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Ecological Politics or Political Ecology?

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Is France really going Green? Or is Green simply “the new black”? Is ecology the new “à la mode” thing or are we about to witness a dramatic change in the Hexagon?

With the presidential elections coming up in just seven months, the words “ecology” (“écologie”) and “sustainable development” (“développement durable”) are everywhere in the media. Politicians are striving for appearing as THE candidate who is the most sensitive to ecology, and who has the best solutions to bring a balance between needs in energy and respect for the environment. It all seems very new and exciting. But guess who was in power when the first law for the protection of French forests was issued?

Ecological politics…

I’ll give you a clue: in his time, he was compared to the Sun. Another clue? He used to be King of France. Yes, you’re right! It was under Louis XIV in 1669 that Colbert, then in charge of the economy of the realm, issued a law to protect the forests of France. At the time, only 10% of the territory was covered in woods, which is the lowest percentage to date. The idea was not to “save the environment”, but to keep the forests as sustainable resources for timber, wild game, etc. One could argue, perhaps, that this was “sustainable development”!

The next big step in “going green” (or maybe “staying green” in this case, since the industrial revolution was only starting in France) was taken in 1810 by Napoleon, who made it compulsory for “polluting workshops and manufactures” to get an authorization from the government before starting production.

Preserving some green spaces was a concern of politicians at regular intervals in French history. In the 1930s, for example, certain spaces were set apart as “classified sites” and “registered sites”. Some of them would later become “national parks”  or “regional parks” in the 1960s, almost a century after the creation of the first national park in the United States.

What you can sense here is an ambiguity of “ecologism” in France: when asked about it, most politicians from the 1960s onwards would say that they are in favor of measures for the protection of the environment and for the development of sustainable energies, for example (this includes those who found it okay to sink the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in the 1980s). But, at the same time, issues like poverty, education, security and healthcare are often considered as very distinct from ecological issues, and as issues that are a lot more important than “going green.”

I would say that ”going green” is something that is considered positively, but that can also be seen as trivial by some people when compared to issues regarding healthcare, security, education and the economy. For example, the ministry for ecology, created in the 1970s, had such a tiny budget when compared to the other ministries that it was quickly dubbed “the ministry of the impossible”. Ecology could also be forgotten quite easily, sometimes: in 1986, the French government remembered to sign a 1970 UNESCO convention about the protection of wildlife in swamps (no one had translated the document from English to French, and it had ended up being forgotten for more than 15 years).

Ecology was further linked to politics in the 1960s, with the creation of several “green” parties. But once again, these parties fared well only in local elections, as opposed to elections on a national level. “Les Verts” (“The Green Party”) became the best-known of the ecological parties, and acquired a good reputation with the population. However, its members insisted that they did not want to be considered as part of the “Righ-Center-Left” political spectrum in France: they advocated a radical change in society, and wanted to be considered as a completely different party. As a result, voters did not always take their views on matters other than ecology into account and, because ecology was secondary when compared to economic and health issues, “Les Verts” did not fare extraordinarily well on a national level.

Even today, when politicians try to advertise their “green” side, questions about ecology are often addressed at the end of the debates and political programs. However, something seems to have changed in the past few years: it is a change that can be seen on an international level first, but also within the political parties in France.

Political ecology

What I call “political ecology” here is the idea that ecology and preoccupations about the environment, in the 1990s and 2000s, could not remain outside of politics in general: they were suddenly linked to other issues and became part of a wider picture rather than just forming a green abstract painting, next the realistic picture of our society in the big museum of political ideas in France.

This was partly because of a favorable international context, first. Phrases like “global warming” and international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol caught the attention of the media and of the people reading/watching/listening to them. The end of the Cold War might also have had an impact on the new importance of ecology: it was not about “West vs East” anymore, but about “saving the planet”, to generalize and simplify things. Even in theaters, popular movies in France in the 1990s and 2000s included (American) titles like “Armageddon” and “The Day After Tomorrow”. Documentaries about the environment even started to make it to the theater: think about “March of the Penguins”, or about the more recent “An Inconvenient Truth”, for example.

Since the world was going green, or at least claiming that it was the right thing to do, it is only logical that candidates who wanted to appeal to the voters’ had to become themselves more environmentalist: the silver lining of “going green” is that ecology, nowadays, can also be a political weapon to attract voters. A simple look at the official campaign poster of the winner of the last presidential election, in 2007, is enough to confirm that idea.

“Ensemble tout devient possible” (which translates as ”Together, everything becomes possible”) was the phrase that Nicolas Sarkozy chose to summarize his campaign. The verb “becomes” points towards a future, which is supposed to be clear and pure, as suggested by the wide blue sky and the dove soaring from the blue letters of “possible”. But what is also interesting here, is the use of the green hills in the background: in politics, nowadays, Nature sells.

In the past five years, ecological projects carried out by politicians have been numerous. Carbon taxes have been imposed on polluting industries,  but also on owners of polluting cars. Some city centres have gone “pedestrian only”, and the experiment is supposed to be carried out on bigger cities like Lyon as well. A famous ecological event of the past few years was the summoning of a “Grenelle de l’environnement” by the government in 2007: that round table involving many different parties, unions, associations and organizations was named after the city of ”Grenelle”, where an important open debate had been held during the national strikes of 1968. It was meant to come up with 20 measures to be implemented by all of the actors involved in the discussions, including the government. Some of the major commitments included:

- tripling organic farming in three years, reducing the use of pesticide, adopting a law to regulate the growing of GMOs

- establishing a plan on air quality, withdrawing any construction material or consumption good suspected to be dangerous

- creation of a “green grid” between natural areas, to enable the wildlife to roam freely

- generalization of standards of low consumption in new buildings, renovation of old buildings to match the standards

- implementation of a ban on incandescent lamps, bringing the share of renewable energies to 20% of our energy production before 2020 (today, 75% is nuclear energy), etc…

The Green Party, in that context of a greater presence of ecology in politics, has also become more powerful in the last few years. Its association with another party, “Europe Ecologie”, enabled it to gain more than 16% of the votes in the last elections to the European Parliament. This could be explained by a certain “popularity” of ecology, but also by a change in the Green Party itself: rather than positioning itself outside of the political spectrum, it has taken a clear stand on the left in the last few years, joining coalitions of other parties in the opposition at times. Ecology, it is argued these days, cannot be discussed separately from other political subjects: getting rid of nuclear energy is also a way to create new jobs in the context of an economic crisis, for example. Achieving a “sustainable way of life”, all the same, is something that needs to be seen in terms of cost, creation or loss of jobs, education of future generations, allocation of funds to researchers, etc… As a result, the political programs issued by the Green Party show a will to do “ecological politics” (politics that take ecological concerns into account) but they also benefit from the rise of “political ecology” (ecology as a political theme that appeals to voters, whether it is actual ecology or simply the idea of it).

As a final example of the increasing importance of ecology in French politics, the candidates of the Socialist Party, which had its primaries last month, brought up the subject of ecology and sustainable energies in a debate last month. The following video might give you an idea of what the present debates are about in France, and of how they are being addressed:

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