The left in France under Macron
When he came to power, Emmanuel Macron – who claims to be “neither left nor right” and considers “liberalism a leftist value” (1) – pledged to overcome political divisions. This forced his opponents to develop strategies and measures that would enable them to survive on the new political stage. While the socialists, conservatives, and extreme right are struggling to reinvent themselves, the left seems to be gaining a surprising momentum, both on the streets and in parliament – and not just since Macron took office.
While an electoral victory for the left in the foreseeable future still seems unlikely, there are numerous indications that a leftist opposition to Macron’s government is taking shape. From social movements and collective protests against controversial government plans, to individual intellectuals and new political figures: the oppositional movement is emerging in a multitude of forms and faces.
1. The paradigm of the extreme centre
Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign was based upon a simple idea: the binary opposition between right and left was an outdated relic from an “old world” that needed to be overcome. In reality, however, there is little to distinguish the policies of the two camps once they come to power – at least in terms of economic and social policy. Like social democratic governments in Germany, the administrations under François Mitterrand and François Hollande implemented measures that primarily benefited right-wing voters. Policies that could be classed as left-wing tended to be social measures, such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
By declaring the traditional political camps obsolete, Macron appointed himself the man of the hour who could pragmatically, rationally, and logically achieve the reforms that France simply could not do without. His electoral success was in no small part aided by the support of centrist François Bayrou, who refrained from standing himself to clear the way for Macron.
In fact, Macron, nick-named Jupiter, was already presenting himself as an almost monarchical figure on the evening of his election. He diagnosed France as “mourning for a lost king”, (2) and summoned the National Assembly and Senate to a joint congress in Versailles – as if his slogan were “I am the State”. Macron combines symbols that appeal to the traditional desire for a strong man at the head of the nation with elements of modern-style politics. At the same time, decentralisation, one of the traditional demands of centrist parties in France, has yet to feature in his political approach or in the reforms carried out to date.
With the formation of his “En Marche” movement, Macron promised to overcome the political division of left vs. right. However, commentators discern a clear leaning to the right. Job market reforms, including the relaxation of regulations designed to protect employees against dismissal, and the streamlining of government, were particularly well received by the right. Philosopher Alain Deneault describes the effects of an increasingly liberal discourse among the political class, which is evidently “subordinate to the oligarchy”, and which he refers to as an “extreme centre”. (3) Deneault defines extremism as having to do with “intolerance towards anything that is not its own”. Macron’s extreme centre tolerates no discourse but its own, yet presents itself as normality: balanced, true, and correct.
Furthermore, since taking office, and even during his election campaign, Macron’s use of short pointed phrases has established a kind of intolerance and a (neo)liberal stance as intrinsic to his thinking and communication. He has repeatedly referred to the reforms carried out in the UK by Margaret Thatcher, and has been heard to make comments such as “If I were unemployed, I’d fight for myself before expecting to receive handouts.” (4) His choice of words is in many ways reminiscent of conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who extolled a “France that rises early”. (5)
If the transformation of France’s political model – or how politics is pursued in France today – has rendered the classic left vs. right model obsolete, the transformation has also intensified the focus on actual differences and revealed that in recent years the policies of both sides of the political spectrum have been distinguishable only through nuances that have been artificially exaggerated to make them appear to be significant differences.
Since the end of Hollande’s term in office and the crushing defeat of its candidate Benoît Hamon, the Parti Socialiste – the left’s counterpart to the conservatives – has been clinically dead. Its new leader, Olivier Faure, (whose wife was advisor to Macron until February 2018) barely features in the media. The party started losing members to Macron’s movement during the election campaign. Many more jumped ship after the disastrous results in the parliamentary election in June 2017. Hamon himself deserted the socialists to try to reinvent himself politically by founding Générations, a social-democratic party (in the German sense), which presents itself as modern and appeals to young people in particular. Its key ideologies are emancipation, the environment, and the introduction of an unconditional basic income. It remains to be seen, however, how the party will fare in the next few months and years, before it can actually be considered a viable successor to the Parti Socialiste in terms of numbers.
The traditional right (Les Républicains, formerly UMP) is also struggling to reinvent itself, not only because a personal scandal involving its candidate François Fillon damaged the party’s reputation, but also because there is a significant overlap between Macron’s policies and the party’s positions, which creates competition for voters. Jean-François Copé, a former UMP leader and Mayor of Meaux, openly praises Macron: “He’s the right-wing president that we weren’t expecting [...] but we have been in favour of all the measures he has implemented so far since he took office.” (6) The Front National, since renamed Rassemblement National, has also been preoccupied with internal matters, as a result of which it has not even been able to capitalise on the ongoing migrant crisis, which Marine Le Pen normally likes to exploit.
That leaves the left. A left that is undoubtedly fragmented and pluralistic, and for which multiple fronts have emerged since Macron’s election. A left that hopes to increase its appeal and strength again by formulating common goals. The question is warranted: has Macron unintentionally boosted the left in France?
2. The El Khomri law and the first signs of resistance against Macron
The left did not wait for Macron’s electoral victory before taking to the streets to protest against reforms for which he had been responsible as a government minister. Macron was Minister of Economy, Industry, and Digital Affairs in François Hollande’s government from August 2014 onwards. His colleague Myriam El Khomri, then Minister of Labour, was charged with implementing controversial labour law reforms, which were based to a substantial degree upon the draft legislation “Nouvelles opportunités économiques” [“New economic opportunities”] penned by Macron. The reforms were adopted in August 2016, at a time when Macron was leaving the government in order to prepare for his new role as a presidential candidate. What soon became known as the “El Khomri law” provoked a wave of outrage, particularly from younger people, who feared that their economic situation would become even more precarious as a result. As well as numerous protests across the country, a movement emerged called “Nuit Debout”, bringing together academics such as economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon and artists including François Ruffin, director of the film Merci, patron!, which criticises employer-employee power relations. Ruffin went on to join the La France Insoumise movement and party [“Unsubmissive/Untamed France”; see section 3], and has since become a member of the French National Assembly.
Without a clear representative or leader, the “Nuit Debout” movement creatively and spontaneously drew out thousands of people, who assembled every evening for several weeks in public spaces, most notably on the Place de la République in Paris. Participants were first and foremost united in their rejection of the El Khomri law, but it soon became clear that they also shared a more general criticism of the economic model and political institutions. Increasingly, the need to bring together the individual struggles came to the fore, but with its open structure and the spontaneous nature of its gatherings, “Nuit Debout” gradually petered out.
Nonetheless, Frédéric Lordon felt that lessons had been learned, as he told the magazine Les Inrockuptibles: “All protest movements start small. They begin to pose a problem for those in power when they gain weight, when their impact spreads. We shouldn’t fool ourselves – the fire has not (yet) been kindled. Even so, I believe that many people watched the movement with interest, even from afar. Maybe something has changed in people’s minds, the consequences of which we cannot yet predict.” (7)
Another philosopher and leftist intellectual engaged in the movement, Manuel Cervera-Marzal, assessed the situation as follows: “For us, it’s not about the number of participants. And those who joined us don’t need a balance sheet. They know that the great achievement of “Nuit Debout” was its own existence. [...] In an oligarchic regime in which regular people have long since been excluded from the spaces where decisions are made concerning their future, even just a few thousand citizens taking their destinies into their own hands is an immense improvement.” (8) This movement, which emerged under Hollande’s government and was directed against the policies of his finance minister Macron, showed that resistance is not only to be found at the ballot box, but that it also – especially in the age of social media – seeks forms of expression in public spaces, independently of parties and unions, at least to a certain degree and for a limited period. This is comparable to the Spanish anti-austerity 15-M Movement, from which the left-wing populist Podemos party emerged.
Yet this form of resistance poses a difficult question: what roles were played by the traditional unions, political parties, and left-wing media? What does it mean for the institutional left-wing opposition?
3. Institutional opposition: The difficult path to reinvention
It is old news: the French unions lack members. In fact, a recent OECD study identified France as having the lowest rate of union membership of the countries it surveyed. (9) This has many causes, and as things stand there is little reason to see hope for improvement. (10) In diverse recent political disputes on issues ranging from the weakening of employees’ rights to the privatisation of the national state-owned rail company SNCF, the different unions’ failure to find a common position has significantly reduced their power. The same holds for the political parties, both left and right, since the measures taken by past governments cannot be clearly attributed to either camp. The resulting lack of trust is directed towards all parties and all movements. Extreme left- and right-wing voters in particular no longer see them as capable of making fundamental changes. Furthermore, as in many European countries, distrust of the political elite in general has risen. Political scandals concerning the conservatives François Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the socialist Jérôme Cahuzac, the misappropriation of state funds in the case of the Front National, and complicity between politicians and media, have only fuelled the negative attitudes of large portions of the population towards the elites. (11)
In this context, it becomes difficult for politicians, regardless of their orientation, to embody new ideals. While Jean-Luc Mélenchon successfully presented himself as an influential candidate in the presidential election campaign, he is not an uncontroversial figure, particularly among a section of the population that feels strongly connected to Europe and is sceptical of a retreat to national sentiments – even when economic aspects are foregrounded, especially the EU’s strict austerity policies that France and southern European countries have been criticising for years.
With regard to Europe, the positions of the Front National and La France Insoumise have often been lumped together, even though the former is primarily concerned with protecting France from illegal immigration and the latter with dismantling the neoliberal economic system. Europe has become an issue that the left in France cannot afford to simply sidestep. While continuing to uphold the founding idea of Europe as a means to secure peace, the left is more sceptical regarding the principle of free movement of goods and people. This fundamental difference to the right-wing position is often obscured by the adjective “populist”. Left-wing policies on Europe are equated with the protectionist positions of the Rassemblement National (formerly Front National). La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc-Mélenchon, does actually propose a withdrawal from Europe’s liberal economic course, but without Marine Le Pen’s nationalistic overtones.
As far as the other left-wing parties are concerned, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) led by Nathalie Arthaud and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) with Philippe Poutou both call for the demolition of the current state system. Although the number of votes they command is negligible, they are very active in bringing resistance onto the streets. Thanks to the TV debates televised during the last presidential electoral campaign, in which all candidates were granted the same time slot, they and their positions have become known to the wider public. In the meantime, the Greens and members of the Parti Communiste are struggling to maintain their credibility after having cooperated with the Socialist Party in different ways. In the eyes of many left-wing voters, neither party is seen to represent new beginnings or renewal. Even though they lead the local governments of a few French municipalities, they constitute just a tiny minority in the National Assembly.
So, what is to be done? From which side? In what way? And what if the answer is to be found on the streets, in the countryside, and among the workforce, and if the spirit of protest is quietly permeating society ever more pervasively, without attracting a great deal of attention?
4. On the streets or nowhere at all?
The social movements opposing Macron’s liberal policies have intensified in recent months. The beginning of the year in particular saw an increase in resistance: on the streets, from alternative rural projects such as the Z.A.D. (Zone à défendre) near Nantes, and from employees of larger companies, including some state-owned ones, as in the case of the rail workers. The SNCF reform was in part due to directives from Brussels, since privatisation was a way for Macron to guarantee that the market would be open to competition. Nonetheless, conditions for rail employees worsened as a result, and workers in other fields now fear that further reforms may affect them in a similar way. What is more, the rail company is very influential and its workforce is highly unionised. With a powerful strike in 1995, it successfully forced the withdrawal of a proposed pension reform. A perceived weakening of rail workers’ unity and undermining of their position in society is highly significant for the acceptance of Macron’s further reform plans.
At the same time, in spring 2018, thousands of students across France were mobilising against proposed new selection procedures for universities. 400 professors signed a petition calling on the government to retract its plans. They fear the reform will create greater hurdles within the academic system for underprivileged students. Then there were repeated strikes by civil servants in response to a common call issued by multiple unions to protest against a planned cut of 120,000 jobs in the public sector.
Taken together, these movements testify to a broad resistance encompassing different sectors of French society. On 5 May 2018, those behind “Nuit Debout” caused a stir with a new campaign, which they called “La Fête à Macron”. The aim was to criticise Macron’s political approach in its entirety, but in an informal, positive context.
Elsewhere, the atmosphere was far from peaceful: a massive police operation cleared part of the Z.A.D. protest camp in spring 2018. The site had been earmarked for an airport in the 1980s. In the meantime, people had settled there and were cultivating the land collectively as an alternative, self-sufficient community. Even though the government had abandoned its plans to build the airport, it evidently ¬saw the need to clear what had become one of the radical left’s most symbolically charged spaces. The aim was to prevent the continuation of these alternative forms of communal living outside the sphere of the state model – this in turn is a powerful symbolic message from the state.
The climate within corporations is also becoming increasingly tense, and may well become even harsher in the coming months and years. In 2009, for example, Continental employees protested against the imminent closure of their factory and relocation of production abroad. During the protests, a sub-prefecture in Compiègne was destroyed. Then there were the protests at Air France in 2015. During a demonstration against the firm’s restructuring, employees chased a director and ripped his shirt; he was forced to climb over a fence to escape. Such images have been inscribed into French citizens’ collective memory.
Another hub of discontent can still be found in the suburbs of Paris and other cities, where residents have been feeling abandoned by the rest of society for decades. Numerous recent publications testify to the growing sense of frustration in France and critically analyse ongoing developments. Independent online media outlets, some radically left-wing, are on the rise: Basta!, Reporterre, and Lundimatin, for example. And established left-wing media such as Mediapart, Le Monde diplomatique, and Arrêt sur images are also currently increasing their readership. This is particularly remarkable at a time in which the press is under immense financial pressure.
While election victory for the left appears a long way off, the left is looking stronger and more diverse today than at any other time since the Second World War, with the exception of the ’68 movement. Global developments and the liberal policies that they have brought forth have convinced parts of the population that there must be an alternative to what Macron portrays as the only possible reasonable path to reforming France.
As yet there are no signs that the individual struggles might come together in the near future. Nonetheless, the various agitations (by rail workers, students, civil servants, and the Z.A.D.) testify to a potential for protest that may well gain further significance in the coming years under Macron. Opinion polls indicate that a large part of the French population has lost its faith in its political class.
So far, actual political action has been predominantly limited to specific interest groups – usually within particular organisational structures – that set out to fight for their own causes but are not reflected in political parties. Although Jean-Luc Mélenchon won numerous votes from these groups in the election, the future of La France Insoumise is still uncertain.
It seems likely that the trends and individual micro-movements outlined here may proliferate all the faster, the more liberal the government’s economic policies become, and the stricter the austerity measures it implements in the future. The more tangible the consequences of those policies become for citizens who are prepared to protest, the more likely it is that pressure will rise on the streets. The question that remains is whether the currently disparate marginal protest movements can find a common denominator from which they can develop a common goal, a common new project for French society – a society that guarantees its citizens more justice and more equality.
About the author: Romy Straßenburg, born in 1983, is a freelance journalist based in Paris who writes for German and German–French print and online media, as well as writing and directing factual TV programmes. She also regularly moderates events on political, social, and cultural themes, and lectures at the Institut Pratique du Journalisme in Paris.
(1) Emmanuel Macron in a panel discussion during the Le Monde Festival, 27 September 2015.
(2) Emmanuel Macron in an interview with the weekly newspaper Le Un, 8 July 2015.
(3) See Deneault, Alain (2016) La médiocratie. Précédé de Politique de l'extrême centre et suivi de Gouvernance. Le management totalitaire, Paris 2016.
(4) Emmanuel Macron in an interview with the TV channel BFMTV, 18 February 2015.
(5) Nicolas Sarkozy on 21 February 2012 during a visit to the wholesale market in Rungis. See ‘http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZFWuzvm8SI’.
(6) Jean-François Copé in the TV programme “L’épreuve de vérité”, Public Sénat, 7 May 2018, available at ‘www.publicsenat.fr/article/politique/macron-un-president-de-droite-qu-on-n-attendait-pas-se-felicite-jean-francois-cope’. Last accessed: 2 September 2018.
(7) Dejean, M. (2016) ‘Frédéric Lordon fait le bilan de Nuit Debout’, in Les Inrockuptibles, 8.9.2016, available at ‘www.lesinrocks.com/2016/09/08/actualite/frederic-lordon-bilan-de-nuit-debout-on-ne-va-se-raconter-dhistoire-feu-na-pris-11862763’. Last accessed 2 September 2018.
(8) Cervera-Marzal, M. (2016), ‘Nuit debout, l’instant d’après’, in Contretemps, 4 September 2016, available at ‘www.contretemps.eu/nuit-debout-bilan-cervera-marzal’. Last accessed: 2 September 2018.
(9) Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz (2018), ‘Trade Union density from 1880 to 2008 for selected OECD countries’, updated 21 June 2018, available at ‘www.macro.economics.uni-mainz.de/1335.php’. Last accessed: 2 September 2018.
(10) Matteudi, Stéphanie (2018) ‘Les syndicats en France: poids, représentativité et déclin’, 15 March 2018, available at ‘theconversation.com/les-syndicats-en-france-poids-representativite-et-declin-93296’. Last accessed: 2 September 2018.
11) Chazelle, Barbara (2018) ‘Entre crise de confiance et perte de repères’, in Méta Media, 23 January 2018, available at ‘http://www.meta-media.fr/2018/01/23/entre-crise-de-confiance-et-perte-de-reperes-linteret-pour-linformation-est-au-plus-bas.html’. Last accessed: 2 September 2018.