France’s Far Right Wants to Be an Environmental Party, Too

France’s Far Right Wants to Be an Environmental Party, Too

HÉNIN-BEAUMONT, France — All of the lighting in the city’s streets and buildings is being changed to environmentally friendly LED bulbs. City workers will come to your house to plant trees — for free — as a natural way to keep cool against the kind of heat waves that swept across Europe over the summer.

Sheep also tend to the grass in one large, city-owned field as an experiment in “eco-grazing.” “Less pollution, less noise, fewer chemicals,” a city sign explained. “One more step forward in protecting our biodiversity.”

No, the policies are not the work of a tree-hugging City Council dominated by the Greens. They are of France’s far-right National Rally, the party whose longstanding, fierce dedication to a single issue — curbing immigration — helped it become France’s main opposition.

Only a few years ago, the party showed little interest in the environment. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, denied human-driven climate change and dismissed ecology as the “new religion of the bobo,” or bohemian bourgeois.

But as the issue has risen to the top of voters’ concerns across Europe, the National Rally has taken note, along with other nationalist, populist far-right groups elsewhere on the Continent.

In recent months, the National Rally’s leader, Marine Le Pen, has given two major speeches that proposed making Europe the “world’s leading ecological civilization” and embraced ideas like consuming locally grown products.

Ahead of next year’s municipal elections, the party is promoting cities like Hénin-Beaumont, where it has been in power since 2014, as settings for its own brand of down-to-earth environmentalism.

“For a long time, political parties took ahold of ecology and aimed it only at the bourgeois and well-off,” said Christopher Szczurek, a deputy mayor of Hénin-Beaumont and a member of the party’s national board. “And now we see that the working class can also find something of real interest in it.”

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, long criticized by environmental groups for doing too little on climate, has also been trying to refashion himself as a leader on the issue through dramatic gestures, including confronting Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, on his handling of the fires in the Amazon.

To both Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen, who are likely to face off again in the next presidential election, in 2022, the environment offers the potential to broaden their support.

Support for the leftist Green Party surged across the Continent, including in France and Germany, in European elections in May, as well as in last month’s vote in Austria.

Among far-right populist parties in Europe, views toward climate change range from denial to an acknowledgment of its global nature and an endorsement of a multinational approach to fight it, according to a recent study by Adelphi, a climate research group based in Berlin.

In between are parties, including the National Rally, that promote a nationalist, identity-based vision of environmentalism, while rejecting working with other nations.

Rooted in the right’s traditional idealization of the land and French national identity, the National Rally’s environmentalism focuses on the local — people living and working as much as possible in their own local communities. It encourages reining in everything from material consumption and population growth as a way to conserve limited resources.

Protecting the environment dovetails with the National Rally’s other goals: strengthening borders and restricting immigration; limiting trade agreements and supporting local industries; and promoting a strong French identity against the globalized “man from nowhere.”

“Fundamentally, ecology is about people living on a territory, who are attached to it and who make plans for the long term,” said Hervé Juvin, an essayist who has written frequently on the environment and was elected as a European Parliament member for the National Rally in May.

Ecologists on the left and right may agree on certain points. But the unbridgeable difference is that the National Rally, like other groups on the far right, emphatically opposes any multinational agreements to combat climate change.

Mr. Juvin dismisses them as a concession of sovereignty and as simply ineffective.

The National Rally’s critics say that the party is not serious about tackling climate change if it rejects outright the idea of cooperating with other nations. Only painstaking diplomacy and negotiations can hope to mitigate what is a global problem, they say.

In this area of France, air quality can only be addressed with neighboring Germany, said Marine Tondelier, the single Green Party member on Hénin-Beaumont’s City Council.

“We can’t resolve that without Europe,” Ms. Tondelier said. “And so I told them it’s absurd to claim that you’re ecologists. It was like the Maginot Line during the war — when we were behind the border and we tried to protect ourselves. It doesn’t work.”

Yet people on the right point out that it was their side that used to have a grip on the issue of the environment. It was under the conservative President Georges Pompidou that the environment ministry was established in the early 1970s.

But in the early 1990s, the Greens allied themselves with the left, which has had the upper hand on environmental issues ever since.

“There was a holdup by the left,” Mr. Juvin said.

A close ally of Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Juvin is trying to take back the environment for the right, or at least for the National Rally; he is its leading voice on climate. His efforts begin inside the party itself, where many remain skeptical of climate change, he said.

“I’m trying to fight against that,” Mr. Juvin said. “It’s changed a little. I hope to have contributed to that change. But I think there’s a feeling that we’re being bothered by problems that aren’t real.”

His is not the only far-right party that has struggled to own the issue.

In the run-up to the European elections, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, denied human-driven climate change and dismissed environmental worries as elitist. That caused a backlash from its youth wing in Berlin.

Vadim Derksen, the head of the wing’s Berlin chapter, said there were “tough discussions on how we should position ourselves” on climate change.

“We acknowledge there is climate change,” Mr. Derksen said in a recent interview, “and we would rather like to focus on how to adapt to this climate change.”

Hénin-Beaumont is in a part of northern France that has been crippled by the closing of mines and factories in recent decades — factors that, along with the presence of migrants who try to cross illegally into Britain, have fueled the rise of the Nationally Rally.

Socialists long controlled Hénin-Beaumont and other municipalities in the region. But corruption involving a Socialist mayor eventually led to victory for the Nationally Rally in Hénin-Beaumont, a city of 27,000 people.

Like elsewhere, the city’s town center is dominated by a stately church and an imposing city hall, along with a bakery, brasserie and kebab restaurants, where some of the city’s tiny population of nonwhites could be found.

As the region groped for a future beyond factories and coal, the Greens won widespread credit for transforming two cities, Loos-en-Gohelle and Grande-Synthe, into models of environmentally friendly, sustainable cities.

Now the National Rally is directly challenging the Greens on an issue that they had long dominated.

In Hénin-Beaumont, the National Rally is putting in place many of the same projects — a fact that has irritated some Green members.

“Electorally, it now has potential,” Ms. Tondelier, the Greens council member, said of the focus on the environment. “I remember people who did it when there wasn’t and who carried out experiments that are now being used by those who want to compete politically.”

Mr. Juvin, the leader on climate in the National Rally, did not deny that there were political considerations. A fresh focus on the environment could widen the appeal of the party beyond its stance on immigration.

“People feel that we have to get out of the fact that there’s only the issue of immigration,” he said.

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