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(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron struck an unusually humble tone as he stared down at the shrinking glacier on the slopes of Mont Blanc.
“Such rapid melting,” he said. “It’s dizzying.” On the trip to the French Alps, he also walked through a tunnel that leads deep inside the ice and lunched with local politicians and scientists. Macron said he wanted to see the impact of climate change for himself.
But there was also a political dimension to the highly publicized Feb. 13 visit: A green revolution is picking up steam in France and Macron’s political survival -- already uncertain because of widespread anger over his reform plans -- could depend on winning environmental voters.
The fragmentation of mainstream parties has upended traditional politics across Europe, and given Green groups an opening. In Austria, the right-wing People’s party turned to the Greens to form a coalition and the environmental faction in Germany has surged to within reach of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party. Two rounds of mayoral elections starting March 15 will give an indication of how the French president’s defenses are holding up.
“You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the municipal elections,” says Christophe Bouillaud, a political science professor at Sciences Po Grenoble. “For decades they’ve played a role in measuring the popularity of the incumbent government and structuring the opposition parties.”
Governments are watching for an indication of Macron’s prospects for securing another term in 2022.
Macron blew up France’s two-party system when he swept to power nearly three years ago by promising a new kind of politics. Facing the far-right Marine Le Pen in the run-off meant that he had the progressive vote in the bag. He was lauded for sparring with U.S. President Donald Trump over climate change and vowing to “make the planet great again,” but he’s failed to live up to the hype.
Today, tensions within Macron’s En Marche party have been laid bare by public feuds and defections. Strikes against inequality and plans to overhaul a pension system may have subsided, but anger is palpable. About two thirds of voters don’t think he’s a good president, according to a Odoxa-CGI poll published Feb. 25.
With the Socialists and the right still languishing, the Greens are laying claim to the center ground that Macron carved out for himself.
David Belliard, who’s running for mayor in Paris for the Green party, says that’s a pragmatic approach. “I am the open green,” he told reporters Thursday. “I am open to right-wing people joining the movement if they share our ideas. I am open because it is an emergency situation.”
The party only ever had a few ministers in the previous socialist government and didn’t field a candidate in the 2017 presidential ballot. In May, it doubled its share of the vote in European parliamentary elections, coming third with 13%.
It’s the first political force among 18-to-34-year-old voters and is polling first or second in several cities including Bordeaux, Lyon and Grenoble -- the only large city held by a Green mayor. Macron by contrast wasn’t able to present a candidate in half the country’s big cities.
The Greens are critical of nuclear energy, want to expand public transport over cars, ban pesticides, support urban and organic agriculture and favor local economy. While other parties embrace many of these ideas, The Greens say they’re the most credible and consistent advocates.
They lack a powerful leader, but one could emerge after the municipal elections.
The contest will be watched especially closely in Paris. As the country’s capital and most populous city a win here can make up for losses elsewhere, and the prestigious mayoral job has often been a springboard for the presidency.
So far, current mayor, leftist and environmentally friendly Anne Hildago, is polling ahead of En Marche’s Agnes Buzyn who only entered the race last month after Macron’s preferred candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, dropped out because of a sex tape.
The Greens “can be close to the left, but not only,” says Belliard, 41, when discussing his candidacy. He says he advocates an “economy that’s not predatory” and wants to “move away from over-consumption.” He doesn’t want voters to think of the Greens as people “who look for water kilometers away and wash themselves once a month.”
The move to the center may not go down well with the Green’s base, especially in cities like Strasbourg or Besancon where they are emerging as the leaders of potential left-wing coalitions. But Belliard is optimistic. “If the Greens come out of these elections stronger, it will give us momentum to build an alternative choice in the presidential elections,” he said.
For Macron, the problem is persuading voters of his sincerity. His own environment minister resigned in 2018, accusing the government of not doing enough. His attempt to increase taxes on fossil fuels has crumbled and the expansion of renewables is still slow. Macron’s one big achievement, the closure of the country’s oldest nuclear plant, started under Francois Hollande.
“There’s not much to get your teeth into,” according to Bruno Cautres, political scientist at Cevipof.
It looks like voters agree. One fifth of those who backed the Greens in the EU elections had voted for Macron in 2017. The Odoxa-CGI poll meanwhile shows the president’s popularity declined by 3 percentage points after his Mont Blanc appearance, with the sharpest drop among Green sympathizers.
“The environment is a topic of concern in French society and Emmanuel Macron is essentially campaigning to be the Green presidential candidate,” Cautres says. “But if protecting the environment is so essential, you may as well put a Green in as head state.”
(Updates with Benjamin Griveaux in the 16th paragraph. An earlier version of this story corrected when Agnes Buzyn entered the race.)
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