In France, like elsewhere in Europe, the Greens’ core vote often lies in big cities such as Lyon, Grenoble, and Strasbourg. So much so that the Greens are regularly portrayed by their adversaries as “boho urbanites” out of touch with the concerns of rural residents. But country dwellers are also staring climate change in the face and a new generation of elected officials want to bring political ecology to rural areas. Marie Pochon is a newly elected MP for the Drôme department’s third constituency. Her background and activism highlight the challenges faced by the green movement in the countryside.
Benjamin Joyeux: How did you end up becoming an MP for the Drôme’s third constituency, a rural area that is something of a new frontier for political ecology?
Marie Pochon: The daughter of a farming family, I grew up in the Drôme. I left when I was 18 to study in Lyon. At the time, I was really trying to find myself. I did an internship in the Palestinian Territories, where I worked with Friends of the Earth Middle East on a project in the Jordan Valley. It was there that I had my political awakening, a highly formative experience in a region where all sorts of inequalities combined in terms of civil, social and environmental rights. I subsequently became very politically active: with Eau Bien Commun in Paris, with Alternatiba and, from 2017, as part of Notre Affaire à Tous, where I was general secretary. At Notre Affaire à Tous, we launched campaigns like Affaire du siècle, and the first lawsuit based on climate duty of care against Total. I was also involved in collectives like Rendez les Doléances during the Grand Débat National.
Alongside this activism, I became involved with the Young European Greens in 2012. At the time I was living in Istanbul, where I stayed until 2016. But I had to return to France after the attempted coup. After two years of organising climate marches nationwide and my involvement with Notre Affaire à Tous, I went to work for MEP Marie Toussaint at the European Parliament at the end of 2019. In October 2020, some friends in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes asked me to be Fabienne Grébert’s campaign director for the regional elections. That helped me get my foot in the door.
My candidacy at the general election was by no means a given. I felt like an imposter, never having stood for election before. Lots of people encouraged me and, after ups and downs and national backing from Nupes [the green-left alliance bringing together the French Greens, radical-left France Insoumise, the French Socialist Party, and other left-wing groups], I was selected as the candidate for the Drôme, the place I grew up. We led a very short but inspiring campaign, and we won.
The focus of your activism was previously very much European and international, so what made you want to base yourself locally?
We’re going to have to start adapting immediately to some of the consequences of human activity on our environment. We saw this in the summer with water. Capacity to cope with shocks, resilience, is above all built at regional level. Because people know each other, because they form bonds of trust and the capacity to organise collectively.
Having been involved in the fight against climate change for several years, I’ve wondered about how we can act closer to home and organise locally, not just to block projects but to build alternatives. These ideas have informed the thinking of many in recent years, especially with lockdown. Indeed, while I was still campaigning with Notre Affaire à Tous, they spawned collectives like Terres de Luttes, which are very inspiring. I’m delighted to be doing this in the Drôme because it’s where I’m from. During the campaign, I was proud to be advocating these ideas here, in a region where people really are thinking and writing about tomorrow’s world, whether it’s in the field of ecology, solidarity, or democratic innovation.
Greens are regularly criticised for being “boho urbanites” disconnected from reality and out of touch with the real concerns of ordinary people, especially those in rural areas. Is it true?
We need to accept that left-wing and environmental movements, like many political movements, have failed to listen to the concerns of those living in rural areas. If the gilets jaunes movement emerged in these “forgotten” areas, if so many Rassemblement National MPs have been elected in these areas, it’s because our institutions have failed to bring solutions to a broken planning system and a neoliberal land use model. Some regions are used like reservations to extract food and energy or as tourist destinations. We forget that people live there.
So, yes, the green electorate is mainly urban. So are our leaders. If we point to the number of leaders at national level, as well as the big city mayors who came to prominence in 2020, it paints a picture that is not very representative of rural or suburban areas. We must therefore focus more on rural areas and invest the necessary resources and energy. We haven’t done this enough and that’s why I’m putting forward a motion at the next EELV conference to further highlight the concerns of rural areas: planning, industrial relations, access to public services, and more. For example, the geography of rural areas is based on the idea of driving everywhere and living in detached houses, which has vastly increased commuting distances and today leaves some households with no choice. Greens need to understand that owning a car is essential in many areas. As most of us are urban, we struggle to be outspoken about this issue.
During my campaign, I totally stood by my climate activism, at the same time as not focusing exclusively on the environment. I spoke a great deal about medical deserts and access to public services, which are major concerns for residents. In a rural area like the Drôme, the biggest issue is the feeling of abandonment by and condescension from the decision-makers in Paris, whereas everything appears more complicated here. There’s an all-pervasive feeling that neither laws nor major media nor political narratives are meant for us, that nothing reflects local reality. It’s an impression of having been cast aside by the Republic, a perception that the far right shamelessly exploits.
Capacity to cope with shocks, resilience, is above all built at regional level. Because people know each other, because they form bonds of trust and the capacity to organise collectively.
The Greens were born by uniting grassroots organisations who were fighting in every region in the 1970s and ‘80s against megaprojects imposed from the top down. Isn’t the criticism that Greens are out of touch a question of communication more than anything?
These struggles are part of our history. But today our party is changing and its inner workings tend to favour the big cities because it’s simpler to organise. There are lots of green activists and elected officials in rural areas but because of the distances involved, it’s much harder to meet up, campaign together, and be visible without the support of national media and “big names”. We have also won in small municipalities, but that has been received less coverage. What excites me is that many in EELV are now asking how we can reconnect with struggles in rural areas.
During my campaign, I realised that the term “rural life” [ruralité] didn’t appear once in Nupes’ common manifesto. There was plenty about restoring public services, fighting medical deserts, etc. But I didn’t see concrete details on preserving livestock farming, revitalising small village centres, or tourism. On some issues, such as hunting or the agricultural transformation of our regions, we need a crystal-clear line on the change that we want. Because if we want to transform society, we need to take people with us, especially those concerned
On the issue of livestock farming, with increasingly regular wolf attacks on grazing land in the Drôme, we’re find ourselves caught in contradictions. I want to listen to the farmers who are suffering in the face of the growing presence of wolves, with daily attacks of ever greater severity. We must tap into the reality on the ground in our regions so we can build bridges, not walls. It’s already really hard to get a hearing when you say you’re a Green. Faced with this perception of disconnection and talking down to people, we must work hard and extend a hand everywhere to restore pride to these areas through ecology and justice.
Isn’t there an identity problem too? When it comes to this notion of respect for and pride in being from a region, won’t Greens always be one step behind the far right, who really play up ideas of folklore and local pride?
I’ve just led a campaign in which I expressed my pride to be drômoise and to stand for office where I grew up, surrounded by my family. This issue of those who come from the Drôme, those who stay and those who come here is very emblematic of our region, with growing numbers of new arrivals – also a result of lockdown – causing tension between residents. Tourist development and second homes are also major issues.
It was fundamental to remind people of this pride and attachment to the land, because with it came a political project, an attachment to a Drôme that innovates, excites, and mobilises for the environment, for solidarity, to welcome migrants. To make residents proud to belong to a region that really rocks! Because, yes, there is a feeling of banishment and abandonment that fuels the far right, especially among younger people who might think they are worth less than others because there aren’t many prospects for the future. We must fight this feeling by restoring people’s pride in living in a region with public services, access to care, and visibility for what goes on here. Showing what is super-positive in my region is one of my main goals.
Pride in and defence of regions is an integral part of the green identity. Local fights and activism to defend a forest, an ecosystem, wetlands, fertile land… Lots of people do this because they’re attached their region, whether they’re from there or elsewhere. Political ecology is also about federalism, subsidiarity, regionalism, respect for and protection of regional language and culture. We would do well to express this pride in the region loud and clear. It is by no means the preserve of the far right which, as it happens, is out of touch. I have a Rassemblement National MP in the neighbouring constituency who doesn’t even live there and isn’t present on the ground. Their disconnection also needs highlighting.
Pride in and defence of regions is an integral part of the green identity. Local fights and activism to defend a forest, an ecosystem, wetlands, fertile land: lots of people do this because they’re attached their region, whether they’re from there or elsewhere.
What are the priorities for greens in rural areas like the Drôme?
We need to do more work on planning, to really address the issue of territorial justice in all public policy. Today, all our energy production is dependent on sources in rural areas on which urban areas rely. All our food production also depends on how we plan rural areas. The right to mobility and access to public services are also pressing needs. It’s not just about investing in local trains, but also reaching the most remote areas with transport on demand and carpooling. We need to rethink the way that we approach public policy by going much further than simply saying we need bikes in the city and trains in the countryside.
We also know that today the majority of femicides take place in rural areas, while only about 30 per cent of the population live there. The rights of women there is therefore another major issue. Our party is very feminist – I delight in this every day that passes – but I think that we can also amplify these less audible voices. What we have to say still doesn’t fully take into account what women endure here on their own. I tackled this issue during my campaign and have tabled amendments on women shelters in rural areas.
Then, of course, there’s young people. We need to give a voice to all the young people in rural areas that are less represented within the climate struggle. There are plenty of youngsters striking every Friday in Crest or Nyons, but they are a long way from the media. It’s my job to support them so they are heard.
How are green proposals on agriculture such as agroecology, reducing meat consumption, and reshoring perceived in rural areas?
There is broad agreement, at least in the Drôme, on the need to move away from the old models of production. That doesn’t mean that there is agreement on all the solutions, nor that everybody is at the same point when it comes to the “transition”, but we have lots of small farms that have strong local networks and are a good model for elsewhere.
Reaching another model obviously means dismantling the old one, but above all promoting an alternative that will restore pride and dignity to those who adopt it and enable collective self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of successive shocks. This effort means providing the resources necessary for transitioning farms and restoring respect for this underpaid, undervalued yet essential vocation. It’s an urgent challenge: 1 in 2 farmers will retire in the next 10 years. Opposing anti-environmental and anti-worker free-trade agreements, developing short food supply chains, paying our farmers better, empowering them in the face of agroindustry and distributors, and fighting against land grabbing and loss: these are our battles and they are achieving real cut through.
To wrap up, how do you see your role in green politics in rural areas?
In my parliamentary work, I generally try to think about each issue in terms of the rural “blind spot”. But the Fifth Republic is not set up to enable co-construction and collective deliberation with citizens to bring them closer to law-making. So I’ve started holding travelling surgeries because my constituency is one of the largest in France. We hold citizen coffee mornings where we invite everyone to come along and discuss topical issues.
My priority is to be very present on the ground, in small villages and the market squares, because many people will never walk through the door of a surgery. It’s very exciting to go and meet people in the regions. Young women often come and see me to express their desire to act and change things. I support them where I can.