France in the run-up to the European Parliament Election

French citizens are being called on to elect the 79 representatives who will represent them in the European Parliament on 26 May 2019. This election will be critical not only with regards to the recalibration of political forces in the European assembly and the subsequent political project to be carried out by the future President of the European Commission. It will also reconfigure the national political forces in the context of a deep social crisis and lasting citizen mobilization against the government’s neoliberal reforms. In this context, the European campaign will be overshadowed by the internal political struggle for or against Macronism. Pre-election polls over the last weeks unanimously identify the joint list of La République en Marche-Modem as the strongest force (17%-24%), closely followed by the far right list of the Rassemblement National (RN, formerly Front National) (17%-22%), whereas no single list on the Left presently hits the 10% bar. The challenge for the Left will be how to reconstitute itself as a major force of opposition in the country, embodying the alternative to either „Macron’s neoliberal Europe“ and a reactionary „Europe of nations“. Yet, European elections do not enjoy great popularity among French citizens. Voter turnout is regularly low (40,63% in 2009 and 42,43% in 2014), evidencing a lack of interest in European questions and a perceived distance of the European institutions from citizens’ immediate social and political concerns. Although this condition applies to all parties, the (re)mobilization of potential abstainees as well as floating and undecided voters will be crucial to La France Insoumise, which scored high in the presidential election of 2017 (19,58%) but has presently gathered only 7-9% of voters’ intentions. Power relations in France tend to be decided in the last weeks of the campaign though, making election outcomes highly event-sensitive and difficult to predict.

France’s social crisis and the crisis of the executive

Since November 2018, the country faces a long gestating social crisis expressed in the „Yellow Vests’“ protest against the government’s austerity policies and the President’s use of executive orders bypassing parliamentary debate. The movement has called for lower fuel taxes, an increase of the minimum wage, implementation of Citizens’ Initiative Referendums, reintroduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, and Emmanuel Macron’s resignation as President of France. Initial measures announced by the executive to assuage the protesters and the silent public opinion supportive of their struggle have not led to social demobilisation. In mid-January 2019, a two month-long consultation process, the so-called „grand national dialogue“, was launched by the government, inviting citizens to express their opinions and grievances. This dialogue, though, was limited to 35 questions set by the executive, excluding the question of the redistribution of wealth. Measures arising from the public consultation are expected to be announced in Mid-April 2019.

After repeated outbreaks of violence at the fringes of the movement fuelled by groups of agitators and the rise of antisemitic acts in the country, parts of public opinion have lost solidarity with the Yellow Vests. Conversely, the government’s authorization of repressive techniques to secure public order, massive police deployments, protest bans and police violence against protesters have been denounced across political factions. In March 2019, the government further secured the parliament’s approval of an anti-rioting bill that, if validated by the Constitutional Council, will continue infringing on the civil liberties of French citizens, already under attack from the government’s fight against terrorism. The decision to redeploy the anti-terror patrol, Sentinelle, to relieve the police and allow the latter to concentrate on public order has equally been strongly condemned. In addition to the social contestation of neoliberal reforms and the critique of the state’s handling of demonstrations, the government is also challenged by the ecological movement.

Since Nicolas Hulot’s departure from government in August 2018, several climate marches have been organised across the country, foregrounding the theme of ecological justice. Initiated under „L’Affaire du Siècle“, a lawsuit was filed by four NGOs against the French State for its failure to respect environmental obligations. Meanwhile, „green vests“ and „yellow vests“ occasionally unite in struggles, marching together for ecological and social justice as well as against racism and police violence. Looking ahead to the European election, it remains unclear how many lists emerging from the Yellow Vest movement will run against each other, what Europe they will propose, and how they will impact the ballot.

Positions and Strategies of the Left

All opponents of La République En Marche (LREM) campaign against „Macron’s Europe“. The issues of social justice and ecological transition predominate on the Left, whereas the issue of migration and borders prevails on the Right. Different calls to unite the Left have been unsuccessful and several lists will run independently. The proposal for a broad federation of ecologists, socialists and communists has failed, while the Front de Gauche, uniting the radical Left, has been undone. Although the different lists converge around key issues and themes – fighting social and fiscal dumping, realising the EU target of 100% of renewable energy by 2050, strengthening the democratic link between citizens and EU institutions, openness to migrants, end of the 3% of budget deficit rule –, disunity prevails due to different calculations, strategic choices and an unwillingness of party leaders to dissolve or devolve their leadership.

Les Verts-Europe Ecologie

EELV promotes the construction of „an ecological, solidary and federal Europe“, opposing a „Europe of regions“ to a „Europe of nations“. The post-growth agenda and ecological transition are at the heart of the program, presenting a new „green deal“ for Europe, based on a large-scale ecological investment plan, a new treaty on the environment and the introduction of a carbon tax. The EU is still considered the pertinent level of action for managing transnational challenges such as climate change. EELV has been rallied by the Federation of Solidary Regions & People. Alliances with other formations have been refused. Undoing its affiliation with the Left, EELV moves political ecology in the centre of political debate, beyond the Right/Left cleavage. Assuming the compatibility between market economy and the ecology, EELV takes a pragmatic path in view to occupy the political space between LREM and LFI. At the European level, the list led by Yannick Jadot refuses to ally with the S&D group, opposing its Spitzenkandidat, Frans Timmermans, for standing against the glyphosate ban and anti-dumping policies while backing all free trade agreements.

PS-Place Publique

Launched in November 2018, Place Publique is a civil society movement supported by Nouvelle Donne, Les Radicaux de Gauche, Union des Démocrates et Écologistes and Cap 21. Rallied by the Socialist Party (PS), Place Publique sees in the present a „historical opportunity“ for ecology to absorb social democracy. Its pro-European project affirms „social, solidary, ecologist and entrepreneurial values“ and the strengthening of democracy and ecology at EU level. The PS, for its part, emphasises three stakes for transforming Europe: the construction of a social European model, the promotion of new solutions to the ecological crisis and the strengthening of democracy. Its major propositions are: increasing the European budget, revising the European competition law, establishing an ecological investment plan, fighting tax evasion, revising the Dublin regime and introducing a minimum salary.

Génération.s

Led by the former presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, génération.s pursues a „new deal for Europe“ against destructive capitalism, the privatisation of public services and the externalization of EU borders. It proposes a new democratic Constitution of Europe and an ecological investment plan to build an „ecological, democratic and social Europe“.

Associated with DIEM 25, it supports Yanis Varoufakis‘ candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission. Hamon refuses any alliance with his former party (PS) as well as with the S&D formation in the European Parliament. Discussions around a possible alliance with the French Communist Party have been unfruitful. Both Place Publique and génération.s recognize that there are no major ideological differences among PS-Place Publique, génération.s and EELV.

La France Insoumise

LFI defends the project of a „Peoples’ Europe“ against the destructive ordoliberal construction of Europe centred on competitivity, austerity and unfettered finance. It opposes fiscal and social dumping, the destruction of public services and proposes ecological planification, the strengthening of European democracy, of the social rights of workers as well as of the rights and liberties of citizens and migrants. The list, headed by Manon Aubry, former OXFAM spokesperson and tax-evasion specialist, includes political transfuges, signalling a will to unite the Left wing. The sovereignist stance favouring France’s withdrawal from the Euro and the EU has been dismissed and marginalised. This contrasts with the Presidential election of 2017. Plan A no longer foregrounds „a concerted exit“ but the „collective renegotiation“ of the EU Treaties. If Plan A fails, the modified Plan B calls for disobedience and the adoption of unilateral measures such as a glyphosate ban or freezing the French contribution to the EU budget, as long as the EU promotes policies that foster social inequalities. Since 2018, LFI is part of a new transnational alliance called „Now the People“, associated with Podemos, Bloco de Esquerda, the Danish Red-Green Alliance, the Swedish Left Party and the Finnish Left Alliance. Should the conditions for the formation of a European political formation be united, elected LFI candidates could join this new formation or, in the absence of such an option, rally the GUE/GNL group.

Parti Communiste Français

Led by Ian Brossat, the PCF’s project opposes the „Europe of competitivity, austerity and unemployment“. It fights for fiscal justice and for the protection of public services. It supports a withdrawal from NATO, the end of European defence policies and the establishment of a new collective security and cooperation treaty. It further proposes the introduction of a European-wide minimum wage for workers, increased social protection of workers, stronger democracy through citizens consultation processes and urges
welcoming migrants with dignity. The PCF aims to create a new fund for the development of public services, social and ecological development, redirecting the European Central Bank‘s investments in financial markets towards the ecological transition. At the European level, it advocates cooperation on the basis of „a chosen geometry“ that respects peoples‘ choices.

Having renounced to run in the Presidential election of 2017, the PCF wants to regain visibility as a political force, at the risk of falling below the electoral thresholds (set at 3% for campaign reimbursement and 5% for sending representatives to the European Parliament).

Lutte Ouvrière

LO has announced that it will run an autonomous list, headed by Nathalie Arthaud. The party sees itself as the sole defender of a revolutionary communist strategy against the capitalist system. It consequently rejects any alliance with bourgeois parties which act against the interests of the workers and against the emancipation of the people. LO affirms an internationalist reading of Europe and projects a Union of the people. It defends openness to the world and to migrants, rejecting all boundaries constructed by the state and the EU, both representing instruments of bourgeois domination. The revolutionary project, by contrast, is „neither anti-European nor pro-European“. As an oppositional force, LO seeks to accompany the workers‘ revolution and their fight against capitalism. The Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste (NPA) signalled readiness to launch a joint list with LO but the latter eschewed the convergence of different struggles. Unable to finance its own campaign, NPA calls on supporters to vote for LO.

Cleavages and challenges

The fragmentation of the French Left will affect its representation and weight in the European Parliament. The adopted strategies suggest a will of the parties to test their force separately in the light of upcoming national elections (municipal and presidential). Positions and strategies in the European election also illustrate ongoing transformations and redefinitions in French politics. The Left is polarised between a dispersed radical wing, yet dominated by LFI, and a „non-mélenchonniste“ group uniting social democrats converted to the ecological cause and Greens who rhetorically step outside the Left, each opposed to LFI’s leadership, its ecosocialist conception and European strategy. Ideologically, the fracture materialises around divergent economic conceptions (continuity or rupture with liberal economy and productivist vs. post-growth economy). Another cleavage arises between those who couple progress and emancipation to the renegotiation of EU Treaties (LFI) and those who advocate reform within the frame of existing institutions and treaties, thereby accepting the in-built neoliberal bias of the EU Treaties (EELV, génération.s, PS-Place Publique). Finally, Macron’s open letter for a „European Renaissance“, published on 5 March 2019, has framed the political struggle in binary terms, opposing the „progressive“ forces to „nationalist“ ones.

By choosing the Rassemblement National as LREM’s major opponent, the governmental party presents itself as the only alternative to the „retreat into nationalism“, neglecting the autonomy of Leftist projects and thus curtailing democratic debate. Consolidated by voting intentions, the image of a „duel“ introduces a difficulty for the French Left to subsist in the public debate and to impose itself as an urgent and credible contender to Macronist neoliberalism (and a European project in continuity with Juncker’s agenda), on the one hand, and nationalism, on the other.