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Obstacles and prospects for a united left in France

Although it faces significant obstacles, the French left is stronger today than it was after the 2017 presidential election


Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Toulouse, April 16, 2017. Photo by MathieuMD/Wikimedia Commons.

On May 29, the united French left presented a program of 650 propositions, offering a glimpse of what left-wing governance could mean in contemporary France. Gathered in the Nouvelle union populaire écologique et sociale (“new popular, ecological and social union,” NUPES), La France Insoumise (LFI), Parti Socialiste (PS), Europe-Écologie Les Verts (EELV) and Parti Communiste Français (PCF) clearly laid out their main objectives, including the minimum wage increase to €1,500 monthly, the return to retirement at 60, ambitious ecological planning and the establishment of a Sixth Republic.

Despite Emmanuel Macron’s re-election on April 24, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement Union Populaire came third with almost 22 percent of the ballots cast. This strong result encouraged most parties on the left to coalesce into a new alliance, under his aegis. For the first time in 25 years, the majority of left-wing parties formed a would-be governing coalition in France ahead of legislative elections.

NUPES is the last iteration of a long tradition of alliances on the French left, from Front Populaire (1936) to Programme Commun (1972) and Gauche Plurielle (1997). With this lineage in mind, how significant is the new French left coalition? What are the historical tensions and competitions besieging the French left? What role did Emmanuel Macron’s election play in the deliquescence of Parti Socialiste, whose most neoliberal factions he poached in 2017? Fifty years after the signature of Programme Commun, what are the prospects and obstacles facing the new union on the French left?

The United Left in modern France

The French left was historically shaped by three political forces: the Communists (PCF), the Socialists (SFIO, PS) and the social-liberals (Parti Radical, deuxième gauche).

When it originated in 1905, Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), dominated by Jean Jaurès, defined itself as a party of “class struggle” and “revolution,” with a conflicted relationship to the state. Created by SFIO dissidents in 1920, Parti Communiste Français promoted strike action and opposed colonialism. Their first rapprochement occurred in 1934 to counter the rise of far-right leagues. Alongside Parti Radical, they formed Front Populaire (1936-1938), a coalition government that enacted the most radical social reforms of the inter-war period: paid vacations, pay raises, reduction of the working week from 48 to 40 hours, securing the right to collective bargaining and strike, and so on.

After the Libération (1945), socialist resistance fighters embraced a Keynesian, or dirigiste, approach to economic problems and endorsed industrial and agricultural planning. European unification proved a key SFIO marker, with the Treaty of Rome’s ratification in 1957. The shame of the Algerian war nonetheless haunted the party, and led to its split in the late 1960s. In 1971, François Mitterrand founded Parti Socialiste (PS), which prided itself with being the most socialist party in Europe throughout the 1970s. Two years later, he signed Programme Commun (July 1972) with Parti Communiste—back then the hegemonic force on the left—and Parti Radical. This joint platform, shared until 1977, paved the way for Mitterrand’s presidential victory and eventually weakened the orthodox PCF led by Georges Marchais.

Before becoming president in 1981, Mitterrand ambitioned to “change life.” Against the tide of its Western partners, the PS in power decided to reinforce the state’s economic role through Keynesian stimulus mechanisms and the nationalization of selected industries and banks. Despite meaningful social reforms (retirement age at 60, abolition of the death penalty), it only took two years before the Socialists’ governance emulated the policy programs of the Gaullist and liberal right.

Mitterrand swiftly capitulated to finance orthodoxy and promotion of the supply-side in the name of European integration and monetary unification. This policy shift was partly the result of “reformist” left think-tanks’ work of persuasion and the strong ideological influence of deuxième gauche (“second left”) representatives Jacques Delors and Michel Rocard in the 1980s, for whom the “German model” was a powerful referent. It was indeed under Franco-German impulse that the norms and rules acknowledged in successive European treaties—Single European Act (1986), Maastricht Treaty (1992), Stability and Growth Pact (1997)—came to directly translate ordoliberal tenets of monetary stability and strict competition into EU law, building-up the normative structures of the social market economy through the supranational door. In parallel, eminent transnational representatives of the French PS also advocated for further liberalization in international organizations (IMF, EU and WTO).

The French Socialists gradually shaped what Chris Howell called the “paradox of French state intervention,” using state powers to undermine dirigisme and reduce capacity in the sphere of social relations while increasingly exposing its institutions to international market forces. The reformist left naturalized the predicaments of European monetary unification, presenting them as necessary steps towards “modernization” in the post-Cold War global political economy, with bombastic post-ideological discourses praising the advent of a novel “liberal international order,” a narrative that further marginalized the French Communists.

Following an ill-advised National Assembly dissolution by Jacques Chirac, the Gauche Plurielle (“plural left”) majority led by Lionel Jospin came to power in 1997, in an alliance with Les Verts, PCF and Parti Radical. This was the third (and last, to date) cohabitation—a situation whereby the president and the prime minister are not from the same political persuasion—of the Fifth Republic. In lieu of a blunt rupture with Chirac, Jospin’s government privatized more companies than successive right-wing governments: in the air industry (Air France), in telecommunications (France Télécom), in electronics (Thomson-CSF) and in the banking system (Crédit Lyonnais), all in the name of ‘free and fair competition.’

This retrenchment was counter-balanced by rather ambitious social welfare programs: the youth employment program, the “Universal Health Coverage” and the still controversial 1999 “Aubry” laws on the 35-hours working week which, according to many experts, created up to 350,000 jobs. Consequently, the economic situation recovered during Jospin’s mandate (1997-2002): growth picked up and unemployment fell to under eight percent. Inflation did not accelerate and public debt even decreased, despite the introduction of the euro. The French Socialists did not adopt the notion of the “Third Way” promoted by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. Unlike in Britain, social justice remained associated with redistribution through progressive taxation, not with “equality of opportunity.” French governmental elites did not entirely reject state interventionism: they engineered the retreat of the state (through deregulation) in order to circumscribe state intervention to strategic areas or businesses in trouble.

In sum, Socialist governments have implemented the most significant neoliberal reforms that transformed the French model of capitalism: financial deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s, corporate governance reform and privatizations in the 2000s. The main factor that made PS converge with its European social-democratic counterparts was the political will to abide by European competitive and budgetary norms in order to deepen commercial and monetary integration. As in the Anglophone world, most of the neoliberal transformations have thus originated from the ranks of the established left. Yet, the reformist French left was careful to expand social protection for those most affected by liberalization measures in order to ensure consent. This state of affairs changed in the mid-2010s.

Election posters of L’Union Populaire. Photo by Caratello/Flickr.

Emmanuel Macron and the coup de grâce to Parti Socialiste

Over the last 20 years, the politics of the mainstream left and right in France became almost completely interchangeable. The calamitous presidential term of “Socialist” François Hollande, with its far-reaching labor law reforms, generous subsidies to the private sector and creeping criminalization of dissent, substantiated the claim that nothing (not even the scope of repression) distinguished the neoliberal programs implemented by the mainstream left and Right. Emmanuel Macron ⁠—Hollande’s Minister of the Economy⁠—took advantage of this ideological stalemate to propose a seemingly new political project in the May 2017 presidential election with his new movement En Marche!

On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement La France Insoumise, supported by disappointed PS voters and large sections of the youth, achieved a breakthrough, garnering 19.58 percent of the vote share. Mélenchon’s rhetorical talent and ambitious program⁠—curtailing the power of the banks, improving working conditions, reducing the length of the working week, increasing employees’ control over their work environment⁠—decimated the PS, that collapsed to 6.36 percent. Only Macron and Marine Le Pen (Front National) qualified for the second ballot, and the former ended up winning by default against the far-right candidate.

A profound shift in the balance of social and political forces followed Emmanuel Macron’s election, orchestrated by what Antonio Gramsci called trasformismo, a process whereby left and Right’s programs converge until there ceases to be any significant difference between them. In a similar fashion to Italian prime minister Agostino Depretis who decided to recruit his ministers “indiscriminately from both sides of the parliament” in 1876, Macron decided to nominate Edouard Philippe, a mayor and MP from centre-right party Les Républicains (LR), as prime minister of France on 15 May 2017. The Philippe-Macron duet recruited prominent figures from LR (sowing discord in Philippe’s famille politique) as well as from PS: Jean-Yves Le Drian (Hollande’s former Minister of Defence) as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Gérard Collomb (Socialist mayor of Lyon) as Minister of the Interior. This opportunistic circulation of the political personnel’s most neoliberal factions towards the ‘centre’ of the political space was the manifestation of a profound ideological crisis that tore the whole political and partisan landscape apart.

While PS took the path of inward conflicts and divisions, Emmanuel Macron’s victory provided an unprecedented opportunity for local and national political executives whose political careers were at a standstill. Disillusioned with their original political grouping, many candidates in the 2017 legislative elections also resorted to trasformismo, repudiating their former partisan affiliation to join a nascent and potentially fruitful political enterprise: La République en Marche (LREM). The fear of marginalization led dozens of Socialist MPs to dump their PS affiliation in an attempt to secure a Macron ticket and be elected under the colors of LREM. The dynamic had a territorial character, following the early defections of local PS underbosses who wanted to boost their political career: Richard Ferrand (Brittany), Gérard Collomb (Lyon), François Patriat (Burgundy) and Christophe Castaner (Provence). Thus, large sections of centre-left PS officials (and some Greens) seceded from their original parliamentary group and switched their partisan affiliation.

Emmanuel Macron’s transformism provided clarification on the left. Parti Socialiste was drawn and quartered between a neoliberal, pro-European strand enthusiastic about the new president and a social-democratic strand hostile to him. Further on the left, La France Insoumise became active on the parliamentary terrain, with a combative new group in the Assembly, but failed to implant locally and scored rather poorly at most intermediary elections. Nevertheless, LFI morphed into Union Populaire (UP) and triggered a sustained and sophisticated war of position, with an impressive outreach on social media and a detailed program with a very large environmental dimension, alongside measures of economic redistribution and institutional renovation that formed the core of the 2017 manifesto.

Prospects for a left government in 2022

Initially captured by the anti-immigrant and islamophobic stances of fascist polemicist Éric Zemmour, the 2022 presidential campaign debates centred on purchasing power, inflation and rising energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pretexting that his predecessors did not engage with other candidates in their bid for re-election, Macron consistently refused to cross swords with his competitors, making for an unusual campaign.

Once more, Macron and Le Pen qualified for the second round on April 10, with 27.8 and 23.1 percent of the vote share respectively. Jean-Luc Mélenchon scored higher than ever, failing to qualify for the second round with 21.95 percent of the votes, some 400,000 ballots behind Le Pen. PS candidate Anne Hidalgo collected 1.75 percent of the ballots. Three opposing blocs now seem to be structuring French politics: a pro-European, economically neoliberal bloc centered around Emmanuel Macron, a nationalist and economically neoliberal bloc structured around Marine Le Pen, and an ecological, economically redistributive bloc with Jean-Luc Mélenchon at its helm.

In a televised interview before the second round, Mélenchon urged the left to unite around a common program and asked the French to elect him as prime minister, an unusual phrasing since the French prime minister is appointed by the president to lead the majority that won the legislative elections. In an attempt to remobilize his electorate for another campaign, Mélenchon implied that the June parliamentary elections were akin to a “third round” of the presidential contest.

Starting in late April, long and heated negotiations ensued between representatives of Union Populaire, Europe-Écologie Les Verts, PCF, PS and Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) to sign an electoral agreement for the legislative elections, with the aim to capitalise on Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strong score and impose a cohabitation to Emmanuel Macron, who was re-elected on April 24. The negotiations proved successful, except with NPA. On May 7th, the heads of leftist political formations celebrated the creation of Nouvelle union populaire écologique et sociale in Aubervilliers. For the first time in 25 years, the French left was united ahead of decisive legislative elections.

The NUPES’ manifesto reveals a holistic and ambitious political program. Its far-reaching measures tackle both conjunctural emergencies (minimum wage increase, price freeze for basic commodities), structural inequalities (reshuffling of taxation to make the wealthy contribute more, 60-year-old retirement age), as well as systemic challenges (65 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030). Importantly, these priorities are deemed legitimate enough to ‘disobey’ certain EU treaty rules if the latter are considered a hindrance to progressive change.

Despite the credence gained by this popular anti-racist bloc, there are three main obstacles to NUPES’ success in the 2022 legislative elections.

The first obstacle is Parti Socialiste’s social-liberal old guard (“éléphants”)⁠—former president François Hollande, former first secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis or Occitanie region’s president Carole Delga⁠—that expressed strong criticisms against the coalition, which they depicted as an act of ‘submission’ to Mélenchon (himself a dissident from PS). In many constituencies, PS grandees maintained their candidacy against the NUPES, as in Delga’s Occitan strongholds.

Echoing the anti-communism of mainstream media at the time of Programme Commun, the oligarchic French media is also predominantly hostile to Mélenchon and NUPES. Thus, hordes of reactionary editorialists presented NUPES as a coalition of totalitarian Marxist revolutionaries threatening the Republic, a “cult” of irresponsible and violent people, or a ‘national-populist’ movement headed by a worshiper of “Jaurès, Castro and Chávez.”

Lastly, structural constraints complicate NUPES’ prospects to obtain a majority in June (289 seats), such as the traditional lower turnout in legislative elections, especially among the youth and proletarian classes who predominantly voted for Mélenchon. Besides, although NUPES is polling first nationally, the parliamentary elections take place in 577 constituencies. The strength of Mélenchon’s project is to give shape to an alliance between non-white and white working class segments. Yet, despite very strong showings in large cities, popular neighbourhoods and Overseas Territories, its appeal is weaker in small towns and the countryside.

Although it faces significant obstacles, the French left is stronger today than it was after the 2017 presidential election. Even if the united left fails to obtain a majority on June 19, its presence in parliament will likely increase significantly, alongside its ability to counter Macron’s Caesarist solutions to crises in contemporary France.

Thibault Biscahie is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at York University, where he specializes in political economy, international relations and comparative politics. He holds a Master’s degree from Sciences Po Lille and has also studied at the Université du Québec à Montréal and the Université de Provence.


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