Andrew Coates sees an unprecedented left unity in the third round of the French elections
“A new page in history” is how Jean-Luc Mélenchon described the electoral coalition that has united the main forces of the French left for the June parliamentary elections to their launch rally at Aubervilliers on the 7th May. The appearance of the heads of the Socialist Party (PS), the Greens (EELV) and the Communists (PCF) – Olivier Faure, Julien Bayou and Fabien Roussel – together with the leader of La France insoumise (LFI) was a memorable sight. “This is the first time in 25 years that a wide-ranging agreement has been reached between all the forces of the traditional left, the environmentalists and LFI,” continued the veteran left-winger. The meeting, streamed live from the Parisian banlieue, was all the more impressive for platform contributions by ordinary supporters engaged in social struggles and union disputes in sectors such as health care.
The new election front, la Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES), is running candidates in every French electoral constituency. This is unprecedented. Past experiences of left unity – the 1936 Popular Front, the Union of the Left in the 1970s, and the Plural Left of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, that cohabited with a right-wing President Chirac (1997-2002) – did not include a common candidate for the first round of the two-stage voting in French contests. Mélenchon hopes to repeat Jospin’s feat and become prime minister.
Needless to say, this pact has provoked disagreement from those party candidates who have been supplanted by the NUPES national list and now find themselves without the prospect of election. Critics of the bloc, including a minority of the Socialists, such as former president François Hollande and his prime ministers Bernard Cazeneuve and Manuel Valls, have not just attacked the “radical left” turn of their former comrades: they have also attempted to exploit the disappointment of those not chosen. Valls has gone one stage further and is a candidate for Emmanuel Macron’s party under its repackaged name, Renaissance.
The NUPES programme, including an increase in the minimum wage after tax to €1,400 per month, the return to retirement at 60, the freezing of the prices of basic necessities, ecological planning, and the establishment of a Sixth Republic (a hobby horse of Jean-Luc Mélenchon) and challenges to liberalising EU treaties, may lead to a “rupture” with neoliberalism. But it does not go as far as the 1970s Programme commun (signed in 1972 by the Communists, Socialists and the Radical Party of the Left, the PRG) which promised a “rupture” with capitalism itself, a Keynesian relaunch of the economy, widespread nationalisation and workers’ participation in company management.
The backdrop to the creation of NUPES is the April presidential election and the high score of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at 22%, just behind Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement national, at 23.2%, but a distance from Macron’s 27.9%. The PS – in government under President Holland until 2017, when their radical green-socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, received just 6.3% – and the Communist PCF were reduced to fringe scores. With 1.75% of the vote, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, had the worst result in the history of the PS – worse than the 5% for Gaston Defferre in 1969. The Communist, Fabien Roussel, did barely better at 2.31%, while the French Greens, whose candidate, Yannick Jadot, would have expected to do well with the existence of an educated ecologically-minded electorate, scored a low 4.63%.
The thirst for unity amongst French left-wing voters had already been signalled by the holding of a People’s Primary (la Primaire Populaire) in January 2020. Over 466,000 participants hoped to agree on a common left presidential candidate. The Socialists, the Greens and Mélenchon refused to take part. The winner, Christiane Taubira, was a left-of-centre former minister of justice (she resigned over plans to take away the nationality of dual nationals convicted of terrorism) during Hollande’s presidency. She abandoned a presidential bid when it became clear that she had no support from left parties. The wish for unity outlasted this attempt. As of early May, 84% of the left-wing supporters back the new alliance (BFM TV, 4/5/2022).
France, it is said, now has three political blocs: the centre-right and centre around President Macron’s present front, Renaissance/Ensemble, with a small centre-left green wing of micro-parties (such as Territoires de progrès); le Rassemblement national, the far-right national populists represented by Le Pen, a bloc split by the presence of Éric Zemmour’s extreme right party, Reconquête (who are running 550 candidates in the June elections); and now NUPES, which, apart from the forces already described above, has the backing of a number of small left-wing parties, like Génération.s: le mouvement commun, founded in 2017 by Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon.
The French left has not collapsed or been absorbed in the way its Italian counterparts have done in the face of a new centrist party (il Partito Democratico, in Italy’s case). Hopes are growing that, with Mélenchon toning down his left-populist rhetoric about “federating the people” against the “elite”, “la caste” beyond political divisions, the serious business of creating left alliances, not just in the National Assembly but on the ground, may begin.
Seventy-year-old Mélenchon is not standing in the coming elections – he has said that one can be prime minister without being an MP (technically the case for a number of former PMs). Commentators point to the candidacy of Manuel Bompard in the LFI leader’s former Marseille seat. Is he passing the reins of power over to the person who headed the negotiations that created NUPES? Can a more durable strategy of left unity come about with a new generation in charge of La France insoumise?
Some polls give the coalition 28% support, 27% for Macron, and 22% for Marine Le Pen’s party. Translated into seats, taking account of the complexity of constituencies and local support, this is less favourable than it seems, though still respectable for the left: 300 to 350 MPs for Macron, 105 to 168 for NUPES, 52 to 80 for the Rassemblement national, and between 30 and 48 MPs for the remnants of the classic right, les Républicains and their allies. (linternaute.com 13/05/22). With or without the post of prime minister, it looks as if the French left will return as a serious political player.