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One year after France's municipal elections, how have the Greens fared?

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By Lauren Chadwick
Gregory Doucet delivers a speech during the Lyon council meeting, in Lyon, central France, Saturday, July 4, 2020.
Gregory Doucet delivers a speech during the Lyon council meeting, in Lyon, central France, Saturday, July 4, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani

It's been one year since the Green Party won several major cities across France in what some experts dubbed a "green wave".

The Greens, Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV), won key mayoral races in cities such as Lyon, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Poitiers, and Strasbourg while participating in left-wing victories in Paris and Marseille.

Since, France has been through two lockdowns and the Greens have made the headlines multiple times.

So how has the Green Party, with its novice politicians in municipal governments, fared in the year since and how could it impact their future electoral hopes?

A year of tumultuous moments for the Greens

For several Green politicians, some serving as elected officials for the first time, there has been heavy criticism of gaffes and missteps.

Two months after his election, Lyon Mayor Grégory Doucet was criticised after he told a local newspaper that the Tour de France cycling competition created a "macho" image of the sport since there wasn't an equivalent for women.

Doucet also told Le Progrès that the Tour wasn't "environmentally friendly", words that were repeated throughout the French press.

That same month the mayor of Bordeaux Pierre Hurmic launched a media frenzy when he announced the city would not to have a Christmas tree, stating the "dead tree" could be replaced with live shows.

The decision was heavily contested and sparked a media buzz around the ecologist mayor.

A poll by Odoxa following the incidents for Franceinfo and Le Figaro found that 68% of respondents rejected the opinions of the Green Party mayors as well.

Doucet was again in the news later in the year over the choice to implement a single vegetarian meal in schools to comply with COVID measures.

France's right-wing interior minister Gérald Darmanin criticised the Lyon mayor as having a "scandalous ideology" even though the decision had also been made by the city's previous administration as well.

Most recently, the Green Party mayor of Poitiers, Léonore Moncond'huy, was criticised for stating that airplanes should "no longer be a childhood dream of today," something she later told RTL was poorly stated.

"Many of the new mayors are still learning the business and are confronted with a kind of national media attention and personal attacks by conservative politicians they are not used to," said Emiliano Grossman, an associate professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, known also as Sciences Po.

"At the same time, the hostility that those new teams meet might prevent them from acting efficiently."

In another instance, very shortly after being elected, the Green Party mayor of Marseille Michèle Rubirola surprisingly left her post after just six months, citing health problems.

A focus on environment-policies but no notable differences

Although many Green Party mayors have focussed their budgets on urbanism, it's hard to tell at the moment if there's been a large change in cities run by Green mayors.

Some key decisions have been made, including to have the city of Lyon's water become publicly owned and securing the areas in front of schools as pedestrian.

"The goals are rather clear, they include reducing car circulation, facilitating pedestrian transport and biking, shortening production circuits, especially for food, greening of public spaces etc," said Grossman but it's "too early" to tell if the party's measures are popular.

And while the right-wing has criticised them heavily on security and other policies, some say that it's hard to tell the difference between the political choices at the local level.

"The democratic drama of this country is that public policies have reached such a strong level of standardisation, so knowing what changes [between] the right or the left in their [local] management becomes really complicated," said Guillaume Gourgues, a senior lecturer at the University of Lyon 2.

He said for instance he would be surprised if the Green Party in Lyon undid the city's "strong pro-business territorial attractiveness strategy" for economic development.

Grenoble is the only city that had previously had a Green Party mayor, for instance, Gourgues said, and "there hasn't been a one-sided change that would really mark a very strong singularity of Grenoble."

"What happens in Grenoble also happens in other cities, except that we talk about it a little less," he said.

How could they fare at the national level?

It's unclear whether the back-to-back successes in the 2019 European elections, when the Green Party finished third behind the far-right National Rally and presidential party La République en Marche, and the 2020 municipal elections will help them nationally.

Some argue that the win at the municipal level remained quite limited, with their support in urban areas already being known.

"This anchoring of the left vote and the green vote in urban centres is well known," said Gourgues.

"What is a little more surprising [in the municipal elections] is that they have managed to take the place of the Socialist Party in a number of configurations."

Grossman says that the context of the pandemic likely helped the Green Party in last year's municipal elections.

But, he added, "this is certainly part of a larger trend, as the Greens also benefited from the decline of the classical centrist parties."

Green Party elected officials meanwhile have attempted to make a name for themselves nationally by joining forces in several open letters on national policies such as one condemning advertisements in the public space and another demanding a moratorium on the deployment of a 5G network and democratic debate on the topic.

Experts say EELV is likely to run a presidential campaign, but with a three way split among left-leaning parties, it's difficult to determine how it could help the party.

"A successful bid (i.e. making it to the second round or at least becoming the first left-wing candidate) might reorder things in the French party landscape for the foreseeable future," Grossman said.

"An unsuccessful bid (i.e. neither nor), may durably hurt the party."