distorzione algoritmica: l’incitamento all’odio online e la democrazia polarizzata

Personaggi pubblici come politici e giornalisti non sono estranei a discorsi d’odio e molestie online. Anche se non è un fenomeno nuovo, l’epoca globalizzata di oggi ha visto internet diventare un nuovo terreno dove dibattiti al vetriolo prosperano e si diffondono. Con un focus sull’Italia, Sofia Cherici traccia le radici dell’odio che permea il mondo online e offline rafforzando le strutture di esclusione e mettendo a tacere le voci delle donne e delle minoranze. Con l’odio cibernetico a livelli preoccupanti, la democrazia stessa è in gioco.

Il 30 ottobre 2019, Liliana Segre diventava prima firmataria in aula al senato italiano di una mozione da lei stessa presentata sull’istituzione di una commissione monocamerale contro l’incitamento all’odio (o hate speech), dentro e fuori la rete. Così il dibattito sull’odio online prese un’inaspettata piega storica.

La mozione, che nello specifico si prefigge di combattere forme di hate speech quali intolleranza, razzismo, antisemitismo e istigazione all’odio e alla violenza, è stata poi approvata al senato, tra il plauso generale, con 151 sì; una conquista solo parzialmente oscurata dalla preoccupante zona d’ombra lasciata dai 98 astenuti del centro-destra che hanno fatto indignare l’opinione pubblica. Che Liliana Segre – senatrice a vita dal 2018 e figura pubblica di rilievo nel panorama italiano perché sopravvissuta della Shoah fosse la portavoce di un’istanza parlamentare contro l’hate speech, colloca l’intera vicenda all’interno di una fenomenologia dei discorsi d’odio ben più ampia. Questo perché Segre, per l’ironia della ciclicità storica, è stata vittima due volte delle dinamiche d’incitamento all’odio, benché in epoche e forme diverse: la prima, in quanto sopravvissuta alle ideologie d’odio che l’hanno vista deportata, all’età di 14 anni, nel campo di sterminio nazista di Auschwitz-Birkenau; la seconda, quando un’escalation di insulti e minacce online l’hanno costretta a vivere sotto scorta dal Novembre 2019.

Così Liliana Segre smaschera l’anello invisibile che mette in relazione diverse tappe della storia contemporanea: ci ricorda che i discorsi d’odio non sono un fenomeno da ascriversi prettamente all’era dei social media, quanto piuttosto manifestazioni storiche di respiro globale, dilatate dalle moderne tecnologie di comunicazione online.

Marinella Belluati, professoressa associata all’Università di Torino e sociologia dei processi culturali e comunicativi, mette in relazione gli episodi di totalitarismo che hanno caratterizzato il XX secolo con una logica dell’odio che identifica e costruisce un nemico all’interno di gruppi sociali cosiddetti marginali. Questo perché l’hate speech è radicato nella dialettica democratica: “il fenomeno va ricondotto a un’abitudine insita in un tipo di argomentazione che è tipico delle forme di potere e interazione ai più alti livelli della società”.

Se l’incitamento all’odio è un’inclinazione umana piuttosto comune nella nostro sistema di interconnessione sociale, i social media, in quanto incubatori e amplificatori della cultura contemporanea, riproducono ed esaltano questo modello d’interazione. Per la fame di sensazionalismo e drammatizzazione che alimenta il funzionamento dei media, i social network mostrano una tendenza a radicalizzare le diverse forme di estremismo che si manifestano online. Così anche la cultura dell’odio viene esaltata dalle strutture reticolari delle piattaforme di comunicazione web.

Tale tendenza si estremizza quando i discorsi d’odio affollano il palcoscenico politico. Per la visibilità mediatica tipicamente associata alle figure pubbliche, i leader politici sono particolarmente esposti a episodi d’incitamento all’odio in rete. La probabilità sale quando sono le donne a ricoprire cariche pubbliche: studi recenti condotti su base globale hanno rilevato una sostanziale casistica di attacchi online direzionati a donne e minoranze attive in politica. Il rischio è che le voragini sociali causate dall’incitamento all’odio si rafforzino nelle camere d’eco dei social media: ora che il campo di battaglia della politica si realizza online, lo spazio digitale pone nuove sfide ai principi d’inclusività e rappresentanza che sono alla base dei sistemi democratici.

Fenomenologia dell’odio

Gli attacchi online alle leader politiche sono un fenomeno di portata globale. Dagli Stati Uniti all’India alla Finlandia, i casi di violenza psicologica sulle parlamentari di tutto il mondo si manifestano nelle forme più disparate: commenti sessisti, attacchi misogini, minacce di stupro, intimidazioni e voyeurismo digitale, ma anche uso di immagini e foto a scopo umiliante. Eppure, questi attacchi ci mostrano solo la parzialità di una problematica socioculturale ben più estesa per la quale circa tre quarti delle utenti di internet hanno subito violenza online; una statistica che ci racconta di come i social media siano la nuova frontiera della violenza di genere.

Secondo uno studio del 2018 commissionato dal Parlamento Europeo, l’Europa non fa eccezione. Tra i fattori che innescano l’hate speech online nella regione, spiccano i casi di donne con un profilo pubblico, quali attiviste, politiche, artiste e giornaliste. In effetti, in Italia sono tantissime le donne nel settore dei media e della comunicazione a ricevere intimidazioni online in relazione al loro lavoro: in un’indagine dell’International Women’s Media Foundation del 2013, è emerso che su un campione di 149 giornaliste, circa due terzi risultano essere state esposte al fenomeno. Anche in un’indagine su Twitter e Facebook condotta da Amnesty International Italia tra novembre e dicembre 2019 emerge che, nell’insieme, le donne prese in studio con un profilo pubblico attirano un terzo in più di attacchi personali rispetto agli uomini, e 1 su 3 è di natura sessista.

I rischi aumentano per le donne con un profilo identitario eterogeneo, come l’appartenenza a contesti etnici e religiosi minoritari. In Inghilterra, una ricerca del 2017 di Amnesty Global Insights ha esposto la gravità degli attacchi online contro deputate nere e asiatiche del Parlamento di Westminster, calcolando che in media ricevono il 35% di tweet offensivi in più rispetto alle loro colleghe bianche.

Anche l’analisi fornita da alcuni ricercatori sulle pratiche di violenza a sfondo sessuale nel mondo digitale conferma una maggiore incidenza per donne e persone LGBT+, al contrario dei più generici casi di cyber-violenza in cui non c’è una netta distinzione di genere tra chi subisce e chi perpetra l’abuso. In tal senso, è evidente come la conformazione del fenomeno dell’hate speechonline riproponga sul web i paradigmi con cui le differenti forme di discriminazione, violenza e molestie si configurano offline.

È il caso della sfera pubblica, dove l’esclusione politica della donna è stata strutturale per secoli per la stereotipizzazione dei generi che associa la figura femminile alla sfera privata. Studi recenti guardano ai pregiudizi strutturali nei confronti delle donne che ricoprono cariche pubbliche e, distinguendo il fenomeno da altre forme di violenza politica, parlano di violenza culturale come mezzo d’esclusione: l’aderenza a talune norme culturali arriva a tollerare alcuni tipi di maltrattamento quando perpetrati nei confronti di determinati gruppi sociali, come certe forme di sessualizzazione che hanno la responsabilità di spostare il discorso da un discussione sulle competenze a una valutazione su moralità e apparenza.

La corsa all’odio delle istituzioni

In Italia, l’hate speech online è uno strumento ormai asservito al dibattito istituzionale. In uno studio sull’ uso del linguaggio d’offesa nelle discussioni politiche, Belluati identifica una connessione tra l’utilizzo di retoriche d’odio come mezzo di propaganda e la crisi dell’argomentazione razionale in politica; così il cementarsi della pratica sta mettendo in crisi l’eco-sistema democratico.

Secondo la ricerca, a fare un uso particolarmente massiccio di forme verbali conflittuali contro “la casta” politica, in particolare nei confronti di colleghe di rilievo come l’ex Presidente della Camera Laura Boldrini e l’ex ministra Boschi, sono stati il Movimento 5 Stelle e la Lega Nord: partiti anti-sistemici e populisti che, strumentalizzando e direzionando i discorsi d’odio a loro piacimento, alimentano una certa narrativa conflittuale nei confronti dell’altro, guadagnandone in termini di visibilità pubblica.

Destabilizzatori sociali quali crisi economiche e variazioni nei profili migratori sembrano modificare la direzione delle correnti di hate speechonline. Se negli anni ’90 erano i gruppi provenienti da Albania, Romania, Marocco e Cina a portare lo stigma sociale, oggi la retorica d’odio ombreggia sulla popolazione musulmana. Negli ultimi anni, le reazioni socioculturali innescate dal discordo d’odio, soprattutto in materia di immigrazione, vengono spesso asservite a una logica populista manovrata da esponenti politici di destra con il solo scopo di infervorare il proprio seguito e le campagne politiche.

Nonostante tale pratica favorisca soprattutto le frange anti-sistemiche e le retoriche sovraniste, il fenomeno non sembra fare distinzioni tra colore e orientamento politico. Nel rapporto di Amnesty International Italia, il profilo di Giorgia Meloni, politica italiana e presidente del partito d’estrema destra Fratelli d’Italia, emerge sia come vittima che sobillatrice: proprio nel febbraio del 2021, Meloni è stata al centro di un dibattito che la vedeva bersaglio di offese sessiste online.

Quando le impalcature istituzionali trasudano odio, il morbo dell’hate speech si è ormai endemizzato. A tal proposito, Belluati chiarisce il ruolo fondamentale ricoperto dai ‘soggetti intermedi’ che operano tra opinione pubblica e vertici del paese, quali i media tradizionali e i social network. “In Italia, quello della comunicazione mediatica è un settore ancora poco capace di auto-riflessività e di valutare l’efficacia delle proprie pratiche culturali quali la riproduzione di un certo tipo di pensiero non egualitario”. In effetti, molti studi hanno confermato che i miti e gli stereotipi di genere proposti nei media tradizionali si riproducono nelle piattaforme di comunicazione online: è all’interno di quelle terrae nulliusche sono nelle mani dei potenti del Big Tech che si realizza il vero potenziale d’espansione dell’hate speech. Belluati spiega che le grandi piattaforme come Facebook e Twitter, mosse da una logica di profitto condizionata dai livelli di traffico, hanno poco interesse nella semantica che vi circola, purché produca valore di mercato. “Questa situazione poteva andare bene nella fase del ‘far west’ dei social media; ora è arrivato il momento di regolamentare”.

Odio online: la spada di Damocle sulla testa della democrazia

L’hate speech online contro figure pubbliche istituzionali è spesso percepito come inevitabile. Per quanto l’impatto della retorica d’odio sia di difficile misurazione, l’osservazione della pratica ha confermato la sua capacità di sopravvivere anche in ambienti diversi da quelli di incubazione: proprio come un virus, il messaggio d’odio resiste anche al di fuori del contesto originale, modificando gli intenti con i quali era stato generato. Accade così che i suoi effetti penetrino anche nel mondo offline; i buchi neri che ne derivano ci raccontano molto della complessità di un fenomeno che fatichiamo ancora a comprendere.

Dopo che l’auto della giornalista maltese Daphne Caruana Galizia è esplosa nel 2017, le indagini sulla sua morte hanno mostrato sotto un’altra luce i 30 anni di intimidazioni e minacce online. Storie simili sono quelle della deputata inglese Jo Cox, della corrispondente filippina naturalizzata statunitense della CNN Maria Ressa e della giornalista indiana Gauri Lankesh. Crimini d’odio dalla diversa narrativa ma con lo stesso, preoccupante leitmotiv: le vittime erano bersagli di incessanti attacchi online. Nonostante sia impossibile tracciare una linea sicura tra cyberhate e crimini d’odio, sono tanti i casi di uccisioni di giornaliste e politiche che suonano l’allarme su un possibile nesso.

Sugli squilibri dell’eco-sistema democratico innescati dall’incitamento all’odio online, la discussione si aggroviglia quando si parla degli effetti sulla partecipazione politica dei gruppi sociali più esposti. Molti attivisti e ricercatori sostengono l’esistenza di un rapporto più o meno evidente tra la cronica sottorappresentazione di donne in politica e la maggiore probabilità a essere prese di mira da forme d’odio online. Uno studio finlandese riporta che il 28% dei funzionari comunali intervistati che sono stati bersaglio di incitamento all’odio hanno dichiarato una minore predisposizione a prendere parte al processo decisionale; perciò, il rischio concreto di essere investiti da ondate di attacchi online sembra agire come deterrente. In Inghilterra, alcuni sindacati hanno evidenziato i tanti casi di donne che rinunciano a candidarsi in politica per l’insostenibilità dello stigma online. Anche nel settore della comunicazione, alcune ricerche sottolineano come l’implacabilità della violenza virtuale stia portando molte giornaliste a modificare metodo di lavoro e presenza online, a volte portando addirittura a un cambio di carriera.

Secondo Belluati, però, c’è la necessità di complessificare la questione. “È vero che le donne, soprattutto se ai vertici, sono facile bersaglio di questo schema di violenza; eppure, che le donne si sottraggano per paura di essere maggiormente esposte è una risposta troppo facile alla questione della loro scarsa rappresentazione in politica. Di fatto, che le donne partecipino sempre di meno, è un dato ben antecedente all’esplosione del web”.

Belluati spiega che la questione della partecipazione femminile alla vita pubblica ha a che fare con un meccanismo più sistemico. In Italia, lo scenario politico ha sofferto per decenni di una presenza di donne e minoranze al parlamento cronicamente più bassa rispetto alla media europea. Se nel governo Conte I (2018-2019) la presenza di donne elette al parlamento raggiunse il numero record di 334 (35.8% del totale di deputati eletti), permettendo così all’Italia di superare finalmente la media europea dopo decenni di stallo, fu soprattutto grazie all’applicazione di specifiche leggi elettorali per la parità di genere. “Dopo la stagione ruggente degli anni ‘70 in cui l’attivismo femminile si realizzava a tutti i livelli, ci si chiede perché nel 2021, se non ci sono dei meccanismi regolativi come le quote, l’accesso di donne in politica rimanga bloccato.”

Il problema è la conciliazione, spiega Belluati: “certe carriere sono onerose e obbligano a scelte e percorsi non ancora codificati per le donne. Poi c’è il dato adattivo; un tipo di resistenza culturale che, nel tempo, ha prodotto una disaffezione, soprattutto nel guardare ai posti alti. Così la massa critica che dovrebbe salire, a un certo punto si ferma autonomamente”.

Belluati chiarisce come questi meccanismi siano evidenti osservando i numeri di donne che partecipano alla politica locale in Italia, soprattutto se messi a confronto con quelli ai piani alti: in effetti, è palese la partecipazione femminile sul territorio di prossimità, mentre lo scarto più grande rimane quello ai vertici del paese, dove nessuna donna ha mai ricoperto il ruolo di Capo di Stato o Presidente del Consiglio. “Il sistema di blocco ha prodotto nel tempo un disinteresse nel femminile a concorrere per quelli che sono i vertici – anche se con qualche eccezione. Insomma, il costo dell’essere attive è un costo che le donne non sono sempre disposte a pagare”.

Un vaccino per l’hate speech online

Certi fenomeni possono diventare virali, spiega Belluati. “La stessa pandemia ci fa capire quali sono gli effetti perversi della viralità. L’hate speech online, proprio come un virus, può essere contrattaccato da forme di difesa; la società sta costruendo una serie di anticorpi in risposta, come strumenti di identificazione, debunking e contrasto proattivo”. La miglior cura, secondo Belluati, resta però la creazione di un sistema di rilevamento dell’abuso, da affiancare a strutture di protezione per i gruppi esposti.

In Italia, sono molte le iniziative nate da attori sociali: Amnesty International Italia porta avanti da tempo un lavoro estensivo di pattugliamento dei social media; l’associazione Carta di Roma è diventato un punto di riferimento importante per l’hate speech legato al tema della migrazione; la startup sociale Chi Odia Paga (COP) ha sviluppato la prima piattaforma legal tech in Italia con lo scopo di facilitare l’accesso ai principali strumenti di protezione legale per vittime di illeciti online.

Per Belluati, queste iniziative offrono evidenze su cui formulare politiche efficaci, costruiscono buone pratiche e forniscono risposte innovative in campo tecnologico; ma “il problema emerge quando ai piani alti non c’è risposta”. In effetti, in ambito istituzionale, solo negli ultimi anni si è iniziato a parlare concretamente di hate speech online. Le prime iniziative sono nate dalle proposte di alcune parlamentari molto attive nella campagna di sensibilizzazione nei confronti del fenomeno; è il caso della deputata del Partito Democratico (PD) e ex-Presidente della camera dei deputati Laura Boldrini e della già citata senatrice a vita Liliana Segre.

Date le dibattute tematiche sociali di cui si fa spesso portavoce, la deputata Laura Boldrini è stata spesso bersaglio di feroci attacchi online per le sue posizioni in ambito di politiche di immigrazione e parità di genere. Fece scalpore la sua decisione, dopo anni di abusi in rete, di denunciare i suoi aggressori virtuali. Nel 2018, era a fianco di Segre nell’istituire la commissione monocamerale contro l’incitamento all’odio, anche se già nel 2016 aveva tentato di portare la questione in Parlamento con la Commissione Jo Cox sull’intolleranza, la xenofobia, il razzismo e i fenomeni di odio. Più recentemente, il 10 marzo 2021, Boldrini ha presentato alla Camera una proposta di legge che si propone di stabilire pesanti sanzioni contro i gestori di siti che non rimuovono contenuti d’odio dalle loro pagine web. Con i soldi delle sanzioni, si prevede di finanziare un fondo per le scuole e attivare iniziative di prevenzione e educazione digitale.

Ma la componente sociale, cosi come quella istituzionale, da sole non bastano. “Data la complessità e capillarità del fenomeno, le forme di resistenza devono esistere in ambito educativo, culturale e normativo, cooptando le diverse parti del sistema, compresi politici, media e grandi società dei social media”, conclude Belluati. “La responsabilizzazione deve avvenire in tutti i pezzi del sistema pubblico, a livello locale, nazionale e sovranazionale. Se questo incastro non avviene, tutti gli sforzi rischiano di essere depotenziati. Tutti siamo parte in commedia: noi ricercatori che studiamo questi fenomeni, il mondo dell’informazione che dà visibilità, il sapere sociotecnico che costruisce infrastrutture e quello istituzionale che deve regolamentare.”

Rimane la questione della sensibilizzazione culturale al fenomeno: come fare, quindi, a produrre una cultura che contrasti l’odio invece che generarlo. Potenzialmente, i grandi movimenti sociali che sono in prima linea nella lotta alle discriminazioni sulla base di sesso, razza e orientamento sessuale avrebbero la capacità di stimolare una campagna di sensibilizzazione dal basso capace di generare la trasformazione culturale necessaria a contrastare le diverse forme di hate speech online. Ma in Italia manca un movimento intersezionale capace di prendere in carico le istanze dei diversi gruppi minoritari e riunirle sotto un’unica voce: finché le lotte femministe, antirazziali e LGBT+ rimarranno separate, anche la campagna di contrasto all’hate speech online resterà incagliata. 

Eppure, la complessità dei fenomeni di hate speech e il ruolo che hanno giocato nel dipanarsi degli eventi storici raccontano di un fenomeno di ampie dimensioni che rischia di produrre voragini dentro i nostri sistemi societari: un’emergenza che non ci è più concesso di ignorare. Una democrazia i cui sistemi di partecipazione sono inibiti da fenomeni sistemici di discriminazione rischia di diventare l’ombra di sé stessa. Così l’incitamento all’odio e la diffusione di stereotipi e disinformazione in nome di falsi dei di libertà, rischiano di trasformare i social media in campi di coltivazione demagogici pronti a sfamare l’ombra distorta della democrazia per darla in pasto a partiti e gruppi politici che sfruttano retoriche populiste per radicalizzare l’elettorato.  

Mirroring Bias: Online Hate Speech and Polarisation

Public figures like politicians and journalists are no strangers to hate speech and online harassment. Though this is not a new phenomenon, our globalised age has seen the internet become a new terrain where vitriol thrives and spreads. With a focus on Italy, Sofia Cherici traces the roots of the hate that permeates the online and offline worlds to reinforce exclusionary structures and silence the voices of women and minorities. With cyber hate at crisis point, democracy itself is at stake.

On 30 October 2019, Liliana Segre introduced a motion on the floor of the Italian Senate that, if passed, would set up a commission to combat hate speech both on and off the internet. The move was a historic turn in the ongoing debate around online hate speech in Italy.

The motion aimed at fighting forms of hate speech such as intolerance, racism, antisemitism, and incitement to hatred and violence. It was approved amid widespread support and 151 votes in favour, a victory that was partially overshadowed by a controversial 98 abstentions from the centre-right. That Liliana Segre – a Holocaust survivor, prominent public figure, and senator for life since 2018[1] – was the spokesperson for a parliamentary body against hate speech puts this episode in broader historical context. Segre has twice been the victim of incitement to hatred, albeit in different eras and forms: first, aged 14, when ideologies of hate saw her deported to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau; and second, when the escalation in online insults and threats forced her to start receiving police protection in November 2019.

Segre reveals the invisible thread that connects different chapters of contemporary history: her story reminds us that hate speech is not unique to the social media age, but rather a historical global phenomenon that has been amplified by modern communication technology.

A line can be drawn between the episodes of totalitarianism that marked the 20th century and the mindset of hatred that targets marginalised groups in society today, suggests University of Turin sociologist Marinella Belluati. This is because hate speech does not just play out online but also in politics, with the two levels interacting: “the origins of the phenomenon lie in a tendency inherent to a type of argumentation that is typical of forms of power and interaction at the highest levels of society”.

While incitement to hatred may not be an uncommon behaviour in our system of social interconnection, social media, as an incubator and amplifier of contemporary culture, reproduces and enhances this model of interaction. Due to the hunger for sensationalism and drama that fuels the media, social networks tend to radicalise the various forms of extremism found online. And so a culture of hate is driven by networked online communication platforms.

This tendency reaches extremes when hate speech floods the political arena. Because of their visibility as public figures, political leaders are particularly exposed to online abuse. All the more so if they are women or belong to a minority group: research published in 2016 highlighted the scale of online harassment faced by women and minorities active in politics across the world. The risk is that the social division sown by hate speech is reinforced by social media echo chambers: now that the political battlefield has moved online, the digital space poses new challenges to the principles of inclusivity and representation that underpin democracy.

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Patterns of hate speech

Online attacks against political leaders are a global phenomenon. From the United States to India to Finland, the psychological abuse aimed at female parliamentarians and politicians takes many forms: from sexist comments, rape threats, bullying and digital voyeurism to the use of images and photos as a means of humiliation. Yet these attacks are just part of a much wider sociocultural problem: around three quarters of female internet users have been abused online. Social media is a new frontline of gender-based violence.

Europe is no exception, according to a 2018 study commissioned by the European Parliament. Women with public profiles, such as activists, politicians, artists and journalists, are a particular target for online hate speech in the European Union. In Italy, many women working in the media have been harassed online: a 2013 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation revealed that approximately two thirds of the 149 female journalists surveyed had experienced online abuse. Furthermore, an Amnesty International Italia study of Twitter and Facebook posts between November and December 2019 showed that female influencers attracted a third more online attacks than male influencers, with one in three of these explicitly sexist.

Risks increase for women belonging to minority ethnic or religious groups. In the United Kingdom, research by Amnesty Global Insights in 2017 exposed the extent of Twitter abuse directed against black and Asian women MPs, calculating that on average they receive 35 per cent more abusive tweets than white women MPs.

The structure of hate speech online mirrors the paradigms of various forms of offline discrimination, violence and harassment.

Research has also confirmed that technology-facilitated sexual violence (which refers to the use of digital technologies to facilitate both virtual and face-to-face sexual violence) is more likely to affect women and members of the LGBTQI+ community. In this respect, the structure of hate speech online mirrors the paradigms of various forms of offline discrimination, violence and harassment.

This is certainly the case in the public sphere, where for centuries there has been structural political exclusion of women due to gender stereotypes associating them with the private sphere. Research has distinguished the structural prejudice faced by women in public office from other forms of political violence and identified cultural violence as a means of exclusion: certain cultural norms tolerate particular types of abuse when targeted at specific social groups. This is the case for some forms of sexualisation that shift the terms of the debate from a discussion on competence to a judgement on morality and appearance – as seen, for instance, in the media coverage of Sarah Palin during the 2008 US presidential election campaign.

Italy’s rising tide of hate

In Italy, online hate speech is now a tool in political debate. In a 2018 study on the use of offensive language in political discourse, Belluati found a link between the use of hate speech as a propaganda device and the crisis in rational argumentation in politics, with this growing trend threatening democracy.

The study showed that the heaviest users of violent language against the politicians, particularly prominent figures such as Democratic Party MP and former president of the House of Deputies Laura Boldrini and former minister Maria Elena Boschi, were the populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Northern League (Lega). By employing hate speech at will, these anti-establishment parties fuel a narrative of conflict, thereby enhancing their own public profiles.

Social destabilisers such as economic crises and changes in migration flows seem to alter trends in online hate speech. In the 1990s, it was minorities from Albania, Romania, Morocco and China who were stigmatised in Italy; today, Muslims are the main target of hate speech in the country. In recent years, the societal backlashes fanned by hate speech, especially on the subject of immigration, have regularly been exploited by politicians on the populist right with the aim of energising their supporter base and furthering their political objectives.

Hate speech may be favoured by the anti-establishment fringes and nationalist right, but it is used across the political spectrum. Leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party Giorgia Meloni has been both an instigator and victim of hate speech. In February 2021, Meloni was at the centre of a controversy that saw her targeted with sexist insults online.

Hate speech may be favoured by the anti-establishment fringes and nationalist right, but it is used across the political spectrum.

When loathing oozes from institutions, the disease of hate speech has become endemic in society. Belluati highlights the key role played by intermediaries such as traditional media and social networks, which operate between public opinion and the country’s leaders: “In Italy, the media still has little capacity for self-reflection and assessment of its own cultural practices, such as the perpetuation of a certain type of inegalitarian thinking”. Studies have shown how gender stereotypes promoted by traditional media are replicated on social media: here in the terrae nullius controlled by big tech firms lies the real potential for hate speech to thrive. Belluati explains that big platforms like Facebook and Twitter, motivated by profits that depend on traffic levels, have little interest what is actually said so long as it produces market value. “This situation might have been fine in social media’s ‘wild west’ phase, but now the time has come to regulate”, Belluati adds.

Democracy under threat

Online hate speech against politicians is often seen as inevitable. The phenomenon is still poorly understood and its impacts are hard to measure, but research has confirmed the ability of cyber hate to survive in different environments: like a virus, hate speech online can adapt to thrive outside its original context. This is how its effects seep into the offline world.

The investigations following the car bombing that killed the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 showed 30 years of online threats in a completely different light. Her story is all too similar to those of British MP Jo Cox, CNN’s Filipino-American reporter Maria Ressa, and Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh. Hate crimes with different narratives but the same worrying leitmotiv: the victims were all targets of incessant online attacks. Although it is impossible to draw a direct link between cyber hate and hate crimes, the many killings of female journalists and politicians point to a possible connection.

The question of how online hate impacts women’s political participation is more complicated than it first seems.

When it comes to how online hate speech impacts democracy, the issue becomes knotty around the effects on the political participation of the most exposed groups. Many activists and academics claim that there is a relatively clear link between the chronic under-representation of women in politics and their higher chance of being targeted with online hate. A Finnish study found that 28 per cent of municipal decision-makers who had experienced hate speech were less willing to participate in decision-making as a result. So the very real risk of being abused online can discourage women from participating in politics. In the United Kingdom, unions have highlighted how online trolling dissuades women from standing for public office. Similarly, the relentlessness of virtual violence is forcing many female journalists to change their working methods and online presence, and even to look for new careers.

However, the question of how online hate impacts women’s political participation is more complicated than it first seems, argues Belluati. “It’s true that women, especially those at the top, are easy targets for this type of violence. But to say that women are under-represented in politics because they’re put off by fear of greater exposure to abuse is too simplistic. In fact, women were already participating less before the internet took off.”

Belluati explains that the question of female participation in public life is bound up with a more systematic mechanism. For years, the Italian political landscape has suffered from levels of representation for women and minorities that are far below the European average. While the first Giuseppe Conte government (2018-2019) saw female members of parliament reach a record high at 334 (35.8 per cent of all elected parliamentarians), finally exceeding the European average after decades without progress, this was largely down to electoral laws on gender equality. “After the roaring 1970s, when women’s activism was making strides in all areas, we have to ask ourselves why in 2021 women remain locked out of politics unless there are regulatory mechanisms like quotas”, Belluati says.

She suggests that the problem is work-life balance: “Some careers are demanding and require choices and paths that have not yet been normalised for women. Then there’s the cumulative effect as cultural resistance, over time, has resulted in women’s disinterest, especially when it comes to the top jobs. As a result, something that should be reaching a critical mass stops of its own accord at a certain point.”

Belluati shows how these mechanisms are exposed when looking at the number of women involved in local politics in Italy compared with national politics: there is strong female participation at the regional level, while the biggest gender participation gap is at the top level, with no woman ever having held the position of president or prime minister. “This system that locks women out has led them to lose interest in running for the top jobs – with a few exceptions. The cost of involvement is one that women are not always willing to pay.”

A vaccine for online abuse

Some phenomena can become viral, Belluati explains: “The pandemic has shown us the perverse effects of virality. Just like a virus, online hate speech can be combatted by defence mechanisms; society is building up a series of antibodies in response, like identification tools, debunking, and proactive countermeasures.” However, the best cure, says Belluati, remains creating a system for detecting and reporting abuse, alongside protection schemes for at-risk groups.

In Italy, there are many such initiatives led by civil society organisations. For some time now, Amnesty International Italia has been running a task force for countering hate on social media. The Carta di Roma organisation has become a leader in the fight against migration-related hate speech, and the social start-up Chi Odia Paga (Who Hates Pays) has developed Italy’s first legal tech platform for helping victims of online hate crimes to seek redress through the justice system.

For Belluati, these initiatives offer useful evidence that can be used to devise effective policies, establish good practices, and provide innovative tech responses. The problem, however, is when there is “no response at the highest levels”. Indeed, it is only recently that online hate speech has entered the political debate. The first initiatives have come from parliamentarians such as Boldrini and Segre who actively raise awareness of the issue.

So long as the feminist, anti-racist and LGBTQI+ struggles remain apart, the fight against online hate speech will flounder.

Boldrini has often been the target of ferocious online attacks because of her positions on immigration and gender equality policies. After years of abuse online, her decision in 2017 to report her virtual attackers to the police drew considerable attention. Building on her 2016 parliamentary work with the Jo Cox Commission on Intolerance, Xenophobia, Racism and Hate Phenomena (with the name referencing the British MP who was murdered the same year), in 2018 Boldrini worked with Segre to set up the commission to combat hate speech. In March 2021, Boldrini introduced a bill that would create penalties for sites that do not remove hate content from their web pages. The fines imposed would be used to finance prevention and digital education programmes.

But social and legislative mechanisms alone are not enough to combat hate speech. “Given how complex and widespread it is, this phenomenon must be fought in the spheres of education, culture and regulation by involving different parts of the system, including politicians, the media and the big social network companies”, concludes Belluati. “There needs to be ownership of the problem in every part of public life: at the local, national and supranational levels. Without coordinated action, all efforts risk being undermined. We all have a role to play: scholars who study these phenomena, the media world that highlights them, those with the socio-technical knowledge for building infrastructure, and those with the institutional knowledge who must regulate.”

The question of raising cultural awareness of the issue remains: how to foster a culture that combats hatred instead of breeding it? Social movements fighting on the frontline against discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation may be able to lead a grassroots awareness campaign that can bring about the cultural shift necessary to counter the many forms of online hate speech. But Italy lacks an intersectional movement capable of taking the different demands of minority groups and uniting them as one voice: so long as the feminist, anti-racist and LGBTQI+ struggles remain apart, the fight against online hate speech will flounder.

The complexity of hate speech and the role this has played in the unfolding of historical events show this is an enormous problem that threatens to divide our societies: a crisis we can no longer afford to ignore. A democracy in which participation is suppressed by systemic discrimination risks becoming a mere shadow of itself. Inciting hatred, perpetuating stereotypes, and spreading disinformation in the name of the false gods of freedom will turn social media into a breeding ground for demagogues and political parties that use populist rhetoric to radicalise the electorate.


[1] Senators for life in Italy are members of the Senate who are either appointed by the President of the Italian Republic “for outstanding patriotic merits in the social, scientific, artistic or literary field” or former presidents.

“No Good Choices Left”: Our Dilemma Under a White Sky

After her Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, Under a White Sky, describes the world of “techno-fixes” to the damage we have inflicted on nature. Today, the world faces the dilemma that even the most well-intentioned interventions risk making matters worse, though we may no longer have the luxury of refusing them. In a century that will be shaped by the climate crisis, learning to navigate humanity’s “mixture of hubris and cluelessness” when dealing with nature will be essential.

Olaf Bruns: Before delving into your new book, Under a White Sky, I’d like to go back to your previous one, The Sixth Extinction, which argued that we’re in the midst of a new, man-made wave of species extinction. Seven years later, the climate crisis has certainly entered public perception but does the biodiversity crisis receive appropriate attention?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Clearly not. The problem is that the biodiversity crisis is such a sweeping problem. It involves so many different components of our globalised world. And globalisation itself is a significant driver of extinction, for example by constantly moving species around the world. Climate change, even though a monumental problem, is only one component of the biodiversity crisis. There are others: changes in land use, fragmentation and destruction of habitats, invasive species, ocean acidification (which is intimately linked to climate change). All these are synergistic. That’s why it’s so difficult to even identify the problem.

What led you from The Sixth Extinction to Under a White Sky?

After The Sixth Extinction I wondered: where do we go from here? The first part of Under a White Sky, which is about the Super Coral Project, connected to this question. At the centre of the Super Coral Project [which aims to create more resilient coral species by crossbreeding, selection and applying external stress] was the idea of intervening at a very profound level to try to alter nature so that it can survive in the altered world we’re creating. I started to see a pattern: where we should reduce emissions, for example, we tend not to even try any more. It’s either politically too difficult or simply a humanitarian problem: with a world population of almost eight billion people, you can’t simply say, “Let’s stop using nitrogen fertiliser.” So instead, we try to “fix” the problems. We’re in this terrible dilemma where there are simply no good choices left!

Does the title Under a White Sky point to one of those attempts to “fix” the problems?

It comes from what could be described as the ultimate idea of intervening in nature to counteract previous interventions: the idea of solar geoengineering, that would mimic the temperature-lowering effects of volcanic eruptions by injecting substances into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back to space. One of the many possible side effects of this type of geoengineering would be to make the sky whiter.

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There’s tinkering with the genome of coral and there’s geoengineering, with all its unpredictable side effects. Your book also describes the electrification of a canal to prevent artificially introduced fish from entering and wreaking havoc in another ecosystem, and the construction of a 4.5 million dollar replica of the living environment of the Californian desert pupfish to house a “backup population”. It gets more surreal with each example! But it’s also constantly flipping back and forth between tragedy and comedy.

It surely is black comedy! Obviously, all these things are profoundly tragic: for the species that are going extinct, it is the end of a long history; and of course it is tragic for the many, many people around the world already suffering from the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. But our attitude towards this situation is a sort of bumbling mix of hubris and cluelessness that has a profoundly comic element.

I also wrote it as a dark comedy because often books about environmental disasters come up with some sort of list – “the 10 things you can do about…”. I don’t really know how we’re going to solve this. My book’s logic is the opposite: it’s supposed to be kind of fun to read. But at the end, the problem is precisely that there are no good answers.

Sometimes the absurdity of your examples depends on perspective. For instance, you describe the levee flood protection system around New Orleans, which essentially counters the fact that humans settled where they shouldn’t have because the lands were too instable. They scramble to make the levees higher and higher to counter the rising tides which result from yet another human-made problem: climate change. Looking at this situation as someone who is half Dutch, it suddenly seems much less surreal: it has been that way for centuries in the Netherlands, which are largely built on land reclaimed from the sea. In the Netherlands, it’s hard to think of nature as something that is not human made. Could a more realistic idea of what nature is and how much we’ve already changed it (intentionally or otherwise) facilitate a more cool-headed debate?

Yes, probably. Gene editing is a similar example that will bring these issues to a crisis point. We’ll be able to gene edit species so that they have better heat tolerance, for instance. With gene drive technology [which helps propel certain mutations through a population], we might even be able to push these traits out into the world. Again, there are no easy answers. Rejecting these technologies as “unnatural” won’t bring nature back. The choice isn’t between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, and that might often be nothing. Your natural sense of revulsion, or your ethical horror, will often have to be re-examined considering the situation.

For example, the American chestnut tree – a very important species in American hardwood forests – has been decimated by a fungus imported from Asia. You cannot find a mature Chestnut tree anymore. For years, people have been trying to back-breed the tree, without success. Until someone inserted a single gene and a promoter into the American chestnut tree, making it fungus resistant. Currently, various US federal agencies are deciding whether those plants should be allowed out into the world. My first reaction was that would be totally crazy! But after reflection, I changed my mind: once they’re approved, I’d plant one of those trees in my backyard. Because unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury any more of being as fastidious as we might like to be.

Your natural sense of revulsion, or your ethical horror, will often have to be re-examined considering the situation.

Pushing the previous question to the extreme: do you think romantic misconceptions of what nature is prevail in the environmental movement?

I don’t want to denigrate it as “romantic”. But it’s true that archaeology increasingly points to profound human impacts on nature, going back farther and farther in time. In the US, unlike in Europe, there still exists a kind of wilderness and a veneration of this, even though, as many have pointed out, all these places were occupied by humans for thousands of years before the colonists arrived. These places all had a human footprint, but it was a small one because there just weren’t that many people. So it’s wrong to think of these places as primeval nature. But on the other hand, if there’s no baseline, if you don’t imagine a pre-human nature – or at least one prior to industrialised agriculture – what is it that you’re trying to preserve?

In Europe more than the US, that’s a really complicated question. Think of all the programmes in Europe, for example, which continue to involve mowing places because they’ve been mowed for thousands of years and current ecosystems depend on it. What nature are we talking about? These are tough questions. It starts to become what might be called romanticism when the answer is some kind of return to an agrarian past. That simply isn’t happening without complete societal breakdown, which you can’t really wish for. Billions of people survive on industrial agriculture today – it’s not going away.

On the flip side: if there is romanticism in the environmental movement, isn’t the idea prevalent elsewhere of “repairing the planet” with yet non-existent techno-fixes bordering on magical thinking too?

Indeed, there tend to be these camps: one that thinks technology will save us – that’s a very American view – and another advocating for some return to the past or a step back from technology. Neither will work!

You mentioned gene editing. Stratospheric sulphur injections in the earth’s atmosphere only seem a small step further. So the ethical question is, given the urgency of climate change and mass extinction, should we do it?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we don’t have to answer this question yet because we don’t even know if it would work. Even the most basic applied research is still lacking. Nobody’s actively advocating for deployment now. But there are a few who say – and it’s not an unimportant argument – if we’ll do it one day, we should begin sooner rather than later. Because the aim is to cut the top off the heating risk curve. And when will the top of this curve be? Hopefully, within the next few decades. As carbon emissions reduce, the idea is that there’ll be peak warming at some point, and that geoengineering could – theoretically – reduce this peak.

There tend to be these camps: one that thinks technology will save us, and another advocating for some return to the past or a step back from technology. Neither will work!

What different types of geoengineering are there? Or, alternatively, what ways are there to get carbon out of the atmosphere?

Over the last couple of decades, these two have been lumped together. But today there’s growing consensus that they’re different technologies with different effects.

CO2 removal is already moving mainstream because it’s baked into any net-zero scheme, which Europe for example has embraced. The question is: what is the “net” in “net zero”? Well, the “net” means that what we continue to put into the air needs to be taken out of it. And there are many ways to do this: there are certain rocks that are not in equilibrium with the atmosphere yet, and they can be ground up to absorb CO2. Then there’s biomass, which can be planted, cut down, burned, and the CO2 captured and stored underground. There are chemicals. CO2 can be sucked out of the air.

Geoengineering, on the other hand, consists of attempts to like those manipulate clouds or the stratosphere to produce more reflectivity. With the same aim, there are also proposals to pump water onto ice sheets to stop them melting. Ice sheets are very reflective. If that reflectivity is lost, it begins another feedback loop. The proposals to brighten clouds seem theoretically possible even if they’ve not yet been demonstrated. Finally, the ultimate idea is shooting reflective material into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space.

You also describe how all scenarios to keep heating below 1.5 degrees put forward by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change include carbon capture or some form of negative emissions, as do most 2-degree scenarios. Is it fair to say that there’s no such thing as limiting warming to 1.5, or even 2, degrees without removing CO2 from the atmosphere?

Yes, indeed. Critics of the IPCC would say you only get out the scenarios what you put in. Theoretically, there could be more scenarios that involve radically cutting CO2 emissions, and very fast. What prevents the IPCC from modelling these are the economic and humanitarian implications. They’re models, and I don’t want to comment on how accurate or inaccurate they are. But yes: in the IPCC special report that looked at a huge number of scenarios for how to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, all of them required negative emissions. The vast majority of scenarios to result in 2 degrees or less also involved negative emissions. And quite significant ones at that.

Environmentalists tend to fear that if we create the means to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, we take the pressure off industry to reduce its emissions. Where do you stand on this debate?

When I started covering climate change almost 20 years ago, there was already talk of “adaption to climate change”. Some people didn’t even want to talk about this because acknowledging the need for adaptation meant that we weren’t doing enough to tackle the problem. Today, that’s not a debate anymore. Adaptation is happening on a massive scale because of the changes that have been set in motion. Now you can hear similar arguments related to CO2 removal. That argument is also going to pass because we need to do both: CO2 removal and massively reducing our emissions. It’s not either or anymore. If we as a society can’t get our heads around that, we won’t stand a chance.

Geoengineering has even more of this hazard argument. But eventually we may well get to a point where that hesitation goes by the boards as we end up needing everything.

We need to do both: CO2 removal and massively reducing our emissions. It’s not either or anymore. If we as a society can’t get our heads around that, we won’t stand a chance.

But if we do CO2 removal, it will have to be on a scale that’s difficult to achieve – difficult even to imagine!

It’s a pretty simple calculation: one could argue that our entire industrial infrastructure is a carbon addition infrastructure. All our pipelines, industry, every single car and house – they’re all part of this vast apparatus for converting fossilised carbon into CO2 in the atmosphere. To make a dent in that with CO2 removal requires something on the same scale of the entire industrial infrastructure! And all that stuff has to be piped or buried somewhere. It’s huge.

And on top of this, it’s hugely difficult to finance carbon capture.

Because there’s no incentive for it. It’s like dumping your garbage for free versus paying. If it’s still possible to dump garbage on the street rather than pay for it to be picked up, there’ll be a lot of garbage on the street! The current economics don’t work. But there’s a lot of venture capital today, because of the hope or conviction that one day dumping emissions in the atmosphere won’t be free anymore.

So, how to create those incentives?

There are many ways to do it, but it all boils down to some charge or limit on how much CO2 you can emit. Then you might end up paying for the carbon capture to “net out” the CO2 you put up there. Or you could tax carbon, for example – it’s not rocket science.

The new US administration has certainly brought change to the American voice on climate. What’s your assessment after six months?

Joe Biden has put good people in key positions. They absolutely know what they’re doing. But it won’t necessarily be heartening when we see all this run up against a sclerotic political system. So far, the administration has done a tremendous amount by an executive order which rolled back a lot of what the Trump administration did. But in terms of making meaningful legislative progress it will be difficult because everything will be litigated and taken to the Supreme Court. It’s not really looking good.

US climate envoy John Kerry recently said that Americans would not necessarily have to change their lifestyles because there’ll be a techno-fix to all problems. To quote him: “I am told by scientists that 50 per cent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero will come from technologies that we don’t yet have, that’s just a reality.” Beyond the oxymoron of admitting that we don’t yet have these technologies while calling them “a reality”, isn’t telling people they can continue with their lifestyles in the current situation a case of textbook populism?

What Kerry said played badly in Europe, but in US politics there’s a saying: you don’t touch our system of retirement payments and social security – the “third rail of US politics” – unless you want to get electrocuted. It would be the same to tell people they have to change their lives: you just never do that! On the very progressive wing of the Democratic party, there’s the proposal for the Green New Deal, a very optimistic project that tries to gather a large coalition: organised labour, communities of colour, the whole broad tent of the Democratic party. But nobody says people will have to change the way they live. It’s sort of an article of faith in the US. Even people much more progressive than Kerry wouldn’t say it. I don’t think anyone would be willing to say it, at least not for political purposes.

2022: un écologiste a l’elysee? De l’hypothèse folle aux conditions pour y parvenir

L’élection présidentielle qui se profile en avril 2022 s’affirme comme un moment politique décisif pour la France. Si les signes convergent actuellement vers un second tour entre le président sortant Emmanuel Macron et la candidate d’extrême droite Marine Le Pen, tout peut encore changer, avec la longue campagne à venir. Les questions écologiques sont plus centrales que jamais dans la politique française, mais avec une gauche fragmentée, briser le duopole néolibéral/extrême droite ne sera pas une tâche facile. Mickaël Marie s’appuie sur les élections passées pour esquisser une stratégie visant à maintenir les Verts dans la course. Il s’agira entres autres d’affiner un récit de la transition écologique ancré dans la tradition progressiste, et capable d’unir divers groupes idéologiques.

C’est bien connu: la prédiction est un art délicat, surtout lorsqu’elle concerne l’avenir. Ou l’élection présidentielle en France, ce cimetière de favoris échoués. Un jour on vous regarde comme le prochain président, le lendemain vous êtes un accident industriel. L’élection présidentielle en France? Une série de rebondissements qui consolent celles et ceux coincés dans les sous-sols des sondages : une surprise est toujours possible.

Reste qu’il est plus prudent,  si l’on compte sur autre chose que les coups du sort, de poser quelques faits solides. Et si l’on prend au sérieux – c’est mon cas – l’idée que les écologistes doivent exercer les responsabilités et prétendre à cette étrange «  fonction suprême  »,  héritage lointain des rois de France, il faut se donner la peine d’examiner les conditions qui pourraient le permettre. C’est l’objet du présent texte. On le résumera d’une formule : il s’agit de commettre un hold-up. Et comme dans tous les films de braquage, la virtuosité de l’exécution importe autant que la solidité du plan.

Un hold-up, tant la messe paraît déjà dite. Les sondages se suivent et se ressemblent tous. Deux candidats dominent le match, surfant dix à quinze points devant leurs concurrents : Marine Le Pen, candidate du Rassemblement national[1], et Emmanuel Macron, Président de la République aussi contesté que disposant d’un socle solide. A ce stade, aucune candidature, à droite ou à gauche, ne semble perturber la redite annoncée du second tour de 2017. A gauche et chez les écologistes, aucune des candidatures déclarées ou testées par les instituts de sondage ne dépasse franchement les 10% d’intentions de vote  : ni Anne Hidalgo, maire de Paris et candidate putative du Parti socialiste, ni Yannick Jadot, candidat le plus connu du camp écologiste, ni même Jean-Luc Mélenchon, déjà candidat en 2012 et 2017, même s’il fait un peu mieux que les deux premiers.

Un hold-up, donc : comment braquer la Présidence de la République quand on est tout petit, seul et sans sondages favorables. Une hypothèse folle ? Essayons quand même.

Ce qui est évident, d’abord. La condition première pour emporter l’élection, c’est d’accéder au second tour, être parmi les deux finalistes. Sauf retournement de l’histoire, Marine Le Pen sera qualifiée. Son électorat est le plus fidèle et le plus mobilisé. C’est tragique, mais ce sont les données du problème. Première conséquence  : dans ces conditions, et tous les candidats l’ont compris, la qualification vaut certitude de la victoire finale. Car la candidate d’extrême-droite sera ensuite battue, même étroitement, par tout candidat lui étant opposé[2].

Deuxième conséquence : l’à peu près certitude de la qualification de Marine Le Pen rend plus délicate la liberté du fameux principe «   au premier tour, on choisit   ; au second, on élimine   ». Les électorats hostiles à Marine Le Pen sont poussés à un vote stratège : on élimine dès le premier tour, en choisissant qui on veut voir l’affronter. Moralité : pour accéder au second tour, il faut être perçu comme ayant déjà une chance d’y faire bonne figure.

La dynamique Le Pen dessine le premier tour

C’est douloureux de le constater mais c’est un fait   : la dynamique Le Pen est la plus solide, la plus ancrée dans les profondeurs sociales et politiques du pays, la plus à l’abri de tout retournement de situation. Elle obéit à des tendances longues, observables dans d’autres pays. Considérant les chiffres des dernières années, on peut estimer que Marine Le Pen pourrait réunir 8 à 9 millions de voix au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle de 2022.

La droite classique, celle d’avant qu’Emmanuel Macron ne balaie les vieilles armées, peut-elle réussir à s’interposer  ? Sur le papier, elle est la mieux placée. Son potentiel électoral, même au plus bas, est de 7 millions de voix. Celles qu’avait rassemblées François Fillon en 2017, dans des conditions (très) dégradées. En 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy réunissait au premier tour 11,5 millions de voix. Cinq ans plus tard et malgré une impopularité conséquente, encore 9,75 millions. Il n’est donc pas a priori imbécile de considérer comme possible un second tour opposant Marine Le Pen à n’importe quel candidat ou candidate de droite.

Sauf qu’Emmanuel Macron, en quatre ans de présidence, a profondément affaibli ce camp – jusqu’à le dévitaliser.

Pour qu’un ou une candidate écologiste puisse doubler à la fois le président sortant et le/la candidat/e de droite pour se qualifier au second tour, il lui faut réunir au moins 8 millions de voix, soit le niveau (bas) du potentiel Le Pen. La porte d’entrée est là. Le corps électoral n’étant pas extensible, doubler les concurrents consiste à réduire leur potentiel électoral, c’est-à-dire à attirer vers soi des électorats jusqu’alors tentés par autre chose. En clair, jouer les vases communicants.

Dans l’histoire électorale française, 8 millions de voix pour un candidat de gauche (ne parlons même pas d’un candidat écologiste), ça ne va pas de soi. Depuis 1981, et bien que le corps électoral ait grossi depuis, seuls François Mitterand en 1988 et François Hollande en 2012 ont franchi la barre des 10 millions de suffrages au premier tour. Objectif difficile, qui suppose de construire et mettre en scène une capacité de rassemblement au delà de son camp (1988, 2007) et/ou une volonté de réparer un pays abîmé ou divisé (2012). Dans le paysage fracturé de 2022, où les forces politiques susceptibles d’être l’armature d’une victoire sont structurellement, idéologiquement et socialement plus faibles, ça semble impossible.

Quelque chose comme le braquage d’une banque ultra-sécurisée.

L’affaire se complique un peu plus si l’on admet que Jean-Luc Mélenchon sera quoi qu’il arrive candidat[3]. L’analyse de son succès – relatif – de 2017 n’ayant jamais été vraiment conduite ni par lui-même ni par sa formation, l’espoir de rejouer le match l’emporte sur toute autre considération.

Bref, les 8 millions de voix nécessaires à se voir qualifier pour le second tour paraissent bien loin – et inatteignables pour un candidat qui ne serait que celui de la famille écologiste : 8 millions de voix, c’est 5 de plus que 3 millions, point le plus haut jamais atteint par un écologiste (Yannick Jadot lors des élections européennes de 2019).

Essayons tout de même, en observant d’autres chiffres.

Définir puis constituer le bloc électoral du possible

En 2017, les candidats Mélenchon et Hamon (PS) totalisaient 9,3 millions de voix. La même année, 47% des électeurs de François Hollande en 2012 ont voté pour Emmanuel Macron dès le premier tour. Soit 4,8 millions de voix. C’est donc un total, sur deux élections présidentielles successives, de 14 millions d’électeurs et d’électrices qui ont voté pour un candidat de gauche. L’addition est évidemment théorique, mais c’est bien à l’intérieur de ces 14 millions d’électeurs disposés à choisir un candidat de gauche (puisqu’ils l’ont déjà fait) que peut se dessiner un bloc de 8 millions susceptible de qualifier un candidat «  en même temps de gauche et écologiste  » au second tour de l’élection présidentielle.

Pour considérer possible la mobilisation de ces 8 millions de voix, il faut garder à l’esprit qu’une part conséquente de l’électorat vote désormais au coup par coup, non plus en fonction de ses seules préférences absolues mais de la réalité des offres disponibles ici et maintenant.

En 2007, le candidat centriste François Bayrou réunissait 6,8 millions, frôlant les 19%. En 2012, après cinq années de présidence Sarkozy qui semblaient valider tout ce qu’il avait porté, 3,2 millions. Entretemps, le candidat socialiste François Hollande était devenu le «   vote utile   » contre Sarkozy. En 2012, Jean-Luc Mélenchon réunissait à peine 4 milllions de voix. Cinq ans plus tard, 7 millions. Là encore, il était devenu le bulletin sratégique de celles et ceux qui voulaient un candidat de gauche au second tour, quel qu’il soit. Apparu comme le mieux placé, Mélenchon a bénéficié d’un surcroît de mobilisation électorale au-delà de celles et ceux convaincus par son projet.  

Conclusion d’étape : si François Hollande a réuni 10 millions de voix en 2012 et Jean-Luc Mélenchon 7 millions en 2017, l’idée de rassembler (au moins) 8 millions de voix en 2022 pour un ou une candidate de l’écologie et de la gauche de gouvernement paraît moins impossible. On le vérifie avec d’autres chiffres, en bricolant un peu.

En 2012 donc, Jean-Luc Mélenchon réunissait 4 millions de voix. Admettons qu’elles lui restent fidèles. Il en reste 3 millions qui, sur son total de 2017, sont susceptibles d’aller voir ailleurs. Considérons le résultat (historiquement bas pour un candidat socialiste) de Benoit Hamon en 2017   : 2,3 millions de suffrages. Et rappelons nous des 4,8 millions d’électeurs Hollande de 2012 qui ont voté pour Emmanuel Macron en 2017. Si on regroupe tout cela, on est à un peu plus de 10 millions de voix.

L’addition, encore une fois, reste théorique. Une part des électeurs Macron de 2017 venus de la gauche lui restera fidèle, en particulier si les candidats de gauche paraissent trop radicaux ou outranciers. Plus lourdement encore, une bonne part des électeurs de gauche pourrait bien déserter le combat électoral. Mais tout de même, 10 millions de voix possibles. C’est une base de travail. Ce n’est pas un résultat d’élection mais c’est un potentiel. Ce n’est ni une stratégie ni une ligne de campagne, mais ça dessine les contours d’un bloc auquel un.e candidat.e qui porterait à la fois la perspective écologiste et le meilleur de la tradition social-démocrate pourrait s’adresser.

Un dernier chiffre. Lors des élections régionales de 2015, unaniment considérées comme catastrophiquement perdues par la gauche et les écologistes, le total de leur voix au premier tour s’établissait pourtant à 8 270 770 voix. Si l’on réduit la focale au seul total gauche modérée (PS/PRG) + écologistes (à l’exclusion donc des listes PCF, Front de gauche ou extrême-gauche), on est encore à 7 055 309 voix (et dans un contexte de bien moindre participation électorale[4]).

Voilà pour l’arithmétique   : sur le papier, c’est possible. Pas simple, mais possible.

Unifier un bloc electoral social-écologiste

Evidemment, transformer tout ça en réalité électorale sera une lourde affaire. Les prérequis politiques sont immenses. En commençant par le travail de conviction à opérer pour que socialistes, hégémoniques dans la gauche d’avant et très fragiles désormais, et écologistes, force hier d’appoint devenant peu à peu force pivot, présentent ensemble une seule candidature. L’idée est débattue, mais on est loin de l’atterissage. Et ce n’est là que le mécano. Resterait surtout à écrire le récit susceptible de constituer en tant que bloc socio-politique unifié des courants idéologiques dont les leaders d’opinion semblent passer plus de temps à se disputer – violemment si possible – qu’à construire une coalition susceptible d’emporter une majorité de suffrages, comme s’ils avaient pris acte que les morts ne ressuscitent pas et que le seul objectif possible était désormais d’arriver premier parmi les perdants.

On pense à cet article de Pierre Briançon, en 2016, qui notait que «   la gauche européenne semble diviser en deux camps   : un qui perd les élections, et l’autre que l’idée de les gagner ne semble pas intéresser   »[5].

L’espace politique existe-t-il  ? Le trou de souris qui permettrait le hold-up est-il vraiment là  ?

Au plan socio-culturel, c’est certain. Les groupes susceptibles de constituer ce bloc existent, attestés par de multiples enquêtes d’opinion. Les recombinaisons de valeurs qui s’opèrent en profondeur dans la société française – particulièrement nettes quant à l’impératif de modes de vie plus sobres et de plus en plus perçus comme plus «  sages  » – pourraient trouver leur traduction politique dans une offre combinant transition écologique, retour des régulations[6], solidarité collective et reconnaissance de la singularité des parcours personnels.

Que les partis de gauche aient presque cessé d’exister comme au temps de leur splendeur ne signifie pas que leurs électorats aient été dissous dans le grand bain des reclassements idéologiques. Il continue d’exister, en France comme dans d’autres pays européens, une «   constellation centrale  », pour reprendre le terme du sociologue Henri Mendras[7], attachée à la justice sociale et l’égalité des chances, à la sécurité, l’Etat providence et au service public comme «   patrimoine de ceux qui n’en ont pas   »[8]. Certes, cette constellation n’est pas (plus) une force électorale stable et déjà constituée. Mais les groupes sociaux qui la forment pourraient être disponibles à quelque chose articulant transitions et protections, changements et mises en sécurité dans un monde sans cesse bousculé. Ils ne se classent plus, en revanche, sur un axe droite/gauche obligé. Conséquence  : il ne s’agit pas d’additionner des étiquettes ou d’empiler des adjectifs mais de faire synthèse d’aspirations diverses, potentiellement contradictoires entre elles, et les réarticuler dans une perspective actualisée.

Difficile, c’est certain. Mais construire un bloc est plus délicat que de l’hériter.

Les manuels de développement personnel disent qu’il faut toujours renforcer ses points forts, puisqu’ils vous distinguent des autres. Les points forts d’un.e candidat.e «  écologiste et un peu plus  » ? L’affirmation qu’il est temps de vivre autrement, l’urgence des changements révélée brutalement par la pandémie. La critique d’un modèle productiviste dans l’impasse. Et la capacité à inscrire ces changements dans l’histoire longue de changements antérieurs, qui ont vu le Front populaire inventer les congés payés et, au lendemain d’une autre déroute, un gouvernement d’union nationale créér la Sécurité sociale.

Il se peut que nous soyons, pour reprendre un vieux clivage politique américain, dans un mommy moment[9], l’un de ces moments politiques où le désir de protection, de liens et de solidarités peut l’emporter sur l’aspiration à «   la loi et l’ordre   ». C’est peut-être ce qu’a montré la victoire de Joe Biden aux Etats-Unis, et plus encore l’accueil favorable des américains à ses premières décisions.

La pandémie a bousculé le monde, mais aussi les existences singulières. Elle est une répétition générale, a-t-on parfois écrit. Derrière le virus, la crise écologique globale. Les bouleversements climatiques. Le nouveau normal. Les basculements et les bousculements. Il faudra accueillir les détresses émotionnelles qu’ils provoqueront et leur proposer une perspective de mieux. En France comme ailleurs, les gouvernants sont aussi héritiers des rois thaumaturges.

L’expérience de la pandémie et l’ombre de la crise écologique globale dessinent un futur dans lequel les réponses écologistes ont tout pour être entendues. L’enjeu n’est pas la réponse, mais la question  : s’agit-il de reconduire celui qui, au plus fort de la crise, apparaît comme ayant su la gérer ou s’agit-il de choisir celle ou celui qui, fort des enseignements qu’il propose de l’épisode, saura dessiner un futur à la fois différent et stable  ? Différent, puisqu’il faudra rompre avec ce qui nous a menés là. Stable, puisqu’après un tel choc personne ne choisira l’aventure. Ce n’est pas un problème d’idées ou de valeurs, c’est un problème de vies concrètes. Emmanuel Macron, c’est de bonne guerre, expliquera qu’il a su maintenir «  quoi qu’il en coûte  » la possibilité que la vie continue, que les vies reprennent. Un ou une candidat.e écologiste devra dire que l’enjeu, désormais, est de garantir que chacune et chacun puisse déployer sa vie dans un monde qui va changer, un monde où nous devons changer si nous voulons préserver des conditions sereines d’existence.

Compte tenu de l’ancrage profond de Marine Le Pen dans l’opinion, l’élection présidentielle de 2022 sera une bataille sur la meilleure option à lui opposer  : s’agit-il de simplement sauver ce qui est ou s’agit-il, y compris pour sauver ce qui est, de bâtir autre chose  ? Pour que l’emporte la seconde réponse, celle des écologistes, c’est sur la question qu’il faut agir.

Elle est la clé du hold-up.

Dans d’autres temps sombres, le penseur socialiste allemand Ernst Bloch écrivait – c’était en 1932   : «   les nazis parlent une langue fallacieuse, mais à des hommes, les communistes parlent une langue totalement véridique, mais au sujet des choses   ». Pour convaincre, rassembler au delà de son camp si étroit et l’emporter, la candidature écologiste devra être celle qui, tout en se préoccupant des choses, saura parler au cœur d’hommes et de femmes particulièrement éprouvées.


[1]     Anciennement Front national, longtemps modèle des nouvelles extrême-droites européennes)

[2]     J’admets ici privilégier une conviction ancienne, basée tout de même sur l’analyse des mouvements d’opinion, à la vague de frisson apportée par des sondages récents indiquant qu’en cas de second tour Macron/Le Pen, le premier ne l’emporterait que d’une courte mesure, presque inférieure à la marge d’erreur. Je considère pour ma part qu’il n’existe pas (encore?) en France le jour du vote une majorité pour donner, même par abandon, le pouvoir suprême à Marine Le Pen.

[3]     Mon pari est qu’une telle candidature ne peut pas rassembler plus de 4 millions de voix si l’espace central à gauche est correctement occupé.

[4]     22 millions de votants au premier tour contre 36/37 millions au premier tour d’une élection présidentielle.

[5]     Pierre Briançon, «   Long goodbye to the European Left   », Politico, 29 mars 2016.

[6]     On lira par exemple ce texte de Zachary D. Carter, auteur d’une récente biographie de Keynes, qui, si elle évoque la situation particulière des Etats-Unis, pourrait inspirer les gauches européennes   : «   The Coronavirus killed the gospel of Small Government   », The New-York Times, 11 mars 2021.

[7]     Henri Mendras, La Seconde Révolution française. 1965-1984, Gallimard, 1988

[8]     La formule est de Martine Aubry, maire de Lille, ancienne ministre et ancienne dirigeante du Parti Socialiste.

[9]     David Paul Kuhn, «   The Enduring Poppy-Mommy Political Pivide   », Real Clear Politics, 2 mars 2010 https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/03/02/the_enduring_mommy-daddy_political_divide__104598.html

Green in the Elysée? Pulling off a Long Shot

The presidential election looming in April 2022 is increasingly defining French politics. While the signs point to a run-off between current president Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen, anything can change with a long campaign ahead. Green issues are more prominent than ever in French politics, but a fragmented left means that breaking the neoliberal and far-right duopoly is no easy task. Mickaël Marie analyses past elections to sketch out a strategy to keep the Greens in the running. Much will hinge on honing a narrative of ecological transition rooted in progressive tradition that can unite diverse ideological groups.

Everyone knows that making predictions is a mug’s game. Especially when it comes to the French presidential election, that graveyard of failed favourites. From one day to the next, a projected next president can become a workplace fatality. Presidential elections in France are a series of plot twists that hold out hope for those languishing in the polls: a surprise is always possible.

Unless the outcome is to be left to fate, it is important to establish a few facts. And if Greens should seek to govern in France’s highest office, it is necessary to consider the conditions for getting there. In short, it is about pulling off a heist. Like in all caper movies, skillful execution is just as important as a good plan.

It would be a heist because the election appears to be a foregone conclusion. Poll after poll says the same thing. Two candidates dominate the field with a 10-15-point lead: Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (National Front, RN), which for many years has been the model for new far-right parties in Europe, and Emmanuel Macron, incumbent president and leader of La République En Marche (LREM), who counts with as much vehement opposition as solid support. At this stage, no candidate seems strong enough prevent a repeat of the 2017 presidential election run-off between these two. On the left and among Greens, no candidate (declared or otherwise) is polling above 10 per cent: not Anne Hidalgo, Paris mayor and presumed Socialist Party (PS) candidate; not Yannick Jadot, the best-known Green candidate; and not even Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (FI), who ran in 2012 and 2017, though he is performing slightly better than the first two.

How to steal the presidency when you are small, alone, and far behind in the opinion polls? It is certainly a long shot. The first condition for winning the election is evidently to make it to the second round as one of the two finalists. Unless there is a historic turn of events, Le Pen will make the run-off. Her supporter base is the most loyal and mobilised. It is a sad state of affairs, but that is the reality. The first consequence of this situation is that reaching the run-off with Le Pen will mean certain victory for her rival: the far-right candidate will be beaten, if only narrowly, by anyone she faces.

Presidential elections in France are a series of plot twists that hold out hope for those languishing in the polls: a surprise is always possible.

The second consequence is that Le Pen’s almost certain qualification for the run-off complicates the famous principle of “In the first round, we choose; in the second, we eliminate.” Constituencies hostile to Le Pen are forced to vote tactically, eliminating candidates in the first round by choosing who they want her to face in the second. The upshot: to reach the second round, a candidate must be perceived as likely to perform well when they get there.

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The Le Pen dynamic

Loath as we may be to admit it, Le Pen’s support is the most solidly rooted in French politics and society, and the most invulnerable to upset. It is the result of long-term trends also observed in other countries. Based on data from recent years, Le Pen is expected to receive 8-9 million votes in the first round of the 2022 presidential election.

Could the traditional right, whose forces were defeated by Macron in the 2017 election, succeed this time? On paper, it is best placed to do so. At its lowest, the centre-right’s electoral potential is at least the 7 million votes secured in 2017 in adverse conditions by François Fillon, candidate for Les Républicains (LR). In the 2007 presidential election first round, Nicolas Sarkozy won 11.5 million votes. Five years later, despite being quite unpopular, Sarkozy still managed to get 9.75 million votes. So at first glance, it is not unreasonable to think that a run-off between Le Pen and a centre-right candidate is possible. Except that, in his four years in office, Macron has seriously wounded the traditional right – almost fatally so.

For a Green to overtake both Macron and the traditional right’s candidate to make the second round, they will have to win at least 8 million votes, equivalent to Le Pen’s lowest electoral potential. And there lies the way in. Because the electorate cannot be increased, overtaking rivals means reducing their electoral potential – in other words, attracting votes from elsewhere. It is a question of persuasion rather than mobilisation.

For a Green to overtake both Macron and the traditional right’s candidate to make the second round, they will have to win at least 8 million votes, equivalent to Le Pen’s lowest electoral potential.

In French electoral history, 8 million votes for a left-wing candidate (let alone a Green) is no mean feat. Since 1981, even though the electorate has since grown, the only left-wing candidates to break the 10 million vote barrier in the first round were François Mitterrand (1988) and François Hollande (2012). It is a tough target that requires an ability to bring people in from outside the tent (as in 1988 and 2007) and a willingness to repair a damaged and divided country (as in 2012). In 2022’s fractured landscape, where the left-wing political forces likely to provide the foundations for victory are structurally, ideologically, and socially weaker, this seems impossible.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Mélenchon will be a candidate come what may. Neither Mélenchon nor his team have really analysed his (relative) success in 2017, and the desire for a rematch trumps any other consideration.

In short, the 8 million votes necessary to make it to the second round of the 2022 presidential election seem not just a long way off but out of reach for a candidate representing the Green movement alone – 8 million votes is 5 million more than the high watermark for a Green candidate: Jadot’s 3 million in the 2019 European elections.

Building an electoral bloc

In 2017, Mélenchon and PS candidate Benoît Hamon garnered 9.3 million votes between them. The same year, 47 per cent of voters who had backed Hollande in 2012 voted for Macron in the first round. That is 4.8 million votes. So, in two consecutive presidential elections, 14 million people voted with a left-leaning preference. The arithmetic is, of course, hypothetical, but it is within these 14 million voters likely to choose a left-wing candidate (based on previous choices) that we can carve out a block of 8 million who would be inclined to support a candidate who is both left-wing and green through to the run-off.

When considering how to mobilise these 8 million possible votes, it is worth keeping in mind that a significant chunk of the electorate now takes a tactical, case-by-case approach to voting based on the options available rather than their absolute preferences.

In 2007, centrist candidate François Bayrou received 6.8 million votes, just shy of 19 per cent. In 2012, after five years of Sarkozy rule that seemed to validate all of his arguments, Bayrou got just 3.2 million votes. In the meantime, Hollande had become the tactical vote against Sarkozy. In 2012, Mélenchon got barely 4 million votes. Five years later, that number rose to 7 million. There again, he had become the tactical vote for those who wanted a left-wing candidate in the second round, whoever it may be. Seemingly the best placed, Mélenchon benefited from extra electoral support beyond those who believed in his project.

A significant chunk of the electorate now takes a tactical, case-by-case approach to voting based on the options available rather than their absolute preferences.

A preliminary conclusion: if Hollande got 10 million votes in 2012 and Mélenchon got 7 million in 2017, the idea of gathering (at least) 8 million votes in 2022 for a green and mainstream left candidate does not seem quite so far-fetched.

Assuming the 4 million people who voted for Mélenchon in 2012 remain loyal, 3 million from his 2017 total are liable to go elsewhere. At 2.3 million votes, Hamon’s 2017 results were an all-time low for a socialist candidate. And not to forget the 4.8 million Hollande supporters from 2012 who voted for Macron in 2017. Added together, this brings us to just over 10 million votes.

Again, this arithmetic is hypothetical. Some of the 2017 Macron voters from the Left will remain loyal to him, particularly if the left-wing candidates appear too radical or zealous. Even more significantly, many left-leaning voters may sit out the election entirely. That said, there is still a starting point of 10 million possible votes. It is not an election result, but it is potential. It is neither a strategy nor a campaign line, but it outlines a constituency to which a candidate who both offers a green perspective and embodies the best of the social-democratic tradition could appeal.

One last number: the 2015 regional elections, widely considered catastrophic for the Left and the Greens, still saw them reach a combined number of 8.2 million votes in the first round. Taking into account only the moderate left (PS and the Radical Party of the Left, PRG) and the Greens (in other words excluding the French Communist Party, the Left Front, and other far-left lists) still brings the number to 7 million votes. The 2015 regional elections were also considered to have a relatively low voter turnout, with 22 million voters in the first round compared to 36-37 million in the first round of presidential elections.

Examining previous election results brings us to the conclusion that, on paper at least, gathering enough votes to carry a green and mainstream left candidate into the 2022 election run-off is possible. Not simple, but possible.

Uniting greens and social democrats

Of course, turning this potential into electoral reality will be a tough task. The political pre-conditions are challenging. First, there is the need to convince the Socialists, once dominant on the Left but very weak today, and the Greens, previously a bit-part player but now taking on ever more important roles, to put forward a single candidate. The idea is under discussion, but agreement is a long way off. And that compromise is just the easy part. The hard part is telling a story that can unite in one socio-political bloc various ideological strands whose opinion leaders seem to spend more time arguing among themselves – often heatedly – than trying to build a coalition capable of winning a majority. It is as if they have realised that the dead will not come back to life, and now the only goal possible is to be first runner-up. As one commentator observed in 2016: “The European Left often looks divided into two camps: One loses elections, the other doesn’t seem interested in winning them.”

So, does the political space exist? Is the mouse hole that would enable this heist really there?

Socio-culturally speaking, it most certainly does exist. The groups that could make up this bloc are there, as numerous opinion polls show. Values that run deep in French society – particularly the desire for lifestyles that are simpler and more sustainable – could find their political expression in an offering that combines ecological transition, more regulation, collective solidarity, and the recognition that everyone’s background is unique.

Just because today’s left-wing parties are shadows of their former selves, it does not mean that their electorates have dissolved into the sea of ideological realignment. In France as elsewhere in Europe, there continues to be a “central constellation”, as French sociologist Henri Mendras put it, that is attached to social justice and social security, and that sees public services and the welfare state as the collective wealth of the poor. Of course, this constellation is no longer a stable and ready-made electoral force. But the social groups it comprises could be open to a political offering centred on transition and protection, change and security in a tumultuous world. However, they no longer neatly fit into the left-right spectrum. This means that it is not about labels or adjectives, but about bringing together different – and potentially contradictory – aspirations and shaping them into a modern vision. The task is undoubtedly difficult, and building a bloc is harder than inheriting one.

Just because today’s left-wing parties are shadows of their former selves, it does not mean that their electorates have dissolved into the sea of ideological realignment.

Personal development gurus always recommend highlighting your strengths because they set you apart from others. What would be the strengths of a candidate who was “green and more”? These could be found in the assertion that it is time to live differently, especially after the pandemic has brutally exposed the urgent need for change. They could be found in the critique of a productivist model that has reached the end of the road. And in the ability to frame these changes as part of a long progressive tradition – one which saw the Popular Front invent paid holiday in the 1930s and, later, a government of national unity create France’s social security system.

It could be, to borrow the language of American politics, that we are in a “mommy moment”: a time in politics when the desire for protection, connection and solidarity trumps aspirations for law and order. This is perhaps what Joe Biden’s victory in the United States has shown and, more importantly, the public’s approval of his first decisions as president.

The pandemic has turned not only the world upside down, but individual lives too. Some call it a dress rehearsal. Because the pandemic’s origins lie in the global ecological crisis. Extreme climate change; a new normal; a world turned upside down: we will have to address the emotional distress that all this will cause and offer people the prospect of something better.

The experience of Covid-19 and the shadow of the global ecological crisis herald a future in which green answers are sure to get a hearing. The key issue in the upcoming French presidential race is not the answer, but the question: do we re-elect the person who, at the height of the crisis, appears to have managed it well? Or do we choose someone who, having learnt the lessons from it, offers a vision for a future that is both different and stable? Different, because it must break with what got us here in the first place. And stable because, after such a shock, few will want to roll the dice. It is not a problem of ideas or values; it is a problem of real lives. Macron can justifiably claim he has been able to do “whatever it takes” to ensure life continues. A Green candidate must argue that the challenge now is to ensure that everybody can lead their lives in a changing world – a world where we too must change if we want to maintain the conditions for life.

The experience of Covid-19 and the shadow of the global ecological crisis herald a future in which green answers are sure to get a hearing.

Given Le Pen’s deep-rooted support, the 2022 presidential election will be a fight over the best candidate to face her. Will it simply be about saving the current system? Or will it be about building something new to save the conditions for life itself? For the Green answer to prevail, we need to ask the right question.

In 1932, during another dark time in our history, German Marxist thinker Ernst Bloch wrote: “Nazis speak deceitfully, but to people; Communists quite truthfully, but only about things.” To bring together people from beyond their usual base and to stand a chance of winning, the Green candidate must be someone who, while talking about things, can also speak to the hearts of those who have suffered particular hardship.

The Green-Left’s Road to Victory in Zagreb

This year’s local elections in Croatia, and in particular in the country’s capital of Zagreb, have been marked by the overwhelming success of the Green-Left coalition headed by Možemo (We Can) and Zagreb je naš (Zagreb is Ours). The coalition’s programme, based on consultations with more than 10,000 Zagreb citizens, pursues many ambitious plans aiming to end neoliberal trends in city development: investment in extensive public housing, equal access to healthcare and education across the city, support for workers’ rights, a green renewal plan, and more.

In the Zagreb city assembly elections held on 16 May 2021, the Green-Left coalition won 40.83 per cent of the popular vote, gaining 23 out of 47 seats. The coalition also won the first round of the mayoral contest, with its candidate Tomislav Tomašević taking 45.15 per cent of the vote. The victory was confirmed in the runoff election held on 30 May against the far-right candidate Miroslav Škoro. In spite of the opponent’s rancorous attempts at labelling the Green-Left coalition as the project of foreign-funded agents and extremist left-wing NGOs, the public has supported Tomašević with a convincing majority of 63.9 per cent of the vote. Within the city assembly, parties of the Green-Left coalition — which also includes the parties New Left (Nova ljevica), For the City (Za grad) and Sustainable Development of Croatia (Održivi razvoj Hrvatske – ORaH) — will probably construct the majority with the centre-left Social Democratic Party, which won five seats in the city assembly.

The popularity of the Green-Left coalition has also been confirmed in the elections for sub-local levels of government in Zagreb, organised in 17 city districts and 218 local committees. The coalition got the best result in a whopping 16 out of 17 city district councils and 101 local committee councils, giving it a governing position in most parts of the city. Beyond Zagreb, the coalition ran in eight other cities across the country (Split, Rijeka, Osijek, Pula, Karlovac, Dubrovnik, Korčula, and Pazin), and it managed to gain representation in city councils in all of these, while also winning the mayoral contest in Pazin.

The coalition’s success is even more astounding when compared to its initial run in the 2017 local elections, when it won 7.6 per cent of the vote and four seats in the Zagreb city assembly. Despite its relatively marginal position, through constant confrontation with the corrupt government of the city mayor Milan Bandić, the coalition managed to symbolically become the leading opposition actor. Building on this experience, in 2019 a contingent of Zagreb is Ours activists formed the party We Can and ran in the 2019 European Parliament elections. The project further developed in the 2020 parliamentary elections, when the Green-Left coalition achieved 6.99 per cent of the vote and entered the Croatian parliament with 7 seats out of 151.

The Green-Left’s road to city hall

There are many interrelated factors that can be ascribed to the coalition’s historical success in Zagreb. First, after a devastating earthquake that shook the city in March 2020, combined with a flood that hit a few months later and the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, the problem of the city’s decaying public infrastructure and the corruption-ridden local government became more evident than ever before. Second, the main centre-left party (the Social Democratic Party) has been losing its credibility among the traditionally left-leaning Zagreb electorate. Ridden with in-fighting and a general lack of ideological coherence, the Social Democratic Party further boosted the position of the Green-Left coalition as challenger. Third, the coalition’s success in the July 2020 parliamentary election gave it greater visibility in the national media and set up the stage for further growth in the local election.

While the coalition’s potential in central city districts in Zagreb was already clear in the 2017 election, a lot of energy had to be invested in organising the platform in more peripheral quarters.

Although these broader contextual factors cannot be overstated, it is also important to note that the strength of the Green-Left coalition stems from the practice of political organising at the level of city districts and communities. While the coalition’s potential in central city districts in Zagreb, such as Donji Grad or Trešnjevka, was already clear in the 2017 election, a lot of energy and groundwork had to be invested in organising the platform in more peripheral quarters.

Electoral campaigning as collective action

What did this groundwork entail and what were the challenges in spreading the platform’s visibility across the city? To answer this question it is useful to focus on two peripheral quarters where four years ago the Green-Left coalition performed poorly: Peščenica-Žitnjak and Stenjevec.

Peščenica-Žitnjak is one of the larger city districts with a very heterogeneous urban environment. It covers planned residential areas of high-rises from the socialist period, enormous and largely defunct industrial zones, as well as spontaneously developed areas of individual housing that have been sprawling for decades without adequate communal infrastructure and public services.

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It is exactly in these kinds of districts and local committees that the former mayor used to enjoy the most popularity over the last two decades. In the 2017 election in Peščenica-Žitnjak, the Green-Left coalition achieved only 1 out of 19 mandates in the District Council and a mandate in only 3 out of 16 local committees. In this year’s election the coalition won 8 out of 19 mandates in the District Council and can independently form the majority in 6 out of 16 local committee councils within the district.

Reflecting on her work in the past year, Antonija Komazlić, a local organiser at Peščenica, said: “I took over the task of organising with one of my colleagues without being fully aware of the extent of work that organising across such a large district entails.” They found the way forward by engagement with municipal problems on the ground. For example, after flooding in July 2020 caused water pollution, households in the district started to struggle with access to drinking water. The fact that the Green-Left coalition was the only political party present in the district to show some interest and problematise such issues in the district council helped to extend their membership. Further interest was attracted through online surveys inquiring about local problems and priorities for each local committee.

From there on, the on-the-ground organising was very intensive, as Komazlić explained: “As we moved further away from the city centre, we had to struggle for each individual. We had to contact each person, meet with them on various occasions, inform them about news, send our organisational documents, and involve them in our activities. Each local committee group created its own programme, which turned out to be particularly useful as a tool of empowerment.” The coalition also managed to contact and cooperate with some of the existing neighbourhood-level initiatives, offering them support and a platform for electoral engagement.

Another case is Stenjevec, a much smaller district but which nevertheless has a diverse urban environment and many different problems. Over the past decade, Stenjevec has seen the development of overcrowded neighbourhoods of free-standing houses as well as newly built apartment buildings. Due to poor planning, public services and infrastructure have not been keeping up with the district’s development.

The central organising philosophy that distinguished the Green-Left coalition from other political parties was emphasising the collective rather than individual effort.

Marin Živković, an organiser from Stenjevec, recalled the beginning of the local group there: “When we started organising the group at the end of last summer [2020], most of our members at the very beginning were motivated by the parliamentary election results, showing interest in national-level political issues.” As in Peščenica, the online survey in Stenjevec served as a way of attracting people with more interest in municipal issues affecting their immediate environment.

According to Živković, the central organising philosophy that distinguished them from other political parties was emphasising the collective rather than individual effort: “In the group, we always tried to emphasise that this is a common endeavour, and that we’re all in it together. Nobody was proclaimed a leader. The basic idea is that a group of people continues to function as a group even after elections. This is, I think, also the reason why most people were willing to put their names on the ballot.”

Combining green and left politics through municipalism

All in all, the recipe for increasing citizens’ interest in politics is then rather straightforward: demonstrating that a group of people organised in a political party can say something meaningful about substantial problems in their immediate environment. In this way, political participation becomes an instrument for resolving concrete problems: dysfunctional waterworks and sewage systems, unreliable traffic infrastructure, or unbearable housing inequality. At all levels of local government, and especially at the level of districts, resolving these issues has previously been rarely associated with political participation, let alone party politics.

Even with astounding electoral support, entering the local government for the Green-Left coalition will be a demanding task. On the one hand, the coalition will have to take power over a large-scale apparatus that has for many years been functioning not according to meritocratic and professional criteria, but was rather used for an elaborate system of spoils by the former mayor and his coalition partners. On the other hand, the new city government will have to confront the vested interests of several private corporations that have been profiting from the clientelism of the government for two decades.

Even with astounding electoral support, entering the local government for the Green-Left coalition will be a demanding task.

Finally, entering the government also means that the organisational structure of the Green-Left coalition will have to be adapted to its new position. Fortunately, after a campaign that has been effectively going on since before the 2020 parliamentary elections, no new elections are currently in sight until 2024. This creates a unique opportunity for reflection and further development of the organisation.

The analysis of the Green-Left coalition’s development and electoral results will probably remain a topic of journalistic and academic interest in the coming months and years, especially since the success of the coalition may signal the potential for similar development in other Eastern European countries. Combining green and left politics through a municipalist organising model may indeed prove to be the way forward in the region marked by increasing far-right influence and the still by-and-large marginal role of radical left electoral actors.

This article was first published on Minim.

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