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France's Green Wave Marks Environmental Shift

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

We're going to head now to France, where Green Party candidates won big in municipal elections this summer, taking control of several major cities. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the huge gains mark a real turning point for a party that had been considered a fringe player in France.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Environmentalists celebrated their big wins in Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Tours, Lyon and Marseilles. The two-round vote for the country's mayors was supposed to conclude in March, but the coronavirus derailed the second round, which was held at the end of June.

MAUD LELIEVRE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Maud Lelievre is a delegate for Eco Maires, an association of environmentally-minded mayors. She says she's not surprised by the vote.

LELIEVRE: Why there is a Green vote - it's not only because there is a coronavirus. It's more deep. It's more important.

BEARDSLEY: Lelievre says the COVID lockdown made people feel vulnerable, and they realized how choked their cities are with cars and pollution. She says during the last municipal election six years ago, the environment didn't even make it into voters' top five issues. This year, it was No. 1. Another reason besides the virus, she says, is that French cities are becoming unbearably hot. Last summer, Paris hit 110 degrees.

DAVID BELLIARD: Paris is not prepared. We don't know if we could live in Paris with this kind of temperature.

BEARDSLEY: That's David Belliard, who was the Green Party candidate for Paris mayor. In the second round of voting, he and the incumbent mayor, Anne Hidalgo, formed a coalition.

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ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Hidalgo was reelected, and Belliard is now in charge of transforming the city's public spaces. He says cities must change their thinking.

BELLIARD: Ten years ago, when we had - I don't know - an empty space, we decided to make offices for firms, for enterprised (ph), because we wanted to be in competition with other big cities in the world. Now when you have an empty space in Paris, it's very important to make gardens, new parks.

BEARDSLEY: Belliard says green spaces improve quality of life and are a natural way to reduce temperatures and refresh the city.

PIERRE HURMIC: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Surrounded by his supporters, Green Party candidate Pierre Hurmic celebrated his surprise victory in Bordeaux, which ended the Conservative Party's 73-year reign. Hurmic has declared a climate state of emergency and wants to ban cars from Bordeaux's city center.

French environmentalists were never as powerful as their German counterparts. Maud Lelievre of the mayor's Association says French Greens were seen as too far left. She says they also got distracted by controversial issues like Palestinian independence and gay marriage. She says this is the first time many Greens did not share a ticket with far-left candidates.

LELIEVRE: At this election, Green Party propose programs for localities and not with intentional subject, so their identity was more clear for people.

BEARDSLEY: While the environmental vote in France cuts across age and social class, young people like Zoe Emsellem (ph) are particularly passionate.

ZOE EMSELLEM: I mean, it's almost shameful now today to say that you're not an environmentalist. And I think especially in our generation, we expect others to modify their behaviors.

BEARDSLEY: President Macron has taken note. He says he's ready to hold a referendum on amending the French constitution to include language on biodiversity and the fight against climate change.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLO AND PAN'S "KIRGHIZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.