Her radical “punk ecology” has won support among activists on the left and been attacked by the far right as dangerous to the French nation. But Sandrine Rousseau, a figurehead of the #MeToo movement against sexual violence and a self-described “eco-feminist,” has shocked the political class by reaching the final round of the Greens’ primary race to choose a presidential candidate.
Now, with a chance of running for president , Rousseau is warning France risks a descent into hatred and racism unless equality and the environment take priority in April’s election race.
“I think we’re at a crossroads of civilisations,” Rousseau said. She said either France was heading to the side of the far-right ideologue and TV pundit Eric Zemmour, who is preparing a potential presidential bid based on anti-immigration, and far right leader Marine Le Pen, “which would mean closing in on ourselves with macho politics, racist and anti-environmental politics,” or, she said, “we could have a political vision of respect, inclusion and ecology – that’s what I’m bringing.”
Rousseau, an environmental economist and university vice-president who spoke out over allegations of sexual assault and harassment within the Green party in 2016 and later formed an organisation helping women file legal complaints over sexual violence, has gone from outsider in a denim jumpsuit to finalist in this weekend’s open primary vote for the Green party (Europe Écologie-Les Verts) presidential candidate.
She sees it as a battle to become the first #MeToo president. “I think I’m the first person to come out of the #MeToo movement and say let’s take power and transform it,” she said. “And I think that resonates beyond France.”
Supported internationally by the actor and activist Jane Fonda and the playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler), Rousseau has been called a dangerous radical by the French far right for what she calls her “eco-feminism,” anti-racism and her promise that France can transition to fully renewable energy by 2050. She says this energy transition – including ending France’s reliance on nuclear power and pesticides – is possible only if the state takes significant social measures to help people adapt, such as increasing taxes on the rich, a four-day working week and a new form of basic universal income.
“What I mean by punk ecology is impertinence,” Rousseau said, adding that she wanted representatives voted into parliament who were so engaged on environmental issues that they wouldn’t cave in. “People are conscious of the climate crisis and what is at stake – they want bravery. Politicians being timid on this is a mistake. It’s time for radical ecology – look at the efforts we absolutely have to make in the next five years: we have to face up to the economic system and tackle the way it’s organised. If we make bland suggestions, people can’t trust us to take action.”
Polling this month for Le Monde found 82% of French people wanted swift action to protect the environment even if it meant changes to their way of life. But the historic challenge for the French Greens has always been how to translate what Rousseau calls “eco-anxiety” into party votes. The Greens have increased their urban vote, taking control of key cities including Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux last year, but they did not win a region in the June elections and have been polling at less than 10% for the presidential first round – against a crowded field of left wing candidates.
Rousseau, 49, has upset predictions in the Greens’ primary race, which remains hard to call. For months, Yannick Jadot, a member of the European parliament who is seen as having a more centrist stance and is polling higher than Rousseau, was expected to be chosen as presidential candidate when results are announced next week. But his lead on Rousseau is narrower than expected. He was candidate in 2017 but withdrew in favour of the socialist Benoît Hamon, who ended up scoring only 6% in the first round.
Rousseau’s status as a hero of the #MeToo movement in France has garnered her support among feminists, rights campaigners and cultural figures including the film director Céline Sciamma. She says she can win back the disillusioned youth vote – 87% of 18- to 25-year-olds failed to turn out to vote in this year’s regional elections.
Rousseau said a major reason behind her return to politics last year was her outrage when president Emmanuel Macron – who was in office during the #MeToo movement and promised to improve women’s rights – appointed Gérald Darmanin as his interior minister in charge of police, despite judges continuing to investigate an accusation of rape against him.
She said: “The only explanation was that Emmanuel Macron, and not just him but the whole political class in general, had failed to grasp what had happened in #MeToo, they hadn’t understood the anger.”
Darmanin has criticised Rousseau publicly and denied wrongdoing. His lawyers said that “three consecutive court decisions” had “recognised the absence of an offence” and they were now awaiting the investigating judge’s final decision after the inquiry ended last week.
Despite Macron’s 2017 promise to “make our planet great again” – a swipe at former US President Donald Trump’s denials on the climate crisis – France’s High Council on Climate has repeatedly warned the government is falling short on pledges to reduce emissions. The year-long gilets jaunes (yellow vests) anti-government protests began as a crisis in climate policy over plans for a carbon tax intended to urge motorists to change their behaviour.
Rousseau said the gilets jaunes were not against fighting climate change but instead “they were against the fact they were getting no help.”
Far-right ideas were taking up more and more space in French political debate, she said, because the left had failed to have an impact over its key themes, “equality, school, ecology and anti-racism.” She added: “There is no political representative or presidential candidate today who puts the words ‘anti-racism’ into the political debate and I’m doing that.”
France was still “traumatised by terrorist attacks, still in fear,” Rousseau said. “But we really have to find hope again.”