From granola to political pay dirt

France's Green party is key to a predicted Socialist victory in Sunday's Paris mayoral runoff.

Not for a century have leftists controlled the French capital.

Now, Socialist candidate Bertrand Delanoe is standing on the doorstep of the sumptuous mayor's office. Political analysts say he should squeak through in a second-round runoff of municipal elections on Sunday.

If he wins, it will only be because the environmentalist Green party has rallied behind him.

Following the lead of their German cousins, the French Greens have shed their former hippy-dippy, muesli image to consolidate their position as powerbrokers and decisionmakers at a national level. And as they play an ever-growing role in French politics, they are bolstering Green influence in European affairs generally.

"People trust us now, and they know we have ideas about lots of issues, not just ecology," says Yves Contassot, the Green candidate for mayor of Paris.

The Greens emerged as the only clear winner from last Sunday's first-round elections. Divided right-wing parties disappointed conservative President Jacques Chirac, who faces reelection next year, while the Socialists failed to achieve the "red wave" that Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin had hoped would boost his own presidential ambitions.

With more than 12 percent of last Sunday's vote, the Greens sprouted impressively and expect to end up with eight times more town councilors than they have now, says party spokesman Stephane Pocrain. "These elections were a real success," he boasts.

Much of the Greens' success, say political analysts, derives from their outsider status. In a country where one corruption scandal follows another, tarring all traditional parties and politicians with the sleaze brush, the youthful and honest image that the Greens project is a big advantage.

In Paris, for example, Mr. Contassot - a marketing manager at the Bank of France - had to campaign in his spare time against the incumbent mayor Jacques Tiberi, a heavyweight from Mr. Chirac's camp, and a Socialist Party apparatchik.

At the same time, many of the environmental causes that the Greens have been championing since they founded their party 17 years ago have lately become mainstream, and even fashionable. With Europe in the grip of "mad- cow" disease, for example, the Green's call for more-natural, less-intensive farming methods is fast becoming European Union policy.

The Greens remain a junior partner in the "plural left" coalition that Mr. Jospin heads; Dominique Voynet, the environment minister, is their only full cabinet member. But last Sunday's results suggest that they are overtaking the Communist Party to become the second-largest force on the left.

And the Greens claim influence over government policy, nudging their Socialist big brothers toward a recent law obliging political parties to present as many female candidates as male ones, for example, or last year's law offering a legal basis for homosexual unions.

On a more local scale, Green candidates all over France exacted a price for their second-round support for the Socialists: In Paris they negotiated a tramway system to relieve traffic pressure; in the northern city of Lille they won a cut in public-transport fares and a pledge to serve only organic food in school canteens; elsewhere they demanded traffic-free Saturdays, more parks, and other environmentally friendly policies.

But as it has matured, the party has moved beyond environmental issues, embracing grass-roots democracy as another campaign theme. And it has broadened its ecological perspective to develop a critique of mass production agriculture and modern capitalism in general. This approach is popular among left-wing voters who have been frustrated by what they see as the Socialist-led government's timidity since Jospin took office in 1997. "There is a desire for more radicalism," says Mr. Pocrain. "People want to be treated as citizens, not consumers."

"Voters who don't find the government reformist enough sent a message by voting Green" in the municipal elections, suggests Stephane Rozes, a prominent political pollster. "The Greens succeeded in attracting left- wingers beyond the ecology vote."

But the party still has difficulty breaking beyond the bounds of the "bo-bo" vote, as it is known here, a reference to the "bohemian bourgeois" - young, urban, well-educated and liberal - who have grown up since 1968.

It also has trouble getting organized. The party's passionate embrace of participatory democracy "can often look like chaos," admits Aurelie Filippetti, a Green candidate for borough president in Paris. "Our statutes mistake 'basism' [respect for ordinary members] for democracy," says Pocrain.

Ms. Voynet has said she will step down from her government post in the summer to take her party in hand, and reorganize it along more efficient lines, which will undoubtedly provoke heated internal debate. But the rewards would be rich, analysts predict. "The Greens' biggest weakness is the difficulty they have organizing a political structure," says Mr. Rozes. "With better organization, they could progress still further."

But many party members, with a wary eye on the way in which German Greens have abandoned some of their key policies since taking senior government posts in Berlin, have their reservations about going too mainstream.

"I would hope that we will evolve like the Germans did as far as our methods go, but that we will keep more radicalism in our policies," says Pocrain.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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