Joly, Green Giant?

France’s ecologists have officially chosen their candidate for next spring’s presidential election. Her name is Eva Joly. She earned the nomination of the Greens—who currently use the cumbersome moniker Europe Écologie-Les Verts, or EELV—this week by winning the runoff of an electronic primary open to party members and sympathizers. Joly is a fascinating woman. But the real significance of her victory lies in what it says about the Greens’ political direction: her nomination confirms the party’s leftist orientation. With Joly, there will be plenty of red mixed in with the green.

In voting for Joly, the Greens rejected a popular candidate, Nicolas Hulot, who wants to sever environmentalism from its leftist moorings. A journalist by training, Hulot is known to the French public as the host of several popular TV shows with ecological themes, notably Ushuaïa Nature. Premiering in 1998, this program introduces audiences to pristine natural landscapes, on the assumption that, as its tag line says, “wonder is the first step towards respect.”  Enlisting his fame in the service of the cause, Hulot founded an NGO called the Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme. In 2006, he drew up a document entitled the “Pacte écologique,” and then pressured the candidates for the upcoming presidential election to commit themselves to achieving its provisions (not unlike the way the “tax relief” movement or the Tea Party try to strong-arm American politicians into taking their pledges). Though he ultimately opted not to run himself, Hulot is credited with playing an important role in galvanizing French public opinion around environmental issues.

Taking note, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the environment ministry a top rank in the pecking order of cabinet positions and charged his minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, with organizing a series of state-civil society consultations designed to move France in a more sustainable direction. These roundtable meetings were dubbed the “Grenelle de l’environnement.” This is a somewhat obscure French reference: “Grenelle” refers to the Paris street—the rue de Grenelle—where the government ministry that hosted the broad labor negotiations after May 1968 is located. Consequently, a “Grenelle” has come to mean a broad, open-ended consultation on a major social issue intended to produce widespread reform—preferably before people take to the streets.

Hulot believes that environmentalism has no natural political home—that it does not fit into the traditional left-right spectrum. When declaring his candidacy, he left little doubt that he wants the Greens to rise above the usual partisan differences. “Let’s be clear,” he said. “I say, without dogmatism or aggressiveness, that the project of a new development model is incompatible with the policy that those currently in power and their [parliamentary] majority are developing in France.” Yet he carefully added: “This does not mean that those who on the left or in the center who propose to govern the country get a blank check. To my mind, no one should be automatically supported.”

There’s one problem with this “neither left nor right” position: to the left, it’s just a roundabout way of saying you’re on the right. Hulot didn’t help matters by making an awkward gaffe early in the primary campaign. While dining with journalists, he mentioned that he had briefly considered a political alliance (“un tandem”) with Borloo, Sarkozy’s environment minister, who has presidential ambitions of his own. Though he promptly dismissed this idea, Hulot’s enemies in the Green party were soon using his remarks against him. His desire to build bridges between environmentalists and the right was evidence, for many Greens, that Hulot’s leftist credentials were not in order—that his ecological vision was too superficial, too disconnected from issues of social justice.

Though the press frequently describes him as France’s “favorite ecologist,” Hulot’s political neutrality probably hurt him among Green primary voters. One of the two weaker candidates ran on an explicitly “anti-Hulot” platform. In round one, out of about 25,000 ballots cast, Hulot received 40 % of the vote, while Joly fell just shy of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff (two other candidates who together received 10% of the vote were eliminated). Accusations of voting irregularities made an already testy campaign even more bitter. In the end, Joly handily beat Hulot, 58% to 41%.

Who, then, is Eva Joly? As a public figure, she is immediately recognizable: she sports a distinctive pair of red, Tom-Daschle-ish glasses. More substantively, she is the only candidate running for French president who is not (entirely) French: she is also a full-fledged citizen of Norway, who speaks French with a heavy Scandinavian accent. The fact that a dual national can even run for the Elysée speaks volumes about the distance France and Europe have traveled from the nastier forms of ethnic nationalism over the past fifty years.

Gro Farseth—only later did she start using her middle name, Eva—was born into a working-class Oslo family in 1943. At 18, she came in third for Miss Norway. In 1964, she traveled to Paris to work as a jeune fille au pair in a bourgeois family—the Joly’s. She and the oldest son, Pascal, fell in love. The French parents objected; the lovers eloped to Oslo.  Before long, they were back in Paris, where Eva Joly began studying law.  By the eighties, she had become an investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction), working for the white-collar crimes division of the Paris tribunal.

As a magistrate, Joly became a prominent figure, taking on key members of France’s business and political elite. Beginning in 1994, she led the investigation into the Elf Aquitaine affair. The Guardian describes that affair, named after a major French oil company which has since fused with Total, as “the biggest fraud inquiry in Europe since the Second World War.” Joly’s investigation uncovered how an important company did double duty as “a private bank for its executives, who spent £200 million on political favors, mistresses, jewelry, fine art, villas and apartments.” She took down several political celebrities, including Mitterrand’s one-time foreign minister, Roland Dumas. Another major figure scrutinized by Joly was an up-and-coming socialist politician named … Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In 2000, Joly charged DSK of placing on Elf’s payroll a secretary who had never set foot in the company’s offices.

What places Joly on the left is less her commitment to a particular ideology than her belief that power corrupts and must be systematically challenged on all fronts. The biggest obstacle to sustainable development, she maintains, is the powerful interests stacked against it. “Ecology is a struggle,” she says. “If they are to be effective, our solutions will … call into question powerful forces, those of money, profit, and irresponsibility” (though she concedes that “habit,” too, can be obstructive).

Of any French political tracts I have read, Joly’s most closely resembles something written by the American academic left. It has the same distinctive blend of political radicalism and cultural criticism. I was intrigued that Joly refuses to let masculine nouns stand for women. For instance, when she talks about “citoyens (“citizens”), she writes it “citoyen-ne-s (i.e., “citoyens and “citoyennes”). She emphasizes the dignity of difference—specifically mentioning gays and lesbians—and the importance of individual rights, even for “extremists.”  Finally, she invokes her own dual nationality to protest the right’s obsession with national identity, arguing that modern society is abandoning “fixed” identities for “multiple, evolving” ones.

The Green’s choice of Joly and the left will shape its posture in the upcoming year. The Greens must compete with the socialists (as well as the far left) for votes. Joly could be a gadfly for the socialists, whose political program is decidedly productivist, despite a few concessions to environmentalism. On some issues—identity, race, feminism, gay rights—the Greens may well outflank the socialists on their left. The Greens will also have to clarify their position on Sarkozy, who has at least paid considerable lip service to environmental concerns. But the president’s commitment to nuclear energy, and the fact that the Greens will undoubtedly follow their German counterparts in politicizing the Fukushima catastrophe (which largely  explains the stunning upset victory of “die Grünen” in Baden-Württemberg’s state elections last March), makes this relationship pretty predictable. Given the socialists’ chronic dysfunction and unimaginative program, however, leftist voters may well find Joly’s voice appealing—whatever its accent.

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