PARIS - Amid stalls of vegetables and cheap clothes, party faithful push campaign flyers at Saint-Denis’ weekly market near the French capital under scudding clouds. Some shoppers brush past, unconvinced by the political offers. Others accept the colorful manifestos, stuffing them between bags of cassavas and oranges.
Located a few miles outside Paris, this gritty suburb is the ultimate French melting pot, boasting no fewer than 140 different nationalities. Ahead of the first round of French municipal elections Sunday — still on track, despite the coronavirus outbreak — bread-and-butter issues like fighting crime and increasing affordable housing rank high.
But like elsewhere in France, green issues also dominate candidate platforms, powered by voter concerns about climate change, pesticides and pollution. Analysts speculate France’s Greens party could capture a number of towns, large and small. Perhaps more strikingly, however, the Greens no longer have the lock on environmental issues.
“We’re seeing the environment capturing a growing place in candidates’ platforms, regardless of their political beliefs,” said Maud Lelievre, spokeswoman for Les Eco Maires, a network of 1,800 environmentally minded communes in France.
“It’s no longer a marginal issue,” Lelievre said. “It takes up pages of their platforms — issues like animal welfare, greening cities, local produce and transport. These were issues traditionally reserved for really environmental parties.”
Even in towns like Saint-Denis, with historically high abstention rates, the green vote may dominate, Lelievre said, partly because residents with strong convictions tend to be the ones heading to the polls.
A mixed political choice
At City Hall, Mayor Laurent Russier lists priorities, from making neighborhoods clean and secure to ensuring the town’s poorest residents will not be squeezed out by wealthier transplants from Paris.
As a communist, Russier fits a once-common profile for working-class French suburbs like this one. Yet his ticket offers a 21st-century twist — Greens party members — and he also describes plans to expand bike lanes and mass transport and build more low-emission buildings.
“If we want to have a real environmental transition, all our residents need to be part of it,” Russier said. “Those who are more fragile and those better off.”
At the Saint-Denis market, Russier’s rivals are sounding similar messages.
“The majority of French and people living in Saint-Denis don’t vote for green parties,” although green issues are important to them, said Alexandre Aidara, running for mayor on the governing La Republique en Marche (LREM) ticket. “And they know you can be LREM and have a very good green program.”
A few blocks away, Socialist Party candidate Mathieu Hanotin described how Saint-Denis sweltered in last summer’s heat wave, which he attributed to climate change.
“We want to bring in new ambition on issues like soil degradation and greening public spaces,” he said.
For long-term resident Marion Tisserand, a mother of three, their arguments translated into a difficult choice.
“It’s a very mixed picture among the candidates,” she said. “I have a tendency to vote green in elections, but I don’t know yet whom to go for.”
Battling over the green label
Countrywide, France’s trademark Greens party hopes to consolidate its strong showing during last year’s European Parliament elections that were echoed elsewhere in Europe. Just one major French city, Grenoble, currently has a Greens party mayor. Now several other municipalities may be up for grabs during these local elections, including Bordeaux, Rouen, Strasbourg and Marseille.
Lelievre, of Eco Maires, said the Greens may fare well in this first round of voting, but less so in the second round, scheduled for March 22.
“But in big towns with young, well-educated voters, there’s a chance of environmentalists coming ahead” in the second as well, she said.
Yet like Saint-Denis, other municipalities are seeing a partisan battle for the green mantle. That’s the case in Paris, where Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo has built kilometers of bike lanes, has established car-free days and spaces, and has promised to expand plans to create more "urban jungles" of plants.
She has earned the ire of drivers, even as other critics claim she has covered stretches of Paris in cement as well as in trees.
“Hidalgo is ecology in small steps,” David Belliard, her Greens party rival, said.
Yet Hidalgo remains the front-runner; Belliard ranks fourth.