France’s Green Party Leader: The Left Has to Unite Behind an Environmental Agenda

Julien Bayou

Eighteen months ahead of France’s 2022 presidential election, candidates are already jockeying to be the main representative of the Left. Green Party leader Julien Bayou told Jacobin that the Left can only win if it puts the ecological transition at the forefront of its program — no matter who its candidate is.

Julien Bayou. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Cole Stangler

France’s Green Party, known as Europe Écologie–Les Verts (EELV), seems to be a rising force in the country’s politics. After losing all their seats in the National Assembly in 2017, in more recent contests the Greens have been slowly gaining ground — picking up support among left-of-center voters disillusioned with the neoliberal reformism of president Emmanuel Macron and skeptical of the left-wing populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

In the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, the Greens won 13 percent of the vote — more than any other force on the French left. In this year’s municipal elections, the party played a key role in flipping several cities run by conservative majorities, often allying itself with the Socialist Party to do so. After what some dubbed a “Green wave,” EELV mayors now run Lyon, Strasbourg, and Bordeaux, while an ex-Green runs a left-wing coalition government in Marseille, France’s second largest city.

Yet, like many of its counterparts across Europe, the French Green Party can be hard to decipher. The party has a fairly limited base of activists on the ground, and its recent victories have come amid relatively low turnout. And debate persists over EELV’s real political line — and its strategy ahead of regional elections in March 2021 and the presidential elections that kick off in April 2022, for which Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen are the early frontrunners.

To get a better sense of where the Greens are headed, amidst the ongoing realignment of French politics, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke with Julien Bayou, the party’s national political secretary. Bayou is also the Green candidate to head the capital region of Île-de-France, currently controlled by the right-wing Les Républicains. This interview, translated from the French, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cole Stangler

A very simple question to start. Does the Europe Ecology–The Greens think of itself as a left-wing party?

Julien Bayou

Ecology shares values with the Left. It’s built itself against productivism, which prioritizes always producing more, no matter the effects on health, well-being, or the environment. That’s what ecology is.

So, the question I ask myself is, “Are other forces ecologizing?” Today the major challenges of the twenty-first century are the fight against climate disruption and responding to the needs of the most vulnerable. That’s the definition of ecology and it seems to us to be the major question.

We can see the Right is stuck in a productivist model, despite all the talk. They can say, “trees are important,” but when someone wants to build a road, they say “go through them”; or “organic is great,” but when stopping pesticides is on the agenda, they support pesticides. The Right has its productivist model. And moreover, it’s not involved in struggles against inequality or feminism or supporting refugees or [the values of] humanism.

The Left, on the other hand, shares certain values with ecology: humanism, feminism, international solidarity, and the struggle against social injustice. And you have different forces that are more or less ecologist. For us, the question is, are these forces ecologizing? We consider this the main question.

Cole Stangler

I wanted to talk more generally about the Macron presidency. On September 17, there were protests organized by the CGT [General Confederation of Labour] union, against the government’s recovery plan, and against Macron’s reforms more generally. How do you, as a party, analyze the Macron presidency?

Julien Bayou

The Macron presidency is damaging the country.

The presidency of François Hollande was already full of disappointment. Those who voted for him [because they wanted] a program of social justice, or a so-called “normal presidency” — meaning a certain ethics in politics — or, of course, voted for him on environmental grounds, had all kinds of reasons to be disappointed by how his term turned out. And Emmanuel Macron benefited from this disappointment … and, without being very precise about his platform, he gave reason for people to hope.

For example, on humanism, he cheered Angela Merkel’s move to accept more than a million refugees. On questions of social justice, he didn’t say he would make it one of his priorities.

But he nevertheless had a concise, well-structured, promising discourse about people who he said were “socially assigned to their homes,” [playing on the French term “assigné à résidence,” which means “house arrest”] — so [people who were being left behind in] working-class neighborhoods. Or the fact that money needed to be given to schools so that they could fill their role in the Republic’s life. And he also made declarations about the environment — I didn’t believe them, of course, but he was able to hide his intentions.

A lot of people voted for him, enough for him to win both rounds, in part because of support for his ideas, but also, of course, for strategic reasons. People voted for him to avoid [right-wing candidate François] Fillon, people voted for him to avoid [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, and then of course, Marine Le Pen.

Instead of being humble, instead of considering that he had been elected by default, he and his party’s members in the National Assembly have conducted themselves with extreme arrogance. And it’s worth saying, with a complete disconnect.

His presidency feels very long, even though it’s only been going for three years. It’s characterized by a certain bluntness — when it comes to [lowering] taxes on the superrich, the determination to advance on retirement reform, the executive orders on labor reform and other subjects — and by the breaking of different promises.

You’re seeing his group in the National Assembly fracture over the question of ecology. It’s these broken promises on ecology and the big speeches that aren’t followed up by action that have seen the decomposition, the breaking apart of Macron’s group in Parliament [his LREM party lost its absolute majority in the National Assembly in May, but retains a comfortable governing majority due to support from the centrist MoDem Party.]

His presidency damages the country because he’s mistreated civil society organizations, unions, and associations. And with the social revolt of the Yellow Vests, he was incapable of seriously responding — and what he did do was too little, too late. Each time, he’s quite skillful tactically, he manages to have a “Great Debate,” a consultation, [hold] exchanges with mayors, or [organize] a Citizens’ Convention for the Climate. Each time, he’s biding time while the situation gets worse.

The reality is, on the topic of democracy, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a government with so many people suspected of wrongdoing. There’s [Interior Minister Gérald] Darmanin [accused, but not convicted of sexual assault], and [François] Bayrou, of course [Macron’s first justice minister, who resigned his role over a fake jobs scandal in the European Parliament]. And there are others. In his group in the Assembly, he keeps people who are suspected of breaking the law, even people who were convicted for sexual assault, so we’re very, very far from the idea of democratic renewal. There’s a very vertical and clan-like practice.

On the question of the environment, there are a lot of big promises, but France is behind on its climate objectives. So much so that a priority of the government is to reestablish the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which kill bees and are unhealthy. This really isn’t about not moving forward fast enough — it’s about moving backward. There was a law in 2016 that outlawed [these pesticides]. And this autumn, they want to reconsider it. It really encapsulates the negative record of Emmanuel Macron, despite all the nice speeches.

On social questions, poverty is increasing in France; it’s now pretty clear. This was before the COVID-19 crisis, in particular because housing benefits have been reduced, whereas taxes for the richest have been cut.

So, when it comes to democracy, the environment, climate, and social issues, the promise hasn’t been met. Instead, he’s damaging the country.

That’s why we’re organizing in opposition to his policies — and the goal is to replace him. The goal is to construct a force that is environmentalist, humanist, social, feminist, and solidaristic, one that’s able to offer an alternative to the country. There’s a big risk ahead: if we have another Macron–Le Pen matchup, we can’t be totally sure that Macron will win, as he’s disappointed so much, he’s been so antagonistic, and he’s insulted so many people. Our responsibility, then, is to get into the second round in his place.

Cole Stangler

I do want to talk about the 2022 presidential election. But quickly, before getting there, I wanted to ask you a question about the climate movement, which is, in large part, led by young people. There’s Extinction Rebellion but also the student strikes. I wanted to get your take on criticism I’ve heard — this idea that the Greens, as a political party, are sometimes cut off from this youth-led social movement. I’m generalizing, of course, but what do you think about this idea?

Julien Bayou

I’m learning this from you. I feel like we maintain pretty good relations with Extinction Rebellion, with Youth for Climate, with Alternatiba, with Greenpeace, and of course, with the WWF.

For us, it’s great to see young people, around Greta Thunberg, but also other rising figures since then, storming into the political arena. It’s truly, absolutely outstanding. For years, ecologists — my predecessors — were somewhat alone on this topic and talked about how future generations were going to be impacted by climate disruption.

And in fact, it’s [groups like] Alternatiba [and] Youth for Climate and others, and these generations that are unfortunately going to be impacted because of the lack of action from public authorities and because of the power of lobbies. But the good news is they’re answering the call and they’re mobilizing.

When it comes to our role, if you heard criticism saying we weren’t closely linked, it’s maybe because there are certain forces who think we need to speak in their place. We’re careful to respect [activists’] autonomy and their independence, and to come and support them.

When SuperLocal, [a newly-formed collective that supports local environmental struggles], mobilizes, when organizations launched the “legal case of the century” [against the French state over its climate inaction], or even when the League for the Protection of Birds holds actions, it’s not for us to say “here’s who we are, here’s what we’re going to do.” We come and provide support. And I think that’s how you build relations of trust in the long-term.

There are other forces that have tried speaking in the place of trade unions, organizing protests in the place of unions. Maybe if you do it once, you gain visibility, and maybe it makes your ego feel good, but I am deeply aware that that’s not how you build trust and relationships in the long-term, and we need those long-term relationships to tear down the mountains we have in front of us. Well, not tear them down — we want to conserve the mountains! But to be able to oppose things, and make the government back down and propose a new way forward.

So no, we’re very close [to these movements]. And I can tell you, in the European elections, we were the majority party among this under-thirty electorate. It seems in the municipal elections, the electorate was a bit older, but in Poitiers, in Bordeaux, in Strasbourg, this electorate certainly made the difference for the election of our mayors. And more than this, my ambition is to put [these young people] in power.

Because, for these movements, it’s not just about influencing those who make decisions, it’s about replacing them. Emmanuel Macron has all the cards in his hand and the science to say “we need to act,” and he doesn’t act. So, he needs to be replaced. Like Xavier Bertrand [president of the region of the North] needs to be replaced, like Laurent Wauquiez [president of the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes], Valérie Pécresse [president of the region of Île-de-France], or lesser known elected officials. And that happens by developing and bringing into power new generations of leaders.

Cole Stangler

Speaking a bit about 2022 — and you’re already doing it a bit — I have the impression, and given your previous declarations, you’re more of the opinion that the Greens should join together with other parties, other forces on the Left, and support a common candidacy instead of having a single Green candidate?

Julien Bayou

We have a fairly clear route for the presidential elections, and it goes through the regional elections. It’s an extremely important step to demonstrate that we’re able to win. But you don’t win regions alone. Alliances need to happen, whether in the first or second round. That’s what we’re organizing.

As we saw in the European and municipal elections, with ecology — not necessarily the EELV party, but ecology — at the forefront, we can conquer new ground. The Socialist Party had a good score in the municipal elections, they held onto significant number of cities.

But when it comes to winning [new] victories, it’s ecology that wins — whether that means EELV mayors or otherwise, and whether the candidates are more or less well-known. Because it’s the ecologist project that can bring people together, and that can bring people together beyond the Left. Which returns to your first question.

Today, of course, the broad camp of the Left is looking for someone to represent them, and perhaps a political project, too. Well, this project is ecology. And the advantage in this, the interest in this, is it can appeal to people well beyond those who have traditionally voted for the Left.

We have millions of people in this country who didn’t recognize themselves in Hollande’s [presidency], but who are hungry for humanism, feminism, solidarity, for social justice. There are people who might have voted for the Right, or even for Emmanuel Macron, who are now more conscious about the urgency of the environmental problem, who criticize the Right or Emmanuel Macron for not acting.

Again, as it becomes an essential — the essential — question in public debate, ecology as the focal point of a project can provide the path to victory. So, that’s what we’re saying, that’s what we’re talking about with other forces, that’s why we ask them if they’re ecologizing.

After the regional elections, there will be time to lay the foundations for a unifying project for the country. And to select the person to do this, and work these alliances, this coalition.

Because of course, EELV by itself isn’t going to get the eight million votes necessary to qualify for the second round. Everyone is aware of this. On the other hand, I don’t see a project other than ecology that can win in the first round and win in the second round.

Cole Stangler

Just to be a bit more precise, when you say you’re talking with other forces, other political parties, you’re talking about the Socialist Party, Génération.s [the party launched by former Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon], maybe La France Insoumise, too? Or at least in part? In certain regions?

Julien Bayou

We’re ready to talk with everyone. From the moment they’re coherent about the project, so of course it won’t be the Right or En Marche.

At the same time, there were forces that until now had a hegemonic approach, who refused to talk, and who said, “here’s my project, here’s my candidate.” Of course, that doesn’t make things so easy to talk.

Cole Stangler

Here, just for the readers, you’re talking about Jean-Luc Mélenchon? You didn’t name him directly, but if I’m following correctly —

Julien Bayou

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of course, has the right to present himself as a candidate if he thinks it’s the best strategy for himself. But I’m not sure it’s the best strategy to bring people together.

You see, it’s not us who are making things difficult. We have points of disagreement with all these forces. We say it’s necessary — in due time — to explore these disagreements and see if we can overcome them or not.

Cole Stangler

What are these real disagreements? Oftentimes when you look at the political landscape in France from the outside, there are five, six, seven parties on the Left, that all have their small scores in the elections. Sometimes it can be hard to see the differences between them. Are these disagreements really so enormous that they can’t be surmounted?

Julien Bayou

This is a whole other topic. Well, there can be disagreements on Europe. La France Insoumise has ambiguous positions on the subject. They said, “We can’t do politics in the treaties and so we need to leave them.” But it was a way also of not fully owning a sovereigntist line.

We are profoundly pro-European and we believe that we can do politics within the treaties. We can change them, of course. But right now, we can act for the environment and for social justice. And the crisis has shown that [despite] austerity and the 3 percent rule [that limits deficit spending], in the end, we can change the functioning of the institutions and public policies in Europe and work within the treaties. We’ll see what happens.

Cole Stangler

I’m listening to what you’re saying about coming together, and others within the Greens have said this too. But there’s also someone in particular, the European MP and former Greenpeace activist Yannick Jadot, who clearly wants to be a presidential candidate in 2022, who seems ready to go it alone.

Julien Bayou

We’ll hold the process for selecting presidential candidates soon. There will be different candidates, including Yannick, and we’ll decide on the best option.