The French left, between constant reconfiguration and a fight for survival
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For some fifteen years, the French left has been undergoing a period of spectacular reconfiguration. However, no force has managed to establish itself permanently as a new dominant player since the collapse of social democracy. The 2022 presidential and legislative elections will be crucial for two reasons: all these parties are seeking a better balance of power, and many of them are playing for their lives.
In the run-up to the French presidential election in April 2022, six left-wing candidates are competing to attract the public's votes. For five years, the total electoral weight of this political space, beyond its internal divisions, has been at a historically low level. At the same time, it continues to be dominated by a more radical branch than social democracy, whose hegemony appears to have been permanently consigned to the past.
Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, from the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) and the Lutte Ouvrière (LO) respectively, are representatives of a minoritarian Trotskyist far left. Fabien Roussel is defending the colours of the French Communist Party (PCF), which had not put forward a candidate in this election for fifteen years. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a candidate from the radical left who founded La France Insoumise (LFI) five years ago but is now opting to fly the banner of the Union Populaire. He is leading voting intentions, ahead of the previously named candidates but also ahead of the two closest centre-left representatives: Yannick Jadot for Europe Écologie-Greens (EELV) and Anne Hidalgo for the Socialist Party (PS).
To understand this landscape and the issues at stake in the election, we must go back to at least 2009. That year, major movements roiled the space of the radical left and transformed it permanently. The decade before this had been marked by the radical left’s great fragmentation. In 2002, for the first time, the communist candidate was beaten by two Trotskyist presidential candidates (see table 1.1). Untainted by power, they offered an alternative outlet to left-wing voters disappointed by the government policy of socialist Lionel Jospin, who was eliminated in the first round. But there were many candidates on the left, none of whom stood out.
In 2005, a united dynamic emerged thanks to the mobilisation against the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE). Communists, Trotskyists, anti-globalists, as well as socialist and environmentalist dissidents had successfully campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum called by President Jacques Chirac. However, this dynamic had not been translated into the electoral arena. In the 2007 presidential election, the offering from the radical left had therefore remained over-abundant and without any effect on the course of national political life.
That began to change two years later, coinciding with the Long Depression that engulfed the global economy. However, this historical coincidence should not be interpreted as a causal link. The political initiatives of the time were, in fact, taken for strategic reasons that had little to do with the economic crisis itself.
2009-2017: the reconfiguration of the radical left in favour of Jean-Luc Mélenchon
In February 2009, the Trotskyist leaders of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) decided to turn it into the NPA. They embarked on this transformation by building on the popularity of Olivier Besancenot, who had been the only radical left candidate to achieve an honourable score in 2007. In their minds, a wide political space was now available thanks to the decline of the PCF and the Socialist Party’s move to the right. The ambition of the new party was aimed at bringing "all the oppressed" together in a "living organisation", thus championing a "revolutionary break with the established order."
However, the project failed. Cohabitation between activists of various backgrounds proved tricky, and the NPA was criticised for its solitary electoral strategy. Besancenot’s decision to abandon the party in the 2012 presidential election also weakened the organisation. At the same time, the other far-left party, Lutte Ouvrière, has pursued a path devoid of any doctrinal or organisational innovation, contenting itself with an electoral base of no more than 200,000 votes. The 2010s were therefore ultimately marked by the marginalisation of the Trotskyist parties that had broken through in the previous decade. It would appear that the 2022 election will confirm this major trend.
The misfortunes of the far left were the delight of another group, more successful in the early 2010s: the Front de Gauche (Left Front). From 2009, this alliance brought together the PCF and the Parti de Gauche (PG), just launched by the former socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This alliance allowed him to establish himself as a central figure not only of the radical left, but of the entire left. Mélenchon came from the PS, where he was for a long time the leader of a faction rooted in the left wing of the party. With the socialist dissidents who followed him when he left in 2008 to found the PG, he participated in the "no" campaign for the TCE in 2005. This event played a major role in his subsequent trajectory. Intellectually and culturally, this common struggle made the split conceivable, and therefore possible.
The split in question occurred in 2008, when more strategic reasons were added to a rupture that had already been completed at the level of ideas and emotions. On the one hand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his friends noticed their isolation within the left wing of the PS, which had itself recorded a modest score at the congress that followed Ségolène Royal's failed presidential bid. On the other hand, there were positive signals from the PCF, which declared its support for "left fronts with personalities and organisations". Finally, the prospect for the European elections was tempting: the election proved to be conducive to recreating the “arc of no” that had been forged in 2005. Finally, let us not forget that in Germany, Die Linke was founded in 2007, and brought together Social Democrats at odds with the SPD and the neo-communists of the PDS. Jean-Luc Mélenchon had this precedent in mind when he embarked on the PG and the Left Front venture, even though the latter, made official in 2009, was from the outset only a cartel of parties. In this case, it brought together the PG, the PCF and a third cluster called "Ensemble” (“Together”), characterised by a more libertarian identity.
From 2009, the Left Front gamble was a success. The coalition overtook the NPA in the European elections. This success helped maintain trust among its members and led to the selection of Jean-Luc Mélenchon as the candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Securing 11.1% of votes following a remarkable campaign, Mélenchon achieved a result that no radical left candidate had been able to achieve since the 1980s. However, this success did not last. Despite the unpopularity of the socialist government, the Left Front proved unable to attract demoralised PS voters in the interim elections. Several factors contributed to this failure. Unlike other countries that have suffered from the sovereign debt crisis, particularly in Southern Europe, France has experienced moderate austerity and has not faced any mass social movement. Moreover, members of the Left Front have been divided by rampant disagreements about the strategy to be followed in local elections, without any actor having enough weight to impose his or her will on the others.
The 2017 electoral earthquake
Everything changed from the end of 2015, which paved the way for a profound – and lasting – restructuring of the internal balance of power within the French left. The ruling socialists at the time launched two projects that were perceived as provocations by the most loyal core of their electoral base. The first project, which ultimately failed, aimed to extend and enshrine in the constitution the principle of deprivation of citizenship. Cultural liberalism, which unifies left-wing voters beyond their diversity, was violently attacked by a project that involved distinguishing between different categories of French people. The second project, which was implemented, consisted of a reform of labour law reducing employee protections. Whereas the PS’s neoliberal concessions had been confined to fiscal policy, financial markets, and privatisation, they now extended to wage relations. The ‘Labour Law’ provoked strong trade union resistance, but was also the source of a new social movement. Participants in the "Nuit Debout” (“Up All Night”) movement occupied the squares of major cities (particularly in Paris) for several weeks, to denounce "the labour reform and the world it represents".
At this crucial moment, two political offerings succeeded in mobilising the various factions of a socialist electorate impacted by these developments: on one side, the independent centre of Emmanuel Macron, former minister of François Hollande, who targeted the more moderate voters; on the other, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who focused on the more left-wing voters. Mélenchon had, in the meantime, made a strategic shift toward left-wing populism. By unilaterally launching his movement La France Insoumise, he emancipated himself from the PCF and the entire Left Front, considered an obsolete and restrictive structure.
The objective of LFI was to “unite the people” rather than to “unite the left”, hence the quite broad abandonment of the symbolic codes attached to this historic camp. While this populism can nevertheless be described as left-wing, it is because the candidate’s programme and speeches were certainly part of a rhetoric that promoted the sovereign people above the ruling elites who had failed to do their job, but which perceived this people as pluralist and united by demands for social equality and political rights. The gamble, which was only partially successful, was to bring together around these demands citizens who did not necessarily recognise themselves in the historical left. It was similar to the gamble made in Spain by the new Podemos party, launched in 2014, which largely replaced Die Linke as inspiration for Mélenchon and his friends. The discursive enterprise, in any event, was very different from the radical right, which seeks to mobilise "native" voters against groups that are not considered ethnically or culturally "pure".
What happened in 2017 can be called an electoral earthquake insofar as neither of the Fifth Republic's two major governing parties featured in the second round. Emmanuel Macron, supported in his centrist enterprise by a whole section of the right wing of the PS, faced off against the far right represented by Marine Le Pen. The socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, received a humiliating score of 6%. The PS score in the legislative elections confirmed that it was the party itself that was abandoned, since it received only 7.5% of the vote, i.e. less than the lowest score in its history (10%) in… 1906, when the young socialist organisation was only one year old. In other words, the French witnessed the rare case of a partisan collapse. In all regions of Europe, social democracy is in crisis for structural reasons, which have been linked to the destabilisation of neoliberal concessions since the great crisis of 2008. Yet only a few parties have lost the status they had won in their national political system, such as Greece's Pasok or Labour in the Netherlands. The PS thus joined this unenviable club.
On the other hand, with nearly 20% of the vote, Jean-Luc Mélenchon achieved a new never-before-seen performance for the radical left. Tirelessly championing constitutional change, environmental planning and the redistribution of wealth, he propelled a "red-green" force to the top of the French left. The PCF supported it for lack of a better alternative and following bitter internal debates, but it failed to forge alliances with LFI for the legislative elections. The PCF has struggled to save its group in the National Assembly, while LFI has gained far more votes and a few more MPs, while consolidating its identity. The originality of the French example lies in the fact that an ex-socialist has managed to reconfigure the field of the radical left for his benefit, after having abandoned cooperation with the PCF along the way.
Left candidates at the French presidential elections, and their scores (2002-17)
2017-2022: five years of opposition for nothing?
During Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term, the internal balance of power within the French left has once again been destabilised, without this implying a return to the previous situation. It has resulted in a very precarious and worrying strategic situation for all the political forces concerned.
For starters, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has not succeeded in assembling additional support and establishing his dominance on the left, despite the very good score he achieved in the presidential election. We will not detail here the twists and turns that have marked these five years. However, the image of Mélenchon himself has been damaged, while LFI has not emerged as a sufficiently attractive and welcoming movement, and has made no significant effort to establish itself locally. This is partly due to the party’s explicit conception as a “gaseous” movement, without statutes or structures allowing for internal debate and for the ruling core to be held to account. Its resources seem to have been preserved only for the big moment of the presidential election.
For their part, the environmentalists of EELV are back in the picture, performing much better than LFI in the European and local elections. The local elections in particular have shown that they can lead the left when it is in opposition. But EELV has remained a small party, unable to build a true environmental “countersociety” in its forty-year existence. It still seems ill-suited to decisive elections for national power, even though its members have proclaimed that the burden of alternation of power is now on them. However, this reversal in the hierarchy was never truly accepted by the PS, whose delusions of restoration were sustained by the overall maintenance of their positions in local elections, to the extent that its leaders claimed that the party remained the “driving force” of the left (in other words, the only one capable of triggering the alternation of power).
On the eve of the 2022 presidential election, the distribution of strengths and weaknesses was such that it defined a “balance of powerlessness”. No force has accumulated enough political resources to force the others to accept its leadership, but each force has retained enough to claim to go it alone while waiting for the others to fall in behind its banner. Discussions on programmes and electoral accords linking the presidential election with the legislative election could have allowed for the left to emerge from this situation stronger than ever. But there has been too much distrust between these forces backed by distinct cultures and political histories. Above all, no methodical and serious work has been undertaken to try to overcome the existing disputes. The result is therefore a dispersion of left-wing forces, while the pandemic and the outbreak of war in Ukraine have served Emmanuel Macron’s claim to embody stability.
The stakes are enormous for each of the forces involved, who are still fighting for their existence. LFI needs to confirm that it is far ahead of its competitors, to lead a pluralist rally after 2022. EELV must score higher than what its candidate achieved in 2002, when the Greens were still a small junior party within the left. Otherwise, fatal divisions could impact the two organisations that remain most in tune with the values of voters on the left. The fates of the PS and PCF appear quite gloomy. Despite their local presence, these two historical parties of the labour movement, which have structured the left in France since at least 1945, seem destined to score less than 5%, which is also the threshold for public reimbursement of campaign costs.
The situation of the left is therefore unprecedented since the 1980s, but also worrying and contradictory. It is unprecedented because it is the "radical" cluster, the most ambitious in terms of social transformation, that has taken the lead over the most cautious cluster in this area. The desire on the part of LFI as well as the environmentalists, to break with the neoliberal and/or productivist foundations of the economic order is clearly displayed. However, the situation is worrying because the electoral weight of the entire left is likely to remain in the same shallows as five years ago. Even if a candidate from this political space reached the second round, he would certainly be defeated.
The contradictory aspect of the state of the French left stems from the fact that the most serious opinion polls do not observe any unequivocal shift to the right in the French public. This leads many political scientists, including Vincent Tiberj and Rémi Lefebvre, to believe that the main problem for the left lies less in the demand of citizens than in the political offering proposed to them by the existing organisations of the left. It is true that the “demand” for democratic, green, and egalitarian policies are afflicted by contradictions and limitations. But these contradictions and limitations are not the automatic consequence of sociological changes in the French electoral body. They are exacerbated by weak parties, excessively focused on electoral issues, and that have not yet found a way to articulate the aspirations for another society that exist in the country.