Strasbourg, on the banks of the Rhine, is becoming a test case for the ability of France’s Green party, Europe Écologie-Les Verts, to transform itself from a campaigning movement into a genuine political force.
“I feel that in Strasbourg that we are the most important force on the left right now,” said Jeanne Barseghian, the 38-year-old Green candidate for mayor. “The European elections last year were the political moment that shook up the city.”
The Green movement is on the rise across Europe. In France, the EELV came third in last year’s elections to the European parliament.
Now, it is threatening to take some big cities in this month’s local elections — including Tours, Besançon and Strasbourg — and could act as a kingmaker in plenty of others, including Paris.
“Strasbourg is the test, it’s here we’ll see if the Green movement can really push through,” said Philippe Dossmann, a political journalist with newspaper Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace.
The leader of the EELV, Yannick Jadot, recently said “everyone is afraid of the Green vote” as it squeezes the left and forces political parties of all stripes, including President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République en Marche, to beef up their own environmental policies. Mr Jadot is trying, in effect, to mimic Mr Macron and embrace that identity.
Whether the Greens succeed or not depends in part on whether their ideas are co-opted by other parties who are increasingly aware that the environment is a central preoccupation of young voters.
“The message of the Greens is at risk of being diluted as they are losing their monopoly on their own policies,” said Chloe Morin of the think-tank Fondation Jean-Jaurès.
Strasbourg has a long history of green activism, including a push to clean up the once heavily polluted Rhine and the campaign against nuclear power. The city is only 100km north of the nuclear reactor at Fessenheim, the first such plant to be closed by Mr Macron as France wrestles with its energy future.
As Ms Barseghian’s list has soared in the polls (up to second place, with 25 per cent), so green issues have come to dominate the campaign, leaving other parties scrambling to burnish their green credentials.
“There are candidates that have since the start of the campaign that have talked morning, noon and night about ecology,” said Jean-Philippe Vetter, candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains.
Hombeline du Parc, of the far-right Rassemblement National, bemoans a campaign where “the local media completely founded the campaign in ecology . . . and forgot to talk about all the other subjects that matter”.
She struggles at 10 per cent, well below the level of support the RN enjoys nationally.
But while both Mr Vetter and Ms du Parc push more traditional rightwing policies, and note that security often tops surveys of voter concerns, they have not forgotten to present their own environmental plans. Mr Vetter arrives for meetings on his bicycle.
Alain Fontanel, deputy mayor and Mr Macron’s candidate in Strasbourg, boasts of his own environmental bona fides and warns that the EELV is too left-leaning for many voters. Ms Barseghian heads a list that includes the French Communist party.
“The Greens replaced the Socialists . . . And at the start, people move towards the Greens, but they wonder if they have the capacity and experience to govern, and then they ask if they are too red,” said Mr Fontanel, who leads in the polls with 27 per cent.
It is the Socialist party which appears most threatened by the rise of the Greens, as it struggles to recover from the ill-starred presidency of François Hollande. In Strasbourg, Socialist’s hopes now rest as much on the personal credit of their candidate, Catherine Trautmann, as the party’s brand.
Ms Trautmann was elected as mayor of Strasbourg in 1989, at the age of 38, before going on to become minister of culture under Lionel Jospin. That pedigree has boosted the Socialists to 17 per cent in the polls, following her entry after the previous candidate dropped out due to a scandal involving erotic photographs.
Ms Trautmann is trying to prove she is authentically green. She points to the tramway she put in place during her time as mayor and environmental policies she is proposing now. More significantly, she has experience the Greens lack.
“People know me, I was loyal to the citizens of Strasbourg, and they know that. It’s a question of legitimacy,” said Ms Trautmann.
Ms Barseghian disagrees, arguing that when “hard choices have to be made . . . the old parties remain stuck in old ways of thinking”.
However, she may yet need those old parties. The first round of the mayoral election should see Ms Barseghian and Mr Fontanel come out on top. The second round will see coalitions start to form and the Socialists might end up playing a decisive role, with Ms Barseghian likely to hold out the offer of a coalition of the left.
Nevertheless, a changing of the guard in Strasbourg appears to be under way. As outgoing Socialist mayor Roland Ries put it: “The difference between now and when we were in coalition with the Greens, is that now the Greens are dominant . . . There has been a change in the balance of political power.”