The French Left Can Fight the Far Right If It Stops Fighting Itself

Win now, argue later.

by Cole Stangler

18 June 2024

A group of politicians stand in front of a banner that says 'Nouveau Front', or New Front in French
Fabien Roussel (right), national secretary of French Communist party, speaks at a press conference alongside fellow leaders of the New Popular Front coalition in Paris, June 2024. Stephane Mahe/Reuters

It’s going to be an uphill battle, but France’s hastily assembled leftwing coalition hopes to stun the world in the country’s upcoming legislative elections.

At the very least, the parties believe they can increase their share of seats in the National Assembly. But in today’s highly volatile political landscape, no scenario should be ruled out. If everything goes right in the two rounds of voting on 30 June and 7 July, the Nouveau Front Populaire (New Popular Front, or NFP) could find itself in a position to form a government in cohabitation with Emmanuel Macron, a power-sharing agreement enshrined in the French constitution that would allow the left to control much of the domestic agenda.

Commentators often mistakenly portray French politics as a tug of war between the pro-business centrism of Emmanuel Macron and the far-right populism of Marine Le Pen, but the reality is that the country’s political landscape is split into three camps, not two – and when the left unites, it can actually compete with the other two blocs. Look no further than the 2022 legislative elections, in which the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (Nupes) outperformed Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) and ran neck-and-neck with Macron’s alliance in the first round, before coming up short in scores of run-off races.

NFP coalition leaders of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, or LFI), the Greens, the Socialists and the Communists have already passed their first test: to set aside differences and unite under a common banner. Macron had apparently ruled out the prospects of such an alliance, a calculation that helps to explain his decision to call the snap election in the first place. In most races, the president was banking on forcing voters into dreaded second-round choices between his and Le Pen’s party, order against chaos. Within 24 hours, leftwing parties had scuttled those plans – no mean feat.

But even after that first hurdle, the challenges are immense.

Le peuple de gauche.

France’s leftwing base – the peuple de gauche (the people of the left) that once held political and cultural hegemony in France, and who won a presidential election as recently as 2012 – is energised and determined. It flexed its muscle in nationwide rallies on Saturday, with over 250,000 demonstrators turning out to the streets according to police estimates, 640,000 by one union’s measure. But as impressive as they were, the demonstrations weren’t massive by French standards. By comparison, the biggest day of protest against Macron’s hike in the retirement age last March saw between 1.28 million and 3.5 million flock to the streets.

The solid but not monumental turnout over the weekend points to a bigger and all too familiar challenge: the French left needs to mobilise a broader constituency of sympathisers who basically agree with its ideas, but who don’t reliably turn out to vote. To stand an outside chance at winning a majority, it needs to rally young and working-class voters, especially in the country’s diverse cities and suburbs with arguably the most to lose from far-right gains.

Polls should be read with extreme precaution at this stage, especially those purporting to translate voting percentages into seats in the National Assembly, but they do offer a sketch of France’s contemporary leftwing electorate and its limits. Yes, NFP is doing well with young voters (a Cluster17 poll found the coalition winning 54% of support from those aged 18-24, compared to just 21% for RN and 8% for the president’s party, Renaissance). Yes, NFP is also winning considerable support from low-income voters, including those in the lowest income bracket. But as French progressives know well, these voters tend to turn out the least.

Privately, many insiders backing the left coalition believe it’s near impossible to actually win a majority of the National Assembly’s 577 constituencies. They simply hope NFP will be able to position itself as a powerful opposition bloc under either an RN-led majority or another coalition. That pessimism is largely due to a conundrum that awaits in the second round: at that point, many leftwing candidates will find themselves in difficult head-to-head races against either Macronist or RN-backed candidates. They can expect vicious opposition from both camps, not to mention scare-mongering from increasingly powerful conservative media outlets. President Macron will likely be of no assistance: he and his allies regard most of the left as dangerous and irresponsible adversaries, a threat on par with the far right.

As a result, the leftwing coalition needs, at some point before 7 July, to appeal directly to RN and Macronist voters. Such a plan will be hard to execute, though one can imagine the messaging that’s needed. Macronist voters could be receptive to a message emphasising the New Popular Front’s commitment to France’s core democratic values: whatever the president says, we’re the last line of defence against the far right. For first-round RN supporters and others who don’t typically show up to vote, the Popular Front can point to its platform and emphasise its pledges to materially improve people’s lives: give us the keys to government and we’ll raise the minimum wage, slash cuts to unemployment benefits, and repeal Macron’s retirement reforms.

Own goals.

Of course, such a tightrope act hinges on avoiding self-inflicted wounds, and unfortunately, the embittered leadership of LFI has done just that. Outmaneuvered by internal rivals who helped forge the unity coalition – in particular, MP François Ruffin – the party’s historic leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon moved to purge five sitting MPs from the coalition’s official slate of candidates. The move sparked renewed criticism of LFI’s lack of democracy, but also plenty of opportunistic finger-wagging from the left’s foes. As an LFI parliamentary aide told Novara Media, it’s exactly the kind of unforced error that needs to be avoided.

“Mélenchon and his leadership are used to an increasingly authoritarian form of governance and they’ve lost control of the situation,” said the staffer, who genuinely believes NFP can win. “I don’t even think they worried about the implications of this gesture since they’re so accustomed to giving orders and imposing their way.

“Whatever one thinks of the [internal] opposition politically,” they added, “this is an immense error and it shows a declining awareness of the situation, especially in a context of anti-LFI zealotry in the media.”

The left has no time for squabbles of this sort. As one of the posters created by supporters of NFP proclaims: “We’ll argue later.” Leaders would also do well to remember the success of their namesake from 1936. If a coalition uniting Socialist reformists, middle-class moderates, and self-identified Communist revolutionaries responding to directives from the Soviet Union managed to figure things out, then surely their 21st-century descendants can do the same.

Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Marseille and the author of Paris is Not Dead: Surviving Gentrification in the City of Light.

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