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“We have a responsibility to dirty our hands”: Julie Laernoes on the French Green party

The vice president of Nantes on why she believes the Greens’ Yannick Jadot is the right candidate to bring France together.

By Philippa Nuttall

In 2004 Julie Laernoes moved from the Netherlands to France to study. Three years later she joined the French Green party. Since 2014 she has served as vice president of Nantes, France’s sixth largest city and the choice of many Parisians looking for a cheaper and greener alternative to the City of Light. But Laernoes’ focus is much wider than traditional écolo voters. She wants to widen the party’s support base, underlining its environmental and social credentials. She believes that Yannick Jadot, recently elected as the Greens’ candidate for the French 2022 presidential elections, is the right man to bring these two agendas – and an increasingly divided France – together. 

“I voted for Yannick as he is credible and prepared,” said Laernoes, speaking to me in the café of Mundo Madou, a sustainable office space in Brussels. She was in the Belgian capital for a meeting in her role as a board member of Energy Cities. “He is the best candidate to attract a larger audience. People don’t want endless talk and he has proven he can act.” 

Jadot was head of campaigns for Greenpeace before moving into politics. Since 2009 he has been a member of the European Parliament. He was a candidate in the 2017 French presidential elections, but withdrew from the race to join forces with the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon. Such a move looks unlikely this time, but the field of left-wing candidates remains crowded. Polling only 6-9 per cent of votes, it doesn’t look as though Jadot will make it to the Elysée in 2022 either. Nonetheless, Laernoes insists the world has shifted radically in the past five years.

“In 2007, when I first engaged with the Greens, we knew it would be a really bad outcome for us in the presidential elections,” she said. “We needed to put out a green voice… but the larger public never saw us as a reasonable alternative.” Dominique Voynet, the Green presidential candidate at the time, received a “pretty bad” 1.57 per cent of votes in the first round of the election, which the now disgraced Nicolas Sarkozy went on to win.

The Covid-19 pandemic “made something in our brains flip”, said Laernoes. “We thought a general catastrophe couldn’t be real, but now we know it can happen.” She admitted that “some people just want to get back to the life they had before the crisis”, but believes there is a growing realisation “we will lose everything” if the world continues on its current trajectory. 

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“The people running things, the lobbies and some politicians, in periods like now when everything is kind of blurry and nothing is really solid, have a tendency to apply the old recipes, but they didn’t work in the old world and they are even less likely to work in a world that has changed so much,” said Laernoes. “On the left, neither the Socialists nor the Communists really have a real plan for France.” While the Greens “don’t have all the solutions, we have a plan and a direction” that could help turn post-Covid fear into something positive, she believes. 

The starting point is seeing the social and the climate crisis as two halves of the same problem, and starting to build the future with “all the different stakeholders and citizens”.

“When you close a nuclear power plant or a coal mine, it means strikes,” Laernoes said. “Ecology is seen as anti-social and as something that benefits the richer, when in fact it is the poorer who emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions and are more affected by air pollution.” This perception can be changed through “employment and jobs”, secured through a “clear plan and stable financing”, she believes. Politicians are “going back and forth” on the energy transition. “We need concrete measures and actions that are visible today; not just a plan for 2030.” 

In her opinion, Jadot is the right person to lead this vision and to “reconcile the private and public sectors”. She added: “Throughout the Covid crisis, the companies that did best were the ones that were more resilient, that had the best social plans and were already taking in the environment as a way of changing their production methods.” This trend will only grow, she believes, with increasing pressure from workers for a “meaning or a purpose to what they are doing”. 

Jadot has promised €50bn a year, or 2 per cent of GDP, to “repair [French] society” and “reconstruct [the French] economy”. By investing in “housing, transport, healthy food and against waste”, his programme “will create 1.5 million jobs, give new life to the economy and spark a virtuous circle of responsible consumption and investment”, he has said.

However, getting everyone – including the disinterested – involved in discussions around the fairly nebulous concepts of social and ecological transformation is not easy, Laernoes admitted. Nantes is implementing various initiatives to help achieve this goal, including “lunch dating”, where companies have five minutes to pitch to each other and potentially come up with workable ideas to help implement the city’s climate plan. Nantes was a forerunner on climate action and has a list of ambitious goals, including sourcing half its energy from local and renewable sources by 2050. The city also holds a climate assembly every two years. Its aim this year will be to help all associations – from the chess club to the gym club – to become “greener”. 

But Laernoes reiterated that everything is dependent on financing. Local authorities were hardly rolling in cash before Covid, and the pandemic has further strained funds. From fewer public transport users paying fares to the need to set up vaccination centres, the crisis has been a costly affair. She recognises there are various ways for cities and regions to access money for the transition at a national and European level, but highlighted the time this takes, from filling in forms to the lack of immediacy in the release of funds. “We just need the financing to come, we don’t have time to wait.”

In the recent German elections, many commented on the “pragmatic” and “centrist” approach of the country’s Green politicians. Jadot has been accused by some in his party of compromising on his ecological principles in his quest to lead France; he beat the self-proclaimed eco-feminist Sandrine Rousseau to become the Greens’ presidential candidate. Laernoes sees it differently. Greens all around Europe are motivated by “the urgency and necessity” of getting to grips with climate change, she said. “It can be more comfortable to stay on the sidelines and stay really pure about your principles, but we have a responsibility to act and dirty our hands by taking part in the power process.” 

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