The shadow of the far-right hangs over advances for the left alliance in the French parliamentary elections, writes Andrew Coates
A period of unusual political instability under the French 5th Republic has begun. It is, above all, parliamentary. The April presidential election gave Emmanuel Macron a mandate, with 58.55% of the second round vote against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen’s 41.45%. Constitutional changes to align the timetable of legislative elections to that contest, consolidating the power of the new head of state, have not worked. The president’s alliance, Ensemble!, has, with a total of 245, failed to get the 289 seats needed for a governing majority. Potential partners on the right, Les Républicains (with 61 MPs), are reluctant to co-operate with a leader who has marginalised the once powerful Gaullists. The endorsement of a prime minister, let alone passing legislation, will be difficult.
Macron faces some determined opponents. Five years after having also been pushed to the margins in the National Assembly, the left has returned. France’s new left-wing bloc, Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES), with 131 MPs1, has become the largest opposition force. The Greens (Europe Écologie Les Verts or EELV) got 23 MPs – they had only one after the previous elections. There is big increase in La France insoumise (LFI) representation, up from 17 in 2017 to 72 today.
The left has not returned to the scores of decades past, such as in 2012 when Socialists, Communists, Front de gauche and Greens reached 316 deputies. But it has done a lot better than in the last parliamentary contest. After the 2017 triumph of President Macron, helped in part by former Socialists jumping ship for his centrist La République en Marche (LREM), the French left-wing parties were in disarray. They were divided on the Socialists’ term of office under outgoing President François Hollande. The largest force, LFI, founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, polarised left-wing opinion and offered an uncertain future in left-wing populism. In 2017, the left as a whole only won 73 seats.
The NUPES agreement that brought these parties together could be said to be radical green democratic socialism within the perspective of ‘another Europe’. This has involved compromises. Mélenchon’s talk of self-assertion within the European Union, including threats to break treaties or even quit the EU and a radical “citizens’ revolution”, has been diluted. In its place are proposals for democratic and social reforms, opposing plans to raise the retirement age, and defending living standards. Today, there is the prospect of fighting Macron’s right-of-centre legislation from the benches of the Palais Bourbon, up to devices such a vote of censure with, one hopes, street protests and union activity to complement their work.
The French left has, despite the low 46% turnout, also developed a popular base, adapting to new class structures. NUPES did well in the big conurbations, notably the Ile-de-France, and won in nine constituencies in the East of Paris – including areas previously held by Macron’s LREM. Symbolic perhaps was the victory in Val-de-Marne of Rachel Kéké, a hotel housekeeper, originally from the Côte d’Ivoire, and a CGT activist who led a very long strike for better pay and conditions at one of the biggest hotels in Paris. NUPES brought together a multicultural France with unifying rather than divisive politics.
By contrast, the election saw the continuation of the long-term decline of the left in its previous strongholds, analogous to the ‘Red Wall’, of the Hautes-de-France, which have also seen the decline of industry, mining and class solidarity, and are populated by a different kind of working class and self-employed, often known as ‘peripheral France’. Support for the far-right is said to thrive in these ‘rooted’ communities, beyond the metropolitan multicultural ‘elite’. Whatever the truth of these contested claims, in this not untypical region, NUPES got eight MPs and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National 20. At Hénin-Beaumont, Le Pen was re-elected with a 61% landslide. The area saw five RN deputies elected in 2017.
There is one shadow. The success of the national populists of the RN has been widely reported in the media, including in the English-speaking world. The election of an unprecedented 89 far-right MPs (17.3% of the vote) is very bad news. Its extent was not foreseen by pollsters. To the traditional complaint that not everybody will publicly admit to casting a ballot for the former Front National, there has been a breakdown of what is known as the ‘republican front’. That is a barrage against the right in the run-off elections – meaning either support for anybody standing against them, or at the least, a call not to vote for them. Many Macron supporters appeared to put NUPES in the same bag as the RN, and a great deal of wavering took place from all quarters. Given the virulence, some Macron voters would have gone to the RN when they faced NUPES, and some anti-Macron forces, including allegedly NUPES voters, went over to the RN in Ensemble/RN run-offs. There is one fact to remember: France has the biggest number of elected far-right MPs in its history.
Within the parliament, each group of the left has its own identity and history, including the division between Communists and Socialists that dates back to the 1920 Congrès de Tours. How far they will continue to co-operate, in the National Assembly as an ‘inter-group’ and outside, will become clearer in the coming days. Their organisational structures are very different. The LFI’s party/movement has no grassroots democracy; rather, it has a virtual centrally directed one that uses devices like selecting conference delegates by lot, and has no proper local branches, only ‘supporters’ groups’ who carry out centrally directed campaigns. This contrasts to one heavily dominated by ‘notables’ in the PS.
The role of the ‘charismatic’ Jean Luc Mélenchon, now out of parliament, remains controversial. His unilateral attempt following the result to merge the lefts into a united parliamentary group – which gives administrative weight but ignores differences – was not welcomed by his partners. Some hope that a large parliamentary LFI presence will lead to an independent centre outside the inner circle of the veteran chief. Others wish him a happy retirement and an advisory rather than directing role. This, it is said, may be a condition of creating an ‘enduring organisation’ bringing together the French left.
- La France insoumise: 72; the Greens and their mini-coalition, le Pôle écologiste: 23; Socialists: 26; Communists: 12