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French Greens bickering, divided as EU vote looms

PARIS (AP) — France's Greens could well be upbeat: They tallied record results in recent municipal elections. They got an unprecedented offer for the No. 2 post in a Socialist-led Cabinet. They champion environmental issues that many French have been contemplating ever since Paris skies were recently coated in heavy smog.

Instead, they're bickering — and the rift threatens to muddle the message of one of Europe's most visible and power-wielding ecology parties before next month's European parliamentary elections, potentially deflating the ability of avowed tree-huggers to shape policy at a time of rising environmental concerns.

At a raucous, two-day party leadership meeting in Paris that ended Sunday, the Greens sought to overcome discord that erupted when the party's two ministers in the outgoing Socialist Cabinet balked at joining a new one under Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a brash and unapologetic former interior minister.

Led by Cecile Duflot — an equally brash and unapologetic former housing minister — with support of party bosses, the Greens' snub abruptly ended the only role in national government for an ecological party in any major European Union country. (Greens are a partner in Finland's government; Germany's Greens tried but failed to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's government last year.)

In a rousing address to Green party leaders on Saturday, Duflot said President Francois Hollande's Socialists had only provided lip service on issues dear to Greens in their two-year coalition government that he reshuffled last week. She denounced as "bait" a Valls offer to give them the No. 2 Cabinet post — environment and energy minister, which they rejected.

Many leaders of Europe Ecologie Les Verts — the Greens' French name — hailed the return to its roots of contestation. But a poll published Saturday in daily Le Parisien showed that 85 percent of party backers said they opposed the walkout. Many of those Greens feel the need to have hands on power whenever they can, insisting the environmental stakes are too important.

For now, the Greens, an openly left-leaning party, will be generally supportive of the Socialist government, but critical and outspoken when it's deemed necessary. They were still working on their official stance Sunday. Many eyes this week will be watching how or whether Green lawmakers vote in parliament after Valls lays out his policy agenda.

Greens across Europe have long grappled with such choices: Join government coalitions and possibly compromise on some core values, or remain true to their roots, pressuring from outside. Despite recent concerns about global warming, many European voters' minds have been more on jobs, the economy, even anti-immigrant sentiment — and Green politics haven't resonated broadly.

As Duflot put it, "We are often caricatured: As opportunists who are eager for (government) posts, or as irresponsible, capricious beatniks." Still, the party won a record-high 12 percent of the nationwide vote count in the first round of last month's municipal elections — in which the Socialists suffered a humiliating defeat by conservatives and the far-right — and the Greens won control of City Hall in the Alpine city of Grenoble, their largest municipal prize yet.

Some say the split between Socialists and Greens had its roots in personal and political pique: Months ago, Duflot lashed out over a tough stance and tougher invective from then-Interior Minister Valls against tens of thousands of Roma, or Gypsies, who live in squalid camps across France. He sought to expel many from France and send them to eastern Europe.

Others say the Greens' breaking point was when Hollande pledged in January to trim 50 billion euros ($68 billion) from state spending over the years 2015-2017 — what many in the environmental party called a sop to the political right and ill-guided policy when pro-environmental reforms and spending programs are needed.

"The DNA of ecologists is to share in the responsibilities" of governing, said Pascal Canfin, a Green party leader who was formerly junior minister for development under the Socialists, and joined Duflot in the walkout. "But when the economic line from the Socialists is to say, 'we'll do what the political right was afraid to do," then we (Greens) have reached at the breaking point."

"We have gotten our freedom back," Canfin said.

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