Eva Joly, the Green candidate in France’s forthcoming presidential election, sought to breathe new life into her faltering presidential campaign on Saturday as she unveiled her programme in the northern town of Roubaix.
The Norwegian-born former magistrate, whose campaign has been dogged by rumours of sedition within her party’s ranks, picked the impoverished former industrial hub near the border with Belgium to present a green platform with a strong social agenda.
Her 67-page programme, which includes plans for a 70% tax on France’s wealthiest and more benefits for the poorest, positions her clearly to the left of the frontrunner, Socialist candidate François Hollande.
Joly, 68, was under pressure to bring a new focus to an erratic campaign marked by a number of controversial remarks – including her suggestion that Muslim and Jewish feasts be granted national holiday status – and knee-jerk reactions by right-wing opponents, who have repeatedly questioned her French credentials.
“There is something afoot that is far more subversive than my accent,” she warned. “It is a covert attempt to use the current economic crisis as a pretext to ignore the plight of the environment and dismantle our social security system.”
Instead, she urged French voters to endorse a green path towards a sustainable economy that would protect, and indeed strengthen, France’s cherished social rights.
“Realism is on our side,” she proclaimed before a crowd of nearly two thousand gathered in Roubaix’s Watremez Hall.
Green policies for the poor
The common assumption at a time of crisis and belt-tightening is that green policies should take a back seat and hope for happier days.
Both President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger appear to have adopted that view.
But for Eva Joly, the problems affecting the former capital of France’s textile industry highlight the need for more green policies, not less.
The Green candidate praised Roubaix’s long tradition of green activism, offering it as an example of “environment-friendly policies that are not merely a leisurely pastime for the wealthy, but primarily a solution to the problems of the poor”.
The former "Manchester of France" is where “workers’ gardens” were first built more than a century ago in an effort to improve the livelihood of the 50,000 people employed by the burgeoning textile industry.
Rahim Tounes, a local Green Party councillor, says that tradition has been kept alive through community-based initiatives to regenerate Roubaix’s scarred urban landscape.
“Whether you live in an old textile worker’s home or in one of the grand old mansions built by their employers, the likelihood is that you are still using highly polluting and expensive oil heaters with no insulation,” she said.
Legacies of a bygone era, and expensive ones to heat
Joly, who arrived in France as an au pair at the age of 20, has put zero-carbon homes at the heart of her campaign, earmarking energy efficiency and social housing programmes as the key to boosting households’ purchasing power.
She has also vowed to slap crippling taxes on fossil fuels and other polluters to finance “green cheques” for the poorest half of the population.
Overall, she says converting France “from an economy of the past to an economy of the future” will help create one million “green” jobs by 2020.
Not two, but a hundred nationalities
Like other French parties on the left of the political spectrum, the Greens have struggled to reach out to working class voters increasingly attracted by the far right’s aggressive stance on jobs and immigration.
The economic crisis has turned Roubaix and other stricken cities in France’s former industrial heartland into a battleground for campaigners eager to showcase their plans to revitalize French industry.
Next in line is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, who is due to unveil her presidential programme on February 18-19 in neighbouring Lille.
Attacking Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform head on, the French-Norwegian candidate paid tribute to the diversity of Roubaix’s population, around half of which is either foreign or of foreign origin.
“The city of a hundred chimneys has become the city of a hundred nationalities,” said Radwane, an Algerian-born student, as we sat for a halal burger at the local branch of fast-food chain Quick.
Roubaix's last shot at fame: the "halal Quick"
The unassuming fast-food outlet made national headlines two years ago when the mayor of Roubaix decided to sue its owners over their decision to serve only meat that conforms to Islamic dietary laws, only to then backtrack in the face of stiff opposition from his constituents.
“Now they even sell beer here; there’s something for everyone,” said Radwane, brushing aside claims of lingering tension between communities.
Others were less optimistic. Mézine Rabah, a local official, said he had rallied behind Joly because he was afraid of the mounting racism he witnessed every day from policemen and the general public.
“It makes me think we’re back in the 1940s when I hear talk of a referendum on immigration,” he said, referring to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal earlier this week for a referendum on the rights and obligations of immigrants in France.
No junior partner to the Socialists
Rabah is one of several Green supporters who say they are grateful for Joly’s outspokenness and freethinking.
The former judge, who endeared herself to the French public by uncovering vast corruption scandals involving leading French firms and high-ranking politicians, has called for an overhaul of France’s political class and an end to the collusion with business interests.
“I am sick and tired of the lack of diversity that still defines the upper reaches of French society and the state,” Joly said.
But she will have to reverse a slide in opinion polls if she is to have any impact at all.
The Greens, now known as “Europe Ecologie – Les Verts” (EE-LV), took a record 16.5% of the vote in European elections three years ago, but their candidates rarely fare well in presidential elections, which tend to favour candidates from the larger, more traditional parties on the left and the right.
In the heyday of the textile industry, Roubaix was known as "the city of a hundred chimneys"
Joly’s camp appeared to have pulled off a coup last month when they proudly announced that four economists at the highly-rated OFCE institute in Paris had validated their economic policies.
But the move soon backfired when it emerged that only one of the four had endorsed the programme and that he was in fact a party member.
The embarrassment was no huge surprise coming from a party notorious for its amateurism and frequent infighting. But it underscored the Greens' eagerness to play a larger role than just junior partners to the Socialist Party, their natural allies in government.
In Roubaix, the Green candidate made no secret of her plans to push for a complete withdrawal from nuclear energy – an issue that sets her apart from her left-wing allies.
Joly said she had been deeply stirred by last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the lasting effects of which she witnessed during a visit to the country last autumn.
“We must not allow the culture of secrecy that has brought so much suffering to the people of Japan to jeopardize our future,” she said, calling on French voters to challenge the “myth of a safe and inexpensive nuclear industry”.
The consensus among party members is that the Green Party needs to make a good showing at the polls if is to have a say in Socialist decision-making, provided the latter capture the presidency.
As Joly put it to her supporters in Roubaix, “We cannot trust the Socialists to carry the green message alone.”