Paris - With a stunning string of wins in local elections, France's Greens have intensified a Europe-wide trend of ecological forces stealing the limelight on the left from traditional socialist parties.
French Greens celebrated unprecedented success in Sunday's local polls, taking control of major cities including Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg.
Long in the shadow of France's once mighty Socialist Party (PS), the Europe Ecology – The Greens (EELV) party emerged as the clear winners on the left.
The trend was already apparent in 2019 European elections where green parties won twice as many votes as social-democratic forces.
Greens seize control of French city councils
Their success fired a shot across the bows of centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who has been criticised for not backing up big words on the environment with action.
Analysts caution that these second-round elections were marked by a turnout of just about 40 percent and it would be a leap to transfer such success to parliamentary or presidential elections.
- 'Turning the tables' -
Nevertheless, global warming is now a top political concern especially among the young, and the coronavirus epidemic has intensified existential fears about the state of the environment.
There appears to be a significant redrawing of the map of the left, once unchallenged territory for the socialists.
Historic victory of Green candidate in Bordeaux
"We are witnessing a turning of the tables: the weakest has become the strongest," said Daniel Boy, research director at Sciences Po and a specialist in the politics of ecology.
He said France's socialists had made the "considerable strategic error" of not taking the environment seriously enough and "subcontracting" the issue to others.
- 'Agree on the theme' -
But he cautioned: "They have just obtained excellent results in a local election. It is not an absolute proof that they are dominant at all levels."
Chloe Morin, an expert in public opinion at the Fondation Jean-Jaures, said the Greens still need to broaden their appeal beyond big urban centres.
Map showing the vote for the main Green parties in the 2019 European elections
"In a national election, it is no use to win big cities if you do not have the rest of the territory," she said.
Even in these elections, the Greens did not always win on their own and were helped by alliances often with other left-wing parties.
In Paris, incumbent Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, who makes much of her green credentials and has launched a crusade against automobiles, was re-elected with the help of the green vote.
"There is no longer any real conflict on the environmental issue between the various leftist groups. This allows them to agree on a theme which their own electorate can agree on too," said the head of pollster PollingVox, Jerome Sainte-Marie.
Similar urban Green surges have also been seen in the Netherlands, where GroenLinks in 2018 local polls took control of Amsterdam and Utrecht.
In Germany, support for the traditional left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) has crumbled as The Greens surged ahead. They are now tipped to score better than the SPD in 2021 national polls.
The SPD has thus tried to embrace Green rhetoric and policies, a move that risks alienating more traditional voters.
Adding further complexity is the fact that across Europe, the Greens are not a monolithic movement. Outside a concern for ecology, they are not always fixed rigidly on the left of the political spectrum.
"Green parties should not always be seen as leftist parties. In Germany, for example, there are several strains," noted Sophie Pornschlegel, political analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.
By Pierre Donadieu