France Les Verts

Although an official party structure did not emerge until 1984, Les Verts ' roots lie firmly within the social movement activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Environmental organization in France focused primarily around conservation and anti-nuclear groups.9 Despite being able to mobilize large numbers of protesters, however, the anti-nuclear campaigns achieved little in terms of tangible success. National electoral campaigning began in 1974 when René Dumont was selected to stand as a presidential candidate, although notions of a unified party organization were disregarded at this time.10 Instead, electoral campaigns were loosely coordinated with groups organizing campaigns together but disbanding any formal unified organization after the election.

This pattern continued during much of the 1970s, with electoral participation representing a strategy for focusing people's attention upon the ideas of alternative living and campaigning rather than an expectation of gaining parliamentary representation (Faucher, 1996, p1).11 The double-ballot electoral system enabled voters to express a preference for small groups in the first round of voting without feeling that their votes would be wasted overall. However, continued participation in elections inevitably led to calls for a more permanent form of organization.

The electoral success of the Parti Socialiste (PS) in 1981, and its failure to champion Green issues, provided further impetus for a new political party. When the PS opted to continue the French nuclear programme, environmental movements who had hoped for a new attitude from a left-wing government realized they must now seek an alternative Green voice. Consequently, despite continued reticence among many movement activists, a national organization was created in 1984 under the title Les Verts - Confédération Écologiste/Parti Écologiste. However, as Faucher suggests:

.. .despite their proclaimed unity, the ecology movement was still divided into several groups. Les Verts could pretend to be the sole Green voice in politics but many Green societies and groups remained active at the margin of the political scene (Faucher, 1996, p2).12

Initial electoral performances for the newly formed party were encouraging, achieving 3.4 per cent of the vote in the 1984 European parliament elections, and gaining its first three regional councillors in 1986. These results gave Les Verts an additional level of legitimation within the system and justified an electoral strategy.

Following the successes of 1986, the party developed its identity under the de facto leadership of Antoine Waechter.13 Waechter emphasized the importance of electoral success to the party, stating that it would never be efficient until we have overcome the electoral threshold of credibility' (cited in Prendiville, 1994, p45). The party's electoral performances improved steadily during the late 1980s, reflecting both national and international environmental concern. Waechter gained 3.8 per cent of the first round votes in the 1988 presidential elections, further establishing himself at the forefront of the party. In 1989 the party gained 1369 seats in municipal elections, with support rising to 10-15 per cent in many large towns and breaking the representative threshold in the European parliament elections (Prendiville, 1994, p45).14

While placing the environment firmly on the political agenda, electoral success also created its own controversies. In 1990, Brice Lalonde created a direct rival to Les Verts with a new party, Génération Écologie.15 Génération Écologie largely represented a vehicle for Lalonde's personal political ambitions, containing none of the organizational or structural characteristics of other European Green parties and adopting a more pragmatic stance upon key issues such as nuclear power. While Les Verts quickly disassociated themselves from any form of cooperation with Génération Écologie, the exigencies of the French political system soon highlighted the implausibility of this stance.

Initially the two parties competed directly against one another, resulting in a direct split in the Green vote. In the 1992 regional elections, Les Verts received 6.8 per cent and Génération Écologie 7.1 per cent (Cole and Doherty, 1995, p45). Although the combined environmental vote of nearly 14 per cent represented a strong overall Green performance, Les Verts activists were disappointed to find that having struggled for nearly ten years for a level of electoral respecta bility, their thunder had been stolen by Lalonde's ability to attract significant levels of support. Despite this, the regional election results still contained successes - most notably, Marie-Christine Blandin becoming both the first ecologist, and the first woman, to be elected leader of a regional council in Nord Pas de Calais (Holliday, 1994, p65).16

The election results clearly demonstrated that regardless of the party's attitudes towards Brice Lalonde and Génération Écologie, while the environmental vote remained split, Les Verts would be unlikely to gain national representation. In 1992, therefore, after significant internal debate, Les Verts and Génération Écologie signed the Entente Ecologiste, agreeing to act as a single campaigning unit for the 1993 national elections. With opinion polls estimating support for the alliance at around 15 to 20 per cent, it seemed that national representation was within reach. However, the Entente lacked cohesion, with the two parties often openly contradicting one another. In addition, voters were keen to position the Greens within left- or right-party parameters, encouraged by the PS, who openly declared their intention to stand down in favour of better-placed environmental candidates in the second round. The Greens found themselves allied to the left in the public's eyes, despite having no commitment to such a position.17 The final results reflected these difficulties, with the Entente only gaining 7.7 per cent of the vote. 18

Failure to break the parliamentary barrier provoked bitter recriminations from the two parties. Within Les Verts, internal division focused upon strategic direction that became personalized around Antoine Waechter and Dominique Voynet during candidate selection for the presidential election. At the 1993 party conference, Voynet gained the upper hand as activists voted against a continuation of the autonomous' stance and in favour of closer links with the alternative left.19 The early 1990s were a disappointing period for Les Verts. The party lost its European representatives and although the number of Green councillors rose, few were elected on purely Green lists (Faucher, 1996, p12). The presidential election proved no more successful, with Voynet only gaining 3 35 per cent of the vote.

A dramatic and largely unexpected change in fortunes occurred during 1996-1997 as Voynet's left-leaning strategy culminated in an electoral agreement with the PS as part of a broad left alliance. President Chirac's decision to call parliamentary elections a year early resulted in a surprise win for the left coalition. While Les Verts still only gained an average of 5.12 per cent in the first round of voting, their position within the alliance ensured that eight candidates were elected after the second ballot and resulted in the installation of Dominique Voynet as environment minister. Les Verts had therefore, somewhat paradoxically, finally succeeded in breaking the national parliamentary threshold, while gaining a smaller share of the vote than in previous national elections. The role in the governing coalition has served to increase the visibility and impact of the Greens. While being subject to the pressures of compromise, as in Germany, Les Verts have been able to highlight government successes such as the stopping of the Superphénix and Le Carnet nuclear plants and a continuing role in the climate change negotiations surrounding the Kyoto protocol.

This position has also enhanced the Greens' electoral profile. The party continues to have to face rivals for the Green vote, in the form of Génération Ecologie and a new party led by Antoine Waechter, Mouvement Ecologistes Independent (MEI); but it has overcome this, gaining 70 regional council seats in 1998 and consolidating its support with 9.8 per cent of the vote and 9 MEPs at European level the following year. In contrast to the downturn in support in Germany, surveys in France indicate a strong level of support and approval for the Greens as a coalition partner, and municipal elections served to confirm the importance of the Greens for the continued electoral success of the left coalition.

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