Graines Populaires: an interview with the eco movement empowering France’s working class

Graines Populaires: an interview with the eco movement empowering France’s working class


As the climate crisis continues to threaten the world’s most vulnerable communities and future generations, new visions for enacting change are blossoming around the globe. A testament of this is Graines Populaires, a non-profit organisation shaking up the fight to protect our planet. Dedicating itself to equipping local, working-class communities with the tools needed to lead the climate fight, Graines Populaires is putting those people who are most at risk by unfettered global warming at the forefront of climate activism. Politika News sat down (virtually) with Pierre Benassaya, President of the organisation and member of the Executive Committee of France’s Green party: Europe Écologie – Les Verts.

You are the President of Graines Populaires, a non-profit organisation that seeks to empower working-class communities to lead the ecological fight. Can you explain why social and ecological injustices are linked?

I have always been quite surprised that ecology is considered a concern of the rich, even though the first victims of ecological disturbances are the poorest and the most vulnerable. It is with the aim of responding to this paradox that we decided to launch our organisation. Graines Populaires is a young association that we founded in August 2020 to respond in a very concrete way to the social injustice citizens face through ecological crises.

Last summer there were only three of us. Barely four months later, and despite the ongoing epidemic, we are already more than a hundred volunteers strong, spanning over 60 municipalities in France and in seven different countries. The enthusiasm for our vision demonstrates that ecology is intrinsically social. Not seeing or pretending to forget this by advocating a form of ‘green productivism’ is totally missing what ecology is inherently about. 

Political ecology is the idea that we can build a non-productivist world where everyone would consume according to their needs while considering the planetary physical limits. Therefore, I find the ‘economic growth versus economic decline’ debate totally absurd. To discredit us, we are thrown in the face of this etymologically negative term of ‘decline’. But this is a total misunderstanding.

We are not advocating for decline; we are simply stating that infinite growth is impossible and that clinging to it at all costs is irrational and dangerous. By favouring growth at all costs, the world continues to support polluting industries, which exploit nature and people. We must rethink the economic indicators, of course, but also the production system.

Pierre Benassaya, President of ‘Graines Populaires’ and member of the EELV’s Executive Committee

Do you think that today, in France, ecological movements provide a platform for the working class?

Electorally, there is indeed a glaring gap between the working classes and political ecology. It is the well-to-do classes who come to put a green ballot in the ballot box. However, I would like to go against popular belief by telling you that people with fewer means live de facto greener lives than the affluent classes. They tend to consume less, take fewer flights, meaning their carbon footprint is much lower. But this is because they live under an imposed austerity, and is not a lifestyle choice as some minimalists can afford.

Rather, there is a problem of communication between certain politicians and citizens on what constitutes ecology. The best example is cycle paths: we tell employees to use their bike when they live 50km from the workplace. We tell them that there is an added premium on the price of electric cars, when the cheapest electric car already costs around 20,000 euros. We make them feel guilty for not fitting the mould without giving them the means to do so. It does not make any sense!  As ecologists, our role is to enable citizens to live ecologically even when they may have little.

This is what I mean by there being a double penalty for the working class: we are putting the burden of global warming on the wrong people, even when we know how much companies pollute. At the same time, working-class are not given the means of individual transition to more responsible consumption.

Making people feel guilty is the last thing to do. I am not the only one who has made this observation, Murray Bookchin said the same in the 70s. The worst mistake would be to make each individual bear the guilt of the ecological crisis. Of course, we all have our own responsibility, but therefore we must support individual transitions while rethinking our economic system in a global way.

In a nutshell, if our ecology is not social, it will not be able to propose a project in agreement with society as a whole. The risk is that ecology becomes a pretext for the better-off to improve their comfort of life. This might lead to absurd situations like people rushing to Biocoop in an SUV or people not eating meat whilst travelling by plane several times a year.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were some who argued that the locking down of communities around the world could reduce pollution and therefore benefit the planet. One year on from the start of the epidemic, can we say there have been environmental benefits to COVID-19, or was this wishful thinking?

At the very beginning, we all thought the lockdown measures implemented to fight COVID-19 were like an enchanted interlude that would benefit us and the planet. Indeed, we saw direct consequences only a few weeks after the first lockdown. For instance, we all remember dolphins coming back in Sardinian harbours and animals coming back on the streets again. Pollution fell by 40% in the Ile de France region, which seemed to prove that the decline in human activity was having a positive impact. 

However, this is a short-term analysis that does not take into consideration the rebound effect. Moreover, this reasoning suggests ecology is the enemy of the economy, which is false. This crisis has rather highlighted the systemic and structural deficiencies of our production models. The short-term environmental benefits of COVID-19 are nothing in the face of harm to come.

As well as managing Graines Populaires, you are also a member of the Executive Committee for France’s Green Party (Europe Écologie – Les Verts). In France’s 2019 European elections, the Greens came third overall, with over 3 million votes. Do you believe that French society is craving green politics?

The green wave that swept across Europe made it clear that political ecology was the electorate’s choice in and of itself. For many Europeans, environmentalism became a political programme, not just a project. As it was confirmed later by the municipal elections, Europe Ecologie Les Verts is the party for which young people voted the most.

Certainly, ecological awareness is gaining momentum in the general population, but this growing concern has not yet translated into a majority of votes for the Green Party. Our duty is to expand our electorate beyond the divisions that have structured French political life since the 20th century. Our programme is desirable, and French society is indeed craving green politics, but to take power we must demonstrate our credibility in public affairs management. 

Given how well Yannick Jadot’s Greens did in the European elections, do you think he or another leader from the Greens should run for President in 2022?

If every left-wing party presents a candidate, I am afraid the French political horizon will once again set towards a Macron-Le Pen duel, which is undesirable for everybody. European and municipal election results confirm that the ecologists stand as the third political force and therefore have legitimacy to challenge the other parties.

The best-case scenario would therefore be a Green candidate who unites all French people around a common agenda against the right-wing and far-right parties. Currently three candidates stand out: Yannick Jadot as you mentioned, Eric Piolle and Sandrine Rousseau. Before choosing the right person, building a unifying and promising project is an indispensable requirement. Several groups such as Ecolos & Humanistes or Résilience Commune are working on this.

Personally, I am yet to make my choice of whom to support, as I am currently focusing on the regional elections in Ile de France.

Do you believe President Macron has done enough in his quinquennat to tackle the climate crisis?

Mainstream media often say that Macron’s government has done the most for the environment. Considering the little that had been done before, this is not a great victory. There is a real gulf between talk and deed. We are a long way from the commitments that the state itself has made and we are not witnessing a notable reversal of this trend.

This is the motive behind the Affaire du siècle movement, that has gathered more than 2 million signatories to sue the state for climate inaction. Here are some quantified elements that support their case with three telling examples. The first concerns the reduction of greenhouse gases. The 2015 – 2018 carbon budget was exceeded by 72 million tons of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e). Secondly, in terms of energy consumption, the target set for 2020 will not be reached until 2026 and France has already been the subject of two formal notices by the European Commission. Third, in terms of renewable energies: the target of 23% renewable energies by 2020 has not been met.

These are some of the arguments that have made it possible to legally challenge the state in court. We are still awaiting the verdicts, but the government commissioner has already recognised “the state’s faulty failure to fight climate change”, which is historic. If there is a sanction, it will be hard for the government to continue to claim its exemplarity.

Do you believe the European Union is doing enough to tackle the climate crisis?

It would be unreasonable and wrong to say that the European Union is doing nothing to tackle the climate crisis because EU citizens enjoy some of the highest environmental standards in the world. 

From the start, Europe was considered a good scale for ecological transition. If I correctly remember my university classes, in 1986, the Single European Act provided a specific competence for the EU in environmental matters. Later in 1997, the Amsterdam Treaty recognized the principle of sustainable development as “development which meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs”. But it is since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 that the fight against climate change has been a real objective of Union policy.

Since then, the EU has achieved great things such as recently banning disposable plastics (cotton swabs, coffee stirrers or plastic straws) which represent 70% of marine litter. Now the law must be enforced, and the penalties must be severe against those who do not respect this ban. In addition, the Green Deal objectives presented by Ursula von der Leyen are ambitious with carbon neutrality by 2050.

However, many activists fear that the EU’s good intentions will turn into a massive greenwashing operation, and with the pandemic, there is a strong risk that the Green Deal will take a back seat. I think that the will of the European Union is sincere, but that member states and lobbyists are working to individually defend their industries and energy grids.

Finally, what three things does the next French government need to do to lead the fight against the climate crisis?

I think that if the government considered all the proposals of the Citizens’ Climate Convention, we would already be taking a big step forward for the environment. President Macron promised to take up all the proposals without a filter. Instead, the government has rejected the main measures and proposed, as compensation, to add the fight against climate change to the Constitution by means of a referendum. This does not change anything. The 2003 environmental charter, which enshrines the protection of the environment and biodiversity, already holds the equivalent of constitutional power.

The first thing the government needs to do is to reverse the effects of offshoring by reorienting our economy toward France itself and providing new and quality jobs. This relocation will have several impacts. For example, it will reduce the transport of goods and raw material and bring us towards the aim of reaching food and energy sovereignty. The re-industrialisation of our territories is therefore a necessity to fight both against climate change, the international competition of employees with very different living conditions, and the social and environmental dumping practiced by certain countries.

To lead the fight against the climate crisis, the government should also completely review its transport policy, [sic] which still accounts for a large part of our greenhouse gas emissions today. The state must develop multifaceted solutions to limit the use of cars and other polluting vehicles. We should also remove domestic flights when train travel is possible.

Finally, the French government should support the transition towards a circular economy, a functional economy, and a sharing economy. This could mean a tax reform to set up a circular, social and environmental VAT, with differentiated rates according to the mode of production.

Defining environmental and social criteria for all government subsidies to companies would also be a good way to promote social enterprise, to the detriment of polluting companies. In short, the solutions are there. All that is missing is the political will to go against the interests of the large private groups who spend a tremendous amount of money on lobbying, which slows down the achievement of the objectives set by the Paris Agreement.

Politika News would like to thank Pierre Benassaya and Graines Populaires for their time.

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