France – left populism flags

Andrew Coates finds a fragmented left and a split far-right

Next year, in April, France will hold a presidential election. French political life has focused on the candidates who will enter that contest. Many have been impressed by the victory of the German social democratic SPD and the growth, by 5.8 percentage points to 14.8%, of the German Greens’ vote. 

The focus on 2022 has been reinforced by the decline in the weekly street protests against the Pass Sanitaire (vaccine passport). These raucous affairs, involving a variety of forces including anti-vaxxers and the far-right who clashed with anti-fascists, drew hundreds of thousands across France. There were 50,000 protesters on the 2nd October. 

In early October, the French Green Party (EELV) and their allies held the second round of their presidential ‘primary’, timed in the expectation of a good result in the neighbouring country. Open to all who paid a nominal sum and signed a declaration of common values, over 100,000 cast their ballots. There were in-depth debates on the news channel LCI focusing on green issues like nuclear power and climate change. Just over 51% backed the nationally known, left-leaning Yannick Jadot (he supported the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon in 2017), with 48.97% voting for the ‘eco-feminist’ Sandrine Rousseau. Polls give him between 7% and (optimistically) 9% of the vote in next year’s election. 

At present, all the presidential candidates of the French left stand at below 10% of projected support. There are plenty to choose from. Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise) is at 8% to just over 10%. The Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hidaglo, Mayor of Paris, was selected by an internal party vote of their 22,000 members. She scores between 5% and 7%. Well down beneath these are Fabien Roussel (PCF, Communist), Philippe Poutou (NPA) and Nathalie Arnaud (LO), both from the far-left, and, for his own movement, L’engagement, former Socialist Party minister Arnaud Montebourg (if he gets on the ballot). They get between one and a couple of percentage points. 

For a party to exist in French politics it is said that they need to run somebody for President. Political organisations must get their activists’ enthusiasm behind a figure who can stand to head the Republic. Those trying to justify this say that some of the electorate will only vote for their own version of left or green politics. Others point to a long history of disputes between parts of the French left (notably between just about everybody and Mélenchon), or the reasons behind the Socialist defeat in 2017.  

Mélenchon has called for a kind of unity from below, ‘la union popularise‘. There have been independent efforts to find a figure beyond the established parties, or a common figure from them, by the Primaire Populaire. All the established groups refused to participate. At 100,000 supporters, this initiative did not achieve the target of 300,000 and has come to nothing. 

At present it looks as if no left force will get to the crucial second round of the presidential battle. President Macron, backed by his ‘movement’ La République en Marche, is at 25% for the first round, and stands at a hypothetical ten percent win in the second round over his main opponent, the far-right Marine le Pen. Macron has a small left wing, En Commun, and several transfers from the social-democratic wing of the Socialist Party. But his politics are increasingly centre-right, as the direction of new social security reforms indicate. The classical right, Les Républicains, who have yet to designate a candidate, are not registering as a serious alternative.  

Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) has its own challenge with the emergence of a contender who is more extreme, Éric Zemmour, who has some serious financial and political backing. The commentator for CNews (a successful version of GB News) is now credited with 15%, just behind Le Pen’s 17%. Zemmour’s best known book, Le Suicide Français (2014), is a compendium of anti-May ’68, anti-immigrant sovereigntist politics, and nationalist prejudice. On the evidence of his debate last month with Jean-Luc Mélenchon on BFMTV, his virulence is undimmed. His anti-woke jibes and, above all, calls for repatriation and a take on ‘assimilation’ including the idea that all French children have ‘French’ forenames – all contested by the leader of LFI –  are hard to imagine even from British national populists.  

Some on the French left have given up hoping for a last minute breakthrough. Their concern is centred on the ‘third round’ – the legislative parliamentary elections that follow the presidential battle. Will these divisions continue, or will the left be able – as it successfully did in many areas in this year’s regional contests – to reach agreements on united lists? Are, as some suggest, the existing party structures badly suited to make these decisions? The decline (at least in the polls) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, which has no real democratic structures but a fluid, web-based form centred around a ‘Chief’, suggests that the ‘left populist’ alternative has not worked. All of the different currents on the French left are still trying to find a way to establish a strong, and governing, political force.  

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.