Undaunted by 28% unemployment, and the fact that Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic National Rally party continues to appeal to a majority of his constituents, the Green Party mayor of an impoverished coastal town near Calais is determined to prove that strong environmental policy means a better life for working people.
With a population of 23,600, Grande-Synthe is one of the poorest towns in France, and is in the midst of a grand experiment, writes the New York Times, thanks to Damien Carême, the town’s mayor since 2001. “Colourful condominiums with low-energy fixtures have replaced dreary old buildings,” the paper writes, “community gardens have sprouted at the foot of public housing projects,” and “a flashy new fleet of buses runs on natural gas—the fare free.”
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Even more striking, Grande-Synthe expects this year “to save nearly half a million euros, or about $560,000, on street lighting, thanks to the installation of low-energy consumption LED bulbs,” with the savings “applied to a new income supplement for people living below the poverty line.”
The town’s achievements are garnering praise from those alert to the massive PR problem facing the environmental movement in France.
Carême “has succeeded in removing a contradiction that is deeply rooted in France between social and environmental issues,” said Paris-based political scientist Daniel Boy. “His policies showed that environmentalism is not only for the rich,” and that “it is as important to restore social housing as it is to build bike lanes.”
Arguing that environmentalists worthy of the name must address “the end of the month” as well as the “end of the world,” Carême is working hard within his own jurisdiction to heal the wounds made (or deepened) by President Emmanuel Macron’s ill-judged 2018 decision to permit a gasoline tax increase, knowing it would hit rural and low-income people hardest.
Receptive to the resulting Yellow Vest protests, impoverished Grande-Synthe, with more than 30% of its households living below the poverty line, has also proven fertile ground for Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the notorious National Front). Located “just 25 miles from the port of Calais, it has also become a way station for hundreds of migrants hoping to cross the nearby English Channel.”
Indeed, notes the Times, Carême “first came to prominence when the French state refused to help Grande-Synthe house around 2,800 migrants who were living in precarious conditions at the height of the 2015 migrant crisis.” Falling back on his own resources, and with the help of Médecins Sans Frontières, Carême “decided to build a camp with proper sanitary conditions for nearly 1,500 people, making him one of the rare mayors in France to take in migrants.”
The mayor’s efforts on behalf of all the disenfranchised in his community, regardless of their origin, have borne fruit at the ballot box. Though Grande-Synthe support for the National Rally “remains strong,” the recent European election saw it dip 6% from the previous vote in 2014, while “the Greens’ score surged from 6 to 22%,” the Times notes.
Not that Carême was surprised. “We got to the root of problems. We made concrete changes,” he said. ‘‘That is the only way to cut the National Rally’s score.”
As to whether his working class environmentalism will stand the test of time, “the verdict is still out,” with some, like Dunkirk-based economic professor Iratxe Calvo-Mendieta, telling the Times that Carême’s job creation plans, in particular, depend on revenue from an ever-shrinking tax base.
“The city alone cannot create many jobs,’’ she said, cautioning that “in an area still labelled very industrial, Grande-Synthe struggles to attract entrepreneurs and start-ups.”
But the town’s dauntless mayor is far from giving up, recently leasing a 200-acre plot of land to farmers “at the lowest market price”. For that, the Times says 41-year old farmer Gérald Maison, whose produce now supplies the town’s school cafeterias, is grateful for the leg up. “Without it, I would never have embarked on this project,” he said.
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