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France’s Green Party Fails to Connect Ahead of Election

MONTPELLIER, France — Yannick Jadot, the candidate for the French Green Party in April’s presidential elections, walked through a small cheering crowd to a podium topped with banners featuring his face, as speakers blasted a version of “What a Wonderful World” by the punk rock singer Joey Ramone. The candidate bobbed his head to the rhythm.

The event on a recent afternoon in the sun-soaked central square of Montpellier, a large city on France’s Mediterranean coast, had all of the trappings of a dynamic and enthusiastic campaign. “Environmentalism is all about fun!” said a speaker introducing Mr. Jadot.

But with less than 30 days to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, the Green Party’s campaign has so far failed to generate much excitement among the public. For weeks, Mr. Jadot has been stuck around 5 percent in the polls, about a third of the share of the top three right-wing contenders and one-sixth of the support for President Emmanuel Macron.

Mr. Jadot said in an interview that “the French are not yet invested in the election campaign,” as other more dramatic issues like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are consuming much of their attention. He added that he remained “confident” that voters would soon focus on environmental issues.

But so far, the run-up to the election has been dominated by issues like security, immigration and national identity, reflecting France’s recent shift to the right. By comparison, climate issues have largely been ignored, accounting for 2.5 percent of media coverage of the election in the past four weeks, according to a study released by several environmental groups.

The problem, analysts say, is that the French Greens have failed to bring in new ideas and create a clear, coherent platform that goes beyond their core issues. They also point to the party’s struggle to be seen as a credible governmental force, capable of dealing with issues like diplomacy and defense, as is the case in Germany, where the Greens are now part of a three-party government coalition.

In a recent essay, Bruno Latour, a French anthropologist and philosopher, and Nikolaj Schultz, a Danish sociologist, said environmental parties had failed to come up with inspiring narratives conveying hope for a better world.

“For now, environmental politics is succeeding in panicking minds and making them yawn with boredom,” they wrote.

Hoping to shake off this negative image, Mr. Jadot recently embarked on a tour of France that will bring him to some 15 cities by early April. All of the campaign stops have been designed to create connections with voters, with Mr. Jadot addressing them from a small octagonal podium.

Mr. Jadot said he wanted to solve “both sides of the equation” by convincing voters that it is time for real climate action and that doing so can also bring about a better lifestyle, or what he called “a new kind of enthusiasm.”

“Taking action for the climate means economic innovation, eating well thanks to sustainable and small-scale farming,” he said. “Basically, it’s about regaining control of one’s life.”

In Montpellier, where some 500 people had gathered, Mr. Jadot’s speech was filled with concrete proposals, including an $11 billion “Marshall Plan” for home insulation to cut energy consumption in half. He also plans to ban the use of dangerous pesticides and to create a new wealth tax that reflects the environmental impact of some investments.

“On the substance, these are very relevant proposals,” said Daphné Destevian, 50, a project manager for an offshore renewable energy institute.

But when it came to the candidate’s approach, Ms. Destevian was unmoved. “He yells too much,” she said. “I find it a bit aggressive.”

Standing on a podium that resembled a boxing ring, Mr. Jadot struck a combative tone, castigating the government for signing free-trade agreements, attacking the French energy giant TotalEnergies and likening Mr. Macron’s pro-nuclear measures to far-right or authoritarian government policies.

Jérémie Peltier, an opinion expert at the Foundation Jean-Jaurès research institute, said this tone could prove detrimental to the Greens. “When you listen to Yannick Jadot,” he said, “you feel like you’re constantly being told off.”

Mr. Jadot’s supporters in Montpellier were well aware of the need to convey more optimism, like the positivity that radiated from the youth climate protests in 2019.

José Bové, a longtime Green and anti-globalization activist, said “the battle we have to win” is to prove that environmentalism “is a joyful project, one that makes people feel good.”

Marie-Noël De Visscher, 70, a former researcher in agronomy, said that instead of “making people feel guilty,” the Greens had to show that “we can do great things and that taking the train is fun.”

That challenge has proved particularly acute on the economic front, with the Greens struggling to reconcile the fight against climate change with combating economic insecurity. Mr. Jadot is performing poorly with working-class voters, who fear the impact of the transition to clean energy on their livelihoods.

Mr. Schultz, the sociologist, said the Greens had focused “too much on negative narratives, on punitive narratives” — for example, by promoting ideas like limiting the growth of the economy through restrictions on food and energy consumption.

Standing back from the crowd, Bruno Cécillon, a longtime Green supporter, acknowledged that “people are worried” because “they won’t be able to live as peacefully as they used to, to take their car, turn on the heat, put on the air conditioning without second thoughts.”

Although the French Greens have gained credentials at the local level — they now control some of France’s largest cities, including Lyon and Bordeaux, administering the lives of over two million French people — they are still a work in progress at the national level.

Daniel Boy, a political scientist at Science-Po university in Paris, said the Greens were not deemed credible on issues that are the prerogative of a president, such as security or international relations. “Can we imagine an ecologist talking to Putin?” he said, citing a concern of voters.

By contrast, Mr. Boy added, the Greens in Germany are seen as a more competent and pragmatic political party, one that is capable of forging coalition agreements with centrist forces and entering the debate on non-environmental issues. Annalena Baerbock, the candidate of the German Greens in last year’s national elections, today serves as the country’s minister of foreign affairs.

Mr. Jadot said he is ready to lead France. “I want to govern this country,” he said. “I want to be responsible.”

But in Montpellier, his supporters already seemed more doubtful.

Mr. Cécillon said he would vote for Mr. Jadot “not to get him elected — I don’t think he’ll be elected — but because what I’m interested in is to enable this ecological thinking to carry weight.”

“A society doesn’t change like that overnight,” he said. “It takes time, it’s slow.”

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