The French municipal elections of 2014, held under a two-round system, took place on the 23th and 30th of March. In the midst of a terrible debacle for the Socialist Party and a troubling rise of the influence of the extreme right-wing Front National, the French Green Party (Europe Ecologie les Verts) fared relatively well in the cities where its own candidates were leading lists separate from the socialists. In the first round of the elections, those lists received an average of almost 12% of the vote in the more than 260 cities where they competed. Most of the few green mayors already in place were re-elected, such as former presidential candidate Noël Mamère in Bègles, Jacques Boutaud in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, Stéphane Gatignon in Sevran, Daniel Breuiller in Arceuil and Jean-François Caron in Loos-en-Gohelle.

But the biggest success was the election of the Eric Piolle in the city of Grenoble, lodged in the heart of the French Alps. Grenoble, with its 160,000 inhabitants is the largest French city to ever elect a Green mayor.

Grenoble: Green at heart

Although the media framed the result as a major surprise, the strong influence of political ecology in Grenoble has a long history. As early as 1977, a list called “Grenoble-Ecologie” entered the municipal election, harvesting an impressive 9,13% of the vote. That same year saw the protest against the nearby Creys-Malville nuclear plant, one of the most important gatherings against nuclear power, and among the most violently repressed ones, which left an important mark in the memory of the region. Since then, the diverse ecological groups present in Grenoble, often outside the frame of institutionalised political parties, exerted a great deal of political influence and offered a vision that went beyond the traditional environmental awareness to mix-in strong social concerns with some libertarian positions.

In the beginning of the 1990’s Raymond Avrillier, a major figure of the local ecological movement, was instrumental in bringing the corrupt right-wing mayor of the time Alain Carignon to justice, enabling the left to take back the city in 1995 with a coalition that included a large number of ecologists. For 12 years, the ecologists remained in that coalition and held executive offices, implementing important policies such as the return to public control of the water services that had been privatised by the corrupt mayor, the planning of an eco-neighbourhood and improved social housing.

However, it proved difficult to stay in office alongside socialists who were strong nuclear enthusiasts, wanted to build more highways around the city and disfigured the largest park in the town to build a football stadium that was left unused when the local team was demoted to minor league status. As a consequence, during the municipal elections of 2008, after a first round that brought them 15,5% of the vote the ecologists list led by Maryvonne Boileau refused to merge with the list presented by the socialist mayor (a list which included candidates from the French Communist Party to members of the right). In the second round, the ecologist list increased its share of the vote to reach 22,5%. Despite this record high result, the elected ecologists refused to join the majority of the socialist mayor and his coalition, and remained in the opposition for 6 years.

On the way to the town hall

Since 2008 the ecologists had been preparing for the 2014 election, building a comprehensive alternative project for the city. The group behind the 2014 campaign gathered a large coalition of different ecological and citizen groups. The Parti de Gauche (Left Party) joined the coalition in 2013 making it the major list on the left outside of the coalition headed by the socialist candidate. As the movement grew, Eric Piolle was chosen to lead it and be its chief spokesperson for the media.

Eric Piolle presented an interesting profile. Not a professional politician, he embodied the renewal of politics put forward by the list. A former engineer who held an important management position at Hewlett-Packard, he lost his job when he refused to organise the relocation of his unit oversea. He had been active for years in movements that protected the right of undocumented children but had stayed outside any party involvement. In 2009, he eventually joined Europe Ecologie, convinced by the dynamic around the European elections and was himself elected to the regional assembly of Rhône-Alpes, and since then led the group of green elected councillors in the assembly.

His list included a number of leftist and ecological groups and took the name “Grenoble – une ville pour tous (a city for everyone)” and put forward a detailed program articulated around 120 carefully crafted precise measures with the aim of creating an “ecological and social shield” for the city and to “renew local democracy and practices”. Right from the start, the list stated its intention not only to increase its share of the vote, but to win the election outright. The strategy to reach that ambitious goal was to finish the first round of the election ahead of the list presented by the socialist Jérôme Safar and then to integrate members of his list to present a united front against the right for the second round.

The campaign was intense, with a lot of events and door-to-door activities. It even attracted some national media attention. The newspaper Libération featured a special two pages report on this “citizen driven leftist and ecological alternative to the Socialist Party” (Libération, 28/01/2014). Some interest also came from the partisan configuration that saw Europe Ecologie les Verts (EELV) being allied with the Parti de Gauche. Indeed, the Parti de Gauche is headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a fierce critic of the socialist government in which EELV held two ministerial appointments until this week, and he frequently mentioned Grenoble as an example of a possible alternate majority for the left outside of the Socialist Party.

Ten days before the first round, opinion polls placed the socialist Jérôme Safar ahead with a 10 point lead over Eric Piolle. The green candidate remained confident and his list intensified its campaign. On the evening the 23rd of March, the result of the first round took political commentators by surprise. The list of Eric Piolle was ahead with 29,4%, followed by Jérome Safar with 25,3%. Immediately, Eric Piolle asked Jérome Safar to enter platform negotiations and offered to merge the two lists, as is traditionally the case amongst left lists between two rounds. Jérôme Safar, clearly angry to have ended the first round in second place, went against the commands of the national leaders of the Socialist Party and decided to retain his list in the second round. The campaign there after took an ugly turn. The usual clichés used against the ecologists resurfaced. They were accused of wanting to destroy economic activity and their adversaries predicted the impoverishment of the city if the greens triumphed. In a more troubling fashion, defamatory messages against Eric Piolle circulated by email and text messages. All this culminated on the Friday before the election when Eric Piolle, who was travelling on his bike as he did during the entire campaign, was assaulted by a passing motorist.

With all the attention garnered between the two rounds, participation went up by 6,5 points. The list of Eric Piolle largely increased its lead finishing way ahead with 40% of the vote. Jérôme Safar was a distant second with 27,4%. In the French electoral system, a majority bonus is given to the list that comes first. This will enable Eric Piolle to govern the city without the support of Socialist Party councillors.

This result was a glimmer of hope for the French ecologists. Of course there is still a long way ahead for Grenoble to be considered an example of an ecological transition but to have been able to win the election in a major city without the backing of the Socialist Party is already a formidable accomplishment.

Without a doubt, the election of a leftist coalition headed by a green candidate and without members of the Socialist Party will also fuel discussions about the possibility of a realignment of French parties in the near future. It will also raise questions within EELV as to whether or not the Socialist Party should remain their main electoral partner.

In the meantime, in Grenoble, among the first measures announced by Eric Piolle was the cancelling of the raise given to municipal elected officials and the selling-off of the costly video-surveillance system installed by the previous mayor. A clear sign politics will be carried out differently in Grenoble for the next 6 years.

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