SHORTLY AFTER he was elected president of France in 2017, Emmanuel Macron devised the slogan “Make our planet great again”. It was both a wry nod to Donald Trump, and a pledge to act as a green president. In office, Mr Macron announced the closure of 14 nuclear-power reactors, cancelled the construction of a controversial local airport in western France, passed a law to reduce waste and plastic, and set up a citizens’ assembly to combat climate change. During the covid-19 pandemic, his government banned all flights within France to cities that can be reached by fast TGV train in under two-and-a-half hours.
On June 28th voters at the second round of mayoral elections across France echoed this concern with a resounding green vote—but not for Mr Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), which did disastrously. In a record result the Green party, known by its French initials EELV, captured a string of cities that have for decades been held by either the Socialists or the centre-right Republicans. They include Strasbourg, Lyon, Bordeaux, Poitiers, Besançon and Tours. In Marseille, which has a final vote yet to come, the Greens also came top. One of the only other big cities to change hands in an electoral grab was Perpignan, which fell to Louis Aliot of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front).
For a Green party that had hitherto governed only one big city, Grenoble, these were startling successes. Green backing also helped Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris and the capital’s chief anti-car crusader, to keep her job. She came first in a three-way poll, with 49% of the vote, way ahead of both Rachida Dati, the Republican candidate, on 34%, and Agnès Buzyn, Mr Macron’s former health minister, who trailed in a dismal third place, on 13%. The Greens’ strong showing will strengthen their hand in the many local alliances they have with the Socialists, at last shifting the balance of power their way.
As Mr Macron now tries to work out how to reinvigorate his presidency for the remaining two years, the paradox of the green vote forms a big part of the puzzle. The president learned the hard way that it is one thing to embrace greenery in principle, and rather another to put it in place. When his government increased a carbon tax on motor fuel in 2018, it provoked a backlash, the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) movement. Hipsters on bicycles in cities may have voted for the Greens this weekend. Those in the countryside who depend on their cars tend not to.
Indeed it was in response to the gilets jaunes that the president set up a citizens’ assembly on climate change, composed of 150 randomly selected people. After a delay caused by lockdown, it presented its conclusions to the president on June 29th. Mr Macron promised to put forward 146 of its 149 proposals, including a moratorium on the construction of new shopping centres outside towns and a referendum on whether to put the fight against climate change into the constitution.
Even before these local elections, Mr Macron had announced that he wants to “change course”, and muttered about “reinventing” society for the post-covid era. If he wants a greener France to be part of this, the president faces not just the familiar problem that green-minded voters seem to prefer a single-theme party to a policy package in which greenery is but one feature. He also needs to decide whether to reshape his government altogether. In this respect, Mr Macron comes up against another dilemma. For Edouard Philippe, his prime minister, who hails from the centre-right, also scored an unambiguous personal victory: he was elected mayor of the port of Le Havre, with 59% of the vote.
Under the French Fifth Republic, it has long been tradition for presidents to use their prime ministers as a shield, and dispose of them when they outlive their usefulness. In this case, Mr Macron faces a particularly tricky choice. Mr Philippe, with higher poll ratings and personal electoral success, is not doing much to protect his boss. Moreover the prime minister is not keen on spending unlimited sums on all Mr Macron’s green and social measures. The president, he told a French newspaper recently, “what I can do and what I can’t do.”
With the mayorship of Le Havre waiting for him, Mr Philippe now has a convenient landing point should he wish to leave. A reshuffle is expected soon. The names of possible replacements continue to circulate, including Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, and Florence Parly, the defence minister, both of whom come from the left. Mr Macron is often reluctant to let colleagues go, and it is not impossible that Mr Philippe, a potential future rival, will stay on after all. Either way, these latest results suggest that it is not just the nationalists on the far right, in the shape of Ms Le Pen, that Mr Macron has to watch out for, but the newly flourishing Greens to his left.