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The French Left Ascendant
A radical coalition has stymied President Macron's hopes for majority rule.
Two months after his re-election, French President Emmanuel Macron already looks like a lame duck. In yesterday’s second round of legislative elections to elect deputies to the 577-member National Assembly, he failed by a long shot to secure the absolute majority newly elected French leaders can usually rely on. For better or for worse, Macron’s centrist government will need to find allies to get bills through parliament.
The man responsible for humbling an imperial president is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A veteran leftist, he appeals to the same broad constituencies as America’s Bernie Sanders or Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn: the young, urbanites, and minorities. On the strength of an excellent result in the first presidential round in April, Mélenchon managed to unite Socialists, Communists, and Greens under a program to revolutionize France’s economy and institutions.
This far-reaching ambition galvanized the left in a country where union de la gauche (“union of the left”) retains mythical allure, harking back to the progressive coalitions that won power in 1936 and 1981. Mélenchon failed in his stated aim to win a parliamentary majority that would have made him prime minister. But the election is a notable success for his new alliance, Nupes: it took about 140 seats of the 577-member National Assembly, a significant improvement on the tally its constituent parties received last time. The far-right National Rally under Marine Le Pen, Macron’s main foe in the presidential election, also did extremely well with 89 seats—its largest ever share, and a sign that Le Pen poses a significant threat. But because of France’s first-past-the-post voting system, this score does not reflect the far right’s share of the popular vote (almost a quarter).
Under the new Macron-redux presidency, Nupes will thus lead the institutional opposition, receiving key parliamentary positions and subsidies. Some see an even brighter future ahead for Mélenchon. Macron is barred from seeking a third consecutive term, and his moderate bloc is unlikely to survive without him. It is easy to imagine a 2027 presidential race dominated by insurgents—Le Pen from the hard right, and Mélenchon from the hard left.
Mélenchon’s ascendancy invites three questions: Is he the hard-core radical his opponents claim? Can he continue to hold sway over the French left? And could he become president? The answers are: yes; unlikely; very unlikely.
Start with his radicalism. Like all populists, Mélenchon tends to blame his country’s problems on a simple cause: in his case, global capitalism. In a recent speech, he said that neoliberalism has been “devastating societies, plundering nature and destroying human beings.” Inflation, too, is a result of speculators and greedy corporations: “It has not suddenly become more expensive to drill oil, or produce power. As markets are the reason for falling living standards, we must stop believing that markets will save us.”
His solutions are as defiant as his diagnosis. The program agreed by Mélenchon's party La France Insoumise (LFI) and its Nupes partners includes:
Nationalizing major banks, energy utilities, airports and highways
Lowering the retirement age from 62 to 60
Boosting the minimum wage to €1,500 a month (about $1579)
Price freezes on basic foodstuffs and fuel, and reducing the price of movie tickets
Creating over one million public sector jobs
Reversing labor market reforms and making it harder for employers to lay-off workers.
Mélenchon admits his agenda is radical, but denies that it is unrealistic: he calls it “workable, concrete radicalism.” His supporters say it has a proud history in the country. They have a point. In 1981, Socialist president François Mitterrand was elected on a promise to break with capitalism, and went on to unleash public spending, nationalize swathes of industry, and freeze prices.
But Mélenchonistas gloss over the fact that these policies contributed to soaring unemployment and three currency devaluations. The experiment was stopped after two years. The Nupes economic program is also much costlier than Mitterrand’s: €250bn in extra expenditure—10% of GDP—according to Mélenchon’s own estimate. The 1981 spending spree was only 2% of GDP and it came at a time where France’s finances were in order, with public debt at 21% of GDP. Today’s context is very different. With a gaping fiscal deficit and public debt reaching 113% of GDP, the French state will struggle to find lenders to keep it afloat.
Mélenchon denies that this is a problem. He believes spending will spur growth, reducing debt. Not all the program is unreasonable, but much of it draws on an old utopian tradition on the French left. In Mélenchon’s world, prices can be fixed by fiat without creating scarcity, salaries raised regardless of productivity gains, and public money is available on tap.
This radicalism goes hand in hand with a worrying authoritarian streak. Former members describe LFI as Mélenchon’s personal fiefdom: there is no rank-and-file assembly to choose leaders or discuss policy. Promotions and banishments happen for mysterious reasons. LFI has over 500,000 supporters, but they are not members in the traditional sense. They join online for free, with no commitment required. They are invited to endorse decisions handed down from the top. Some can become activists, but there is no channel for dissent. When a group of members called for internal democracy in 2018 they were kicked out (they now continue their campaign online.) “In Mélenchon's system the party has every right and the individual none,” political scientist Thomas Guénolé recently told French radio.
As befits a leader who rules supreme at home, Mélenchon admires strongmen abroad. In 2016, he called Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro one of those “heroes” from whom “we draw lessons and the energy we need to continue in the path … they first cleared.” Mélenchon also venerates Hugo Chavez. During a visit to Caracas in 2012, he raved about the crowd that greeted the Venezuelan president at a rally: “I've never seen such political fervor concentrated in bodies and faces like this. Half-way through, I realized that tears were streaming down my face.”
Finally, to old-style revolutionary fervor, Mélenchon adds a dose of 21st-century identity politics. He is not quite the social-justice ideologue many say he is. His stance against Islamophobia and racism is widely shared; his opposition to a law banning religious symbols in school sounds extreme only in a country where wearing a headscarf is seen as a threat to the Republic. But he is prone to veering into more controversial territory. One LFI candidate in the election was an activist who spread fake news about police brutality in 2018, and another involved in the same scandal belatedly withdrew in May. Mélenchon himself has indulged in conspiracy theories, suggesting last year that jihadist killings in southern France in 2012 had been aimed at discrediting Muslims ahead of a presidential election. The ploy, he claimed, was bound to be repeated ten years on: “You’ll see that in the last week of the presidential campaign, there will be a serious incident or murder ... It’s all written in advance.”
If Mélenchon’s polarizing radicalism cannot be ignored, its appeal on the left should also not be overstated. The Nupes deal was an arrangement of convenience, rather than the result of lengthy preparations of the kind that led to previous unions de la gauche.
Beneath it all, the partners remain divided on basic issues: the Nupes manifesto is laced with provisos acknowledging disagreements that could not be papered over. The Communists made clear they wanted to retain nuclear power, which accounts for two-thirds of electricity generated in France; the others are committed to a goal of 100% renewable energy as early as 2050. On defense, the document notes that LFI will seek a withdrawal from NATO, while Socialists want France to stay in. The deepest split is over Europe. Mélenchon regards the EU as a den of free-market fanatics bent on crushing nations through open trade and austerity. Although the Nupes accord does not overtly recommend withdrawal from the Eurozone or the Union, it includes provisions that are clearly incompatible with membership, such as ignoring EU budget rules or unilaterally suspending treaties.
The French left has always been split between illiberal hardliners and pragmatic reformers. Over the past 150 years, alliances between the two have been necessary to gain power. But those successful blocs were generally led by moderates, not hardliners. Mélenchon’s great tactical feat—ensuring that no left-wing vote was wasted—should not obscure his inability to attract support much beyond his base.
This is highlighted by the Nupes’ score in the first round of the legislative elections: 26% of the vote. That is much less than the parties’ combined results in the first round of the presidential election (30%). As the question turns from getting into parliament to getting into power, the French left may find that it is better off without being led by a self-professed Chavista.
Henri Astier is a London-based journalist who writes for French and English-language publications.