European Topics in a Campaign – the French Example

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Europe Ecologie 2009 – How to win elections on two impossible grounds
By Edouard Gaudot

Difficult context
With three years to go before the major event that conditions and regulates French political life, i.e. the Presidential election, almost all political factions hoped this campaign might serve as a test run for 2012. In addition, despite a slight rise in the opinion polls following his proactive and relatively well-perceived Presidency of the EU (July-December 2008), the style and action of President Sarkozy were already being fiercely contested – anti-Sarkozysm had become something of a national sport and an obligatory feature of the elections. In a public sphere laden with this atmosphere of controversy, where party leaders figured more prominently than the candidates themselves, this campaign came to resemble a referendum on the French President. Debates revealed that Sarkozy was obsessed with himself, the Socialist Party and François Bayrou’s MoDem (Mouvement Démocrate) obsessed with Sarkozy, the radical left and the far right obsessed with the Lisbon Treaty… ultimately, only Europe-Ecologie was able to deliver a truly political message: ‘The response to this brutal and terrible crisis that we are experiencing can be summed up in two words: “Europe, Ecology”’.

1st challenge: speaking about Europe
The steadily waning interest in European affairs is confirmed in all EU countries at each European election, as abstention rates regularly rise (60% on this occasion). But the trauma of the hotly disputed 2005 referendum campaign (which saw a 75% turnout) runs deep. The French maintain a very ambiguous relation to Europe and to European integration; many people accept and even favour the EU, but only if it more or less resembles a ‘bigger version of France’. Far away from the content of the Constitutional Treaty, it was thus two competing imaginaries that opposed one another in 2005.

Since then, European topics have remained particularly explosive: one section of the French political class has spent its time stuck in a battle it has already won, while the other has put on a show of unity, claiming to have healed the divisions. In 2009, Europe-Ecologie was therefore the only political faction where the lengthy, passionate and destructive opposition between the YES and the NO camps was successfully overcome, in both words and deeds.

When José Bové and Dany Cohn-Bendit, the champions of the two sides that locked horns during the referendum campaign, spoke on stage or in the media, together or separately, it was not to discuss the past, or to argue over the Good or the Bad Treaty, of Lisbon or elsewhere. On the contrary, they spoke of the future and described all of the things they wanted to change together in the EU. They offered a message of hope and a shared dream for Europe. Furthermore, they clearly explained why the European level was the only appropriate one to deal with the crisis that had just struck.

2nd challenge: speaking about Ecology
Precisely. How can one dare to speak of ecology when in the throws of a spectacular crisis? Although the French are increasingly environmentally conscious – due, in part, to Nicolas Hulot’s Pacte écologique ahead of the 2007 Presidential election – they still consider ecology as a luxury and ecologists as ‘bobos’ (bourgeois-bohèmes), that is, well-fed people who can therefore afford to care for and worry about nature, international solidarity, etc., instead of concerning themselves with real national problems such as unemployment and economic growth.

However, the strength of Europe-Ecologie’s message lay in the manner in which it pointed to the interrelation between the financial crisis, the failure of the productivist development model, and the environmental degradation of the planet. Traditionally, periods of crisis create fear of change, forcing people into their comfort zones. But Europe-Ecologie’s message was successful because it made more voters understand that the solution to the limits and contradictions of a system in crisis lay precisely in the ecological transformation of society.

Make sense
The other lesson that can be learned from this joyous and victorious campaign is that, in an age of spin-doctors and political marketing, of simplification and demagogy, it is still possible to convey a different political message, one that is coherent and comprehensive.

The message was coherent, firstly, because it successfully linked together the different levels of the ecologist society project:
– At the territorial level, the idea is that most local or national problems need to be viewed and understood as part of broader issues and require, therefore, global solutions, particularly at the European level. An obvious example: linking the rising distress in rural areas and the difficulties facing French agriculture to issues at the heart of the future CAP reform.
– On a temporal level, the argument is that present troubles must be addressed through fundamental changes that prepare for the future, preserve resources, and enable society to escape the otherwise inevitable economic and social crises. For example, addressing the social troubles resulting from the economic crisis in the automotive industry through the immediate restructuring of this key French and European economic sector, which is in any case threatened in the medium term by the ‘oil peak’. In other words: transform the crisis into an opportunity, protecting today to change tomorrow, and changing today to protect tomorrow.

The message was comprehensive, also, because it involved moving beyond the prevailing perception of French ecologists as ‘environmentalists’ whose proposals could be absorbed by any political party (the implication being that a party dedicated solely to the protection of the environment was not justified). This campaign was effective because it convinced the French people that, although the environment is indeed a matter for everyone, ecology is an original and comprehensive political project, which deals with all aspects of society. In short, ‘ecology’ means as much ‘people’ as it does ‘nature’. As the economic crisis and unemployment started to grip France and Europe, the link between the exploitation and exhaustion of natural and human resources became all the more apparent to the electorate.

In a sense, the crisis was, paradoxically, more of a help than a hindrance in conveying the message of the ecological transformation of society.

There can be no doubt that this campaign was won by tackling two a priori impossible areas, Europe and Ecology, in a particularly difficult political and social climate. But the coherence of the message of political ecology was not an invention of 2009. A supplementary element, therefore, played a significant role in the French context that year: the embodiment of this message.

Behind its three major public figures (Dany, Eva and José), the Europe Ecologie movement managed, first and foremost, to counter the negative criticism that had been, rightly or wrongly, traditionally directed at the French Green party. Whereas Les Verts used to be perceived by public opinion and the French media as ‘divided’, ‘sectarian’ and ‘not credible’, the Europe Ecologie movement succeeded in spreading the exact opposite image: ‘united’, ‘open’ and ‘credible’. Due to flexible and novel forms of activism, and its presence and visibility online, but also because of the diverse political backgrounds it brought together (e.g. activist, associational, etc.) as well as its very human traits, the coalition of ecologists successfully proved that different perspectives and political practices can be an asset rather than a source of division and obstacles – as long as the common project is strong, coherent and shared.

In the face of slow-moving and weighty traditional parties, in response to the disillusion surrounding existing political models, and thanks to a discourse that allied credibility and hope, Europe Ecologie was able to embody another way of doing politics.

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