On the face of it, rightwingers dominated the French presidential elections. Marine Le Pen, a far right candidate who preaches of the dangers of immigration and proposes a ban on the hijab, came closer to the presidency than ever before, although was ultimately defeated for the third time. But there was little joy to be found in her defeat: Emmanuel Macron’s victory ensured five more years of a centre-right neoliberal agenda taking centre stage. Or so we thought.
Beneath the headline-grabbing results, a previously shattered French left has begun to regroup, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftwing La France Insoumise (LFI) as the leading force. The third presidential campaign led by the 70-year-old leftist has seen a marginalised socialism restored to prominence, as rivals on the centre left have all but vanished from the political scene. Now, ahead of June’s parliamentary elections, a historic political coalition between the LFI, the centre-left Socialist Party (PS) and the French Greens has been announced. If the alliance holds, polling suggests this broad left bloc would win the popular vote by a 10pt-margin. Whilst an overall majority is improbable, instead it will likely result in a much-strengthened left in parliament that can influence Macron’s choice of prime minister.
First, some background. In the 2017 presidential election, the Socialist Party collapsed in dramatic fashion, going from full control of the government under François Hollande to not even making it to the final round. Macron was swept into power, carrying his En Marche (LREM) party to a parliamentary majority. Parties of the left and centre-left found themselves sidelined in the legislature, holding just 73 seats (12.6%) – the fewest since 1958.
The most notable aspect of this collapse, however, was the disappearance of any left party that might possibly win power. Prior to 2017, the PS was the largest force on the French left and frequently saw itself in an influential position. Following 2017, none of the major leftist parties seemed to have a chance of governing; none had made it to the second round of the presidential race, all had polled less than 15% in the legislative elections, and none had won more than 30 seats. Ultimately, not enough people were voting left; the combined vote share for the left and centre-left in 2017’s presidential race was the lowest ever (27.7%). In 2022 that rose but was still the second-lowest total since 1969.
Mélenchon attracted the most votes on the left in both years, but fell just short of the second round – in part due to a divided left. In 2022, for instance, Mélenchon fell short by just over 400,000 votes even as the Green, Socialist, Communist and other leftist candidates won 3.5 million votes combined. It was the second election in a row in which no leftist made it to the second round. Things, on the surface, seem bleak.
Yet despite the disappointment, Mélenchon’s 2022 result was a significant advance. Just three months before the elections, the French left was in a sorry and divided state with little chance of finishing even in fourth place, let alone winning. Even Mélenchon himself was struggling to poll higher than 10%, with multiple competing candidates (from the PS to the Communists) drawing support in the low single figures. But by presenting a bold leftist programme, mobilising a mass movement and benefitting from two unpopular frontrunners, Mélenchon breathed life into the left and took it to within a hair’s breadth of the presidential runoff.
The headline result itself also obscures significant gains for the left below the surface. In the Paris metropolitan region, Mélenchon triumphed with 30.2% of the vote (+8.5pts), vastly outpolling PS candidate Anne Hidalgo, who despite being Mayor of Paris won just 1.4% (-6.2).
Mélenchon also performed strongly amongst key demographics: he won both 18-24s and 25-34s, came a narrow second to Le Pen amongst the poorest voters and bested everyone except Le Pen amongst both blue-collar and white-collar workers.
Most notably, Mélenchon won a landslide victory amongst France’s Muslim community, taking 69% of the vote according to IFOP polls. He similarly cleaned up in overseas French territories like Guadalope, with majority French Creole and Black voters (which Le Pen later won thanks to a mix of “punishment” voting and her focus on the cost of living crisis). Mélenchon’s movement thus proved itself to be the voice of young, poor, diverse and marginalised voters – and at the same time (despite splits on the left) it showed itself to be a serious competitor for power.
But perhaps the most galvanising aspect of Mélenchon’s performance was the closeness of the result. By falling just 1pt short of making the runoff and emerging as the most popular left candidate by far, Mélenchon both established his party as the left’s major leading voice and reshaped France’s political system. Prior to 2017, the two major blocs were the social democratic centre-left and the conservative centre-right; the collapse of both these blocs left Macron’s coalition as the dominant force. But after the 2022 result, French politics is now ready to become a three-way contest between Macron’s neoliberal bloc, Le Pen’s far right party and a broad left-wing movement– but only if the various left parties put aside their differences.
Remarkably, with the new electoral alliance, this is now coming to pass. However, France’s two-round electoral system means that in many constituencies, centre-right and centrist voters are likely to unite behind Macron’s party to block left-wingers in the second round. This will limit the number of gains a Mélenchon-led alliance can make, as will possible alliances between rightwing parties. At the same time, the broad nature of the alliance (ranging from communists to social democrats) could result in more watered-down policies even if they do win power – senior figures within the PS are pushing back against the alliance already .
But as the first electoral pact in 20 years of its type, the agreement itself is an achievement, uniting parties that have long found it very difficult to work together. Not only does it make it more likely that the left will unite behind a single candidate in the 2027 presidential race, it is led by a leftwing socialist in the form of Melenchon – as opposed to previous alliances, headed up by social democrats and the centre-left. If France is to avoid a Le Pen victory in five years’ time, building that left unity is an urgent priority. They’ve made an excellent start.
Ell Folan is the founder of Stats for Lefties and a columnist for Novara Media.