2019 07 – News From France


Ecology: white and bourgeois

The Green Party in France (EELV = Europe Ecologie Les Verts)came third in the European elections, with a smaller score than in 2009.

Environmental questions range between global (climate change) and local (the quality of air in cities).  We live in a capitalist system, meaning perpetual innovation, perpetual search for new products and new markets, continuously increasing exploitation of resources for maximum profit. Waste is good, since it increases spending. Ditto planned obsolescence.

The most that can be achieved under this system to protect the environment is laws curbing pollution, but even that doesn’t work completely, since it just pushes the pollution somewhere else, e.g. to the developing world which has taken over the dirty work of production. The other avenue at present is solutions that use resources and create profit, such as wind and solar power, or carbon neutral houses.

In the present liberal climate, the State is taking a back seat anyway, letting the market organise things or using the market for the same purpose. Charge a few pence for a plastic bag, and people will save their bag instead: the market has solved the problem. Except that it hasn’t.  You can’t hope that enough people will refuse to buy anything plastic, causing it to stop being produced and ending plastic pollution.

The market does not take into account the external costs, that is social and environmental costs. And it is deaf to justice: increasing the cost of diesel to discourage its use is unfair to the low paid who had been persuaded to buy diesel cars by previous government action and are now stuck with no alternative. The economy works that way, and consumers have no choice but to go along with it. Their wages are designed to a minimum, so that they can only afford, for example, pork from pig factories that pollute on a grand scale. There is an organic food sector to keep the better-off  happy.

The biggest polluters are the richest people on the planet (the USA and Europe), and within these areas, the richest people.  A book by the Association of Concerned Scientists in the US recommends ‘not having a yacht or a private jet, and not taking up sports such as snowmobiles’.

Thomas Piketty, the media friendly French economist, says in Le Monde that “Globally, the richest 10% are responsible for almost half of the emissions, and the richest 1% alone emit more carbon than the poorest half of the planet.”

And he draws the obvious conclusion:

“The drastic reduction of the purchasing power of the richest would therefore as such have a substantial impact on the reduction of emissions at the global level.”

The exact opposite has happened in recent years: in France for example, the purchasing power of the rich has increased thanks to Macron’s ending the wealth tax and progressive tax on income from capital. Piketty again:

“The Institute of Public Policies (IPP) has shown that between 2017 and 2019 these [tax] measures produced an increase of 6% in the purchasing power of the 1% richest and of 20% among 0.1% richest.”

The Gilets Jaunes are right in insisting on the reinstatement of the wealth tax!

It is the richest who own the media, which everyday tells us horror stories about the environment, the birds, the bees etc. People watch television and read the papers for excitement, and the environment is one of the modern sources of excitement and horror.  The market again!  Give people what they crave.  It makes a strong impression on the middle-class young, however.  The media owners can’t lose though, since everybody is enmeshed in the system and the problem is not posed in a realistic manner, but in the most abstract way possible, in phrases such as “Life on the planet is endangered and ‘man’ is responsible”. In fact, the people who cause most damage and those who suffer most damage are not the same people. Hervé Kempf, scientific journalist with Le Monde between 1998 and 2013) was censored when he tried to be more specific, and resigned.  He now runs the online magazine ‘Reporterre’ (25,000 daily readers). He has written the books ‘When the rich destroy the planet’ —quoted by Hugo Chavez in the plenary session of the 2009 World Conference on the Environment COP 15— and ‘If you want to save the planet, find a way out of capitalism’. (In November 2016 he refused the Legion d’Honneur offered by the minister of the Environment Segolene Royal.)

Piketty ends the article mentioned above by wondering why the Greens in the European Parliament are not making alliances with the ‘left’.  Everything would be possible to improve the environment, if only they did!

But it wouldn’t make any difference: social democratic parties, when in power have the same neo liberal policies as the right.

In fact all parties, even the ultra-liberal, pay lip service to ecology.  Macron’s party has a revolving door with the Ecology party.

Some personalities in Macron’s party are ex members of the ecology party (EELV). The striking example is Daniel Cohn Bendit, who led the Green campaign in France for the European elections in 2009.  People like him serve as a green certificate for the ultra-liberal Macron. On the other hand, prominent members of EELV, such as a previous leader of one of its constituent groups, stood in Macron’s list rather than EELV for the European elections.

The present leader of EELV said in an interview that ‘of course we are for trade, free enterprise and innovation’, and on 1  May this year he joined the chorus of condemnation of the Gilets Jaunes for something they hadn’t done; he apologised afterwards. He claimed that ecology (he means movements concerned with ecology) is ‘soluble in liberalism’; this strange phrase probably means ‘compatible with’.

Even ecologist thinkers like Hervé Kempf mentioned above, who explains in his latest book that the fall of the Soviet Union liberated capitalism from all social restraints, and that the near absence of Communist Parties means that the low paid and generally the ‘losers of globalisation’ have no one to unite them and fight for justice, someone like him, who looks forward to ‘post capitalism’, balks at the idea of socialism. Yet only a strong state, a very strong state, could tax the rich drastically, impose high wages and the preservation of factories, curb advertising, employ and train the young for good jobs and promote an ideology of equality, altruism and sobriety.

One very good thing from Hervé Kempf is his acceptance of Islam; for him Islam shows there are alternative ways of thinking about the world, not just bare capitalist consumerism. If more people in France on the left —and by the way also the Green Party—gave up their intransigent secularism and strident identity politics, they could make a start in uniting the masses.  If they were serious about the environment, they would put aside their fundamentalist preoccupations and concentrate on common social and environmental concerns.


Ecology in the banlieues

Teachers in poor areas report that they can’t interest their pupils in ecology. Ecology is seen as white and bourgeois. It doesn’t take a large place on the curriculum for Civic Education, which is occupied predominantly by secularism education (=don’t be a Muslim).

An interview with Fatima Ouassak on the Reporterre site is interesting in this respect.

A Moroccan born woman, a Science Po graduate, she campaigned to have a vegetarian option at her daughter’s school in Bagnolet in the Paris banlieue, and was opposed by the white vegetarians, who suspected her of having religious motives and not being a proper vegetarian.  She fell out with them, and with the town hall, even with the Communist Party.  In the end the town hall organised a poll suggesting a vegetarian option and is now offering it; they tried saying that it was at the initiative of Greenpeace!

The inhabitants of the ‘quartiers’ are more likely to suffer from a worse environment, and less likely to complain. They live with less green space and nearer motorway interchanges, with not much ‘biodiversity’.  As Fatima Ouassak says, their worry when they think of wildlife is more likely to be how to get rid of rats and cockroaches. They don’t have the power to complain.  Even when the Bagnolet town hall is planning to move a school from a classic town centre building opposite a park to a new site near a busy road, parents are hesitant to oppose the plan.  It is in part because they or a friend or relation is employed by the council, or on a waiting list for housing and they fear making things worse. Fatima Ouassak suggests that thinking about human needs would be a start to getting people involved, and could command the respect of the local authorities and of the white ecologists.


Thinking about the environment is worth it if the issue is put in its social and political context.  Ecology should be political ecology and its actions start from specifics.  Take the present struggle to stop EuropaCity, yet another commercial and leisure centre, on ecological grounds.   The site is used for agriculture at present.  Take a wild guess: is this happening in the rich West or the poor East of Paris?  Who will see more land concreted over and gain more car traffic and more air pollution?  The site is near Gonesse in the Eastern banlieue.  The task  for ecologists should be to fight for the refurbishment of existing commercial and leisure centres, and the creation of jobs other than retail, to counter the arguments of the Mayors of the municipalities concerned, and of some of their inhabitants, that the project will ‘create jobs.’  If you want biodiversity and green land you need the support of the population, and they need jobs before clean air.  Arguments for clean air and green spaces, and less use of natural resources, should be part of general arguments for a sustainable life for all.  All this needs to be explained to the militant young.