Green candidates for the French presidency often go out of their way to show that they are radical enough for the rank and file of the party. But Germany’s “Grünen” have long opted for the opposite path: persuading the general electorate that they can compromise and be trustworthy as a ruling party.
France’s Greens begin choosing their next presidential candidate Sunday in a second-round primary that pits a stalwart from the moderate party against a self-described radical “ecofeminist.” By the time the primaries close on September 28, German voters will have cast their votes in a general election that could propel the local Green Party into government.
On paper, the timing is ideal for EU lawmaker Yannick Jadot, the moderate candidate in France’s green primaries, who has made no secret of his proximity to Germany’s Grünen. His problem is convincing the grassroots supporters of his own party, who have often gone for the more radical option when offered the option.
“Our responsibility is to come to power and rule,” Jadot said Wednesday in a televised debate with his opponent Sandrine Rousseau, who responded by describing his kind of ecology as lacking in boldness.
It’s a familiar dilemma for supporters of France’s Greens, traditionally torn between a very vocal radical wing and a moderate camp eager to promote their pragmatism and eligibility. Should they be uncompromising in their principles? Or should they adopt a more flexible stance like the Grünen, who agree to rule with the Conservatives?
The German model
When it comes to electoral success, the record of the French Greens clearly pales in comparison to that of their German counterparts.
At the national level, the Grünen were key players in Gerhard Schröder’s coalition government between 1998 and 2005, when their leader Joshka Fischer served as vice chancellor and foreign minister. While they have been in opposition ever since, they are part of ruling coalitions in 11 of Germany’s 16 Länder (regions), teaming up with a variety of parties, from the far left Die Linke to the conservative CDU, and have been in the sole control of a twelfth Land, Bade-Württemberg, for the last decade.
In the last European elections of 2019, Grünen came in second place with 20.5% of the votes. Until a few weeks ago, his chancellor candidate, the “realist” Annalena Baerbock, was seen as a serious candidate to succeed the outgoing Angela Merkel.
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“The Grünen have managed to normalize their image in the political landscape of Germany,” says Annette Lensing, professor of Germanic studies at the University of Caen-Normandie. “They are now an established and credible party, having demonstrated their ability to govern.”
‘Realos’ vs ‘Fundis’
The French Greens, however, argue that comparing electoral records in France and Germany is inherently unfair, due to the two countries’ vastly different political systems.
“Under Germany’s proportional system, every vote is represented and the coalition system means that the parties are obliged to work together,” says Sandra Regol, the deputy leader of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV), the main green party in France. She adds: “If the German Greens had to deal with the French system, it is very possible that they will score lower than us.”
Such arguments are losing their meaning, counters François de Rugy, a former environment minister to President Emmanuel Macron, who resigned from the Greens in 2015 over what he called his “left-wing drift.”
“The main difference is the platform of Grünen’s party, which is much less radical than that of the French Greens,” he says. “The German Greens understand the need to be in power. In his mind, being excluded from the government is a sign of failure. “
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According to Lensing of the University of Caen-Normandy, the German Greens have managed to overcome a long-standing internal divide between “realos” (royalists) and “fundis” (radicals).
“The party has come together behind a clearly established pragmatic line,” he explains. “They are clearly in favor of a socially responsible market economy.”
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By contrast, the so-called “royalists” are traditionally a minority among French Greens. Many of those who pushed the most for power, such as De Rugy and current Environment Minister Barbara Pompili, ended up resigning from the Greens to join Macron’s LREM party.
“I could see that the desire to be a ruling party was not shared by [other Greens]”Says de Rugy, for whom” radicalism is a rite of passage “among French environmentalists. It points to Jadot’s attempts to influence more radical voters before the second round of the primaries.
“Jadot had previously presented himself as a moderate, but since the first round of voting he has done his best to appear more radical, constantly referring to his past as an activist and harvester of transgenic crops,” explains the former minister. “Unfortunately, this kind of attitude means that they are still a fringe party.”
Small steps policy
The “royalists” may have a better record at the polls, but have they been able to deliver once in power?
While France’s Greens are careful not to criticize their German counterparts, they also emphasize that participating in government does not necessarily translate into concrete action against climate change.
In an interview with the environmental news site Reporterre, EELV director Julien Bayou said that the Macron government had not understood that the transition to a green economy is impossible “without a rethinking of our productivist model.”
“There can be no ecological transition without a political turn. The point is not to influence Macron, but to replace him, ”Bayou wrote, citing another former environment minister, prominent green activist Nicolas Hulot, who resigned from Macron’s government in protest of his lack of ambition for the environment.
During Wednesday’s primary debate, Rousseau, the radical candidate, also took aim at “ecologie de gouvernement”, noting that he had achieved very little despite “being in power for the last 20 years.” He continued to criticize the “policy of just taking small steps.”
In Germany, the Grünen have helped raise awareness of environmental issues among the public and have brought the fight against climate change high on the political agenda, says Lensing. Despite its best efforts, the German Constitutional Court ruled in April that the government’s actions were insufficient to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Baerbock, Grünen’s chancellor candidate, has vowed to accelerate Germany’s exit from coal, boost renewable energy sources and increase the country’s carbon tax, while maintaining a moderate stance on social policy.
True to form, the Greens of France have promised to go much further in both fields. Whether they choose a “realo” or a “fundi” in their primaries, they will hope that a strong performance from Grünen on Sunday can increase their own chances in next year’s all-important presidential race.
This article has been adapted from the French original.