The French Left’s Next Chance

After narrowly missing out on the presidential runoff, the French left has agreed a landmark pact ahead of legislative elections – and could pose Macron his biggest challenge yet.

LFI candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has dubbed the June legislative elections ‘the third round’. (Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

Many said it was written in advance. A Macron victory in last weekend’s French election remained likely throughout the campaign. But this election was also contingent, and has thrown up different possibilities for the future. As the legislative elections approach, it serves to consider the forms that future might take.

Macron increased his score last month from the 2017 first round by peeling off a further section of the upper middle class from the Republicains’ Valerie Pécresse, having promised to recommit to the pension reform previously stopped in its tracks by a combination of the longest strike since 1968 and the pandemic. The move proved popular with older right-wing voters, who will be insulated from the effects of the policy, and allowed him to consolidate the bourgeois bloc he had built around himself in 2017.

Then came the second round, in the exact configuration Macron seemed to want, having spent much of the last year and a half of his first term fighting on the terrain of the far-right. That meant the issues given the most media airtime were immigration, identity, and policing—until the end, when Le Pen managed to wrongfoot him slightly over the cost of living.

Having set that stage for the rematch, Macron then relied on the structure of the 5th Republic system to deliver his victory as left-of-centre voters, many of whom loathe him deeply, felt compelled to vote for him to block a far-right presidency. Two teachers I spent some time with before the second round made their minds up to vote for him rather than depositing a blank ballot while at the voting urn, horrified though they were by the prospect that Blanquer, his education minister, would continue in his post. This down-to-the-wire electoral antifascism will have played no small part in his re-election.

Macron’s victory is at once a great achievement and a sign of structural weakness. Although defying twenty years of dégagisme (the throwing-out of politicians) to become the first president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002, he has done so on the lowest turnout since Pompidou’s election in 1969, with the backing of just 38% of registered voters as millions chose to abstain.

Certain abstentions can be put down to a sense of politics’ failure to represent those in some of France’s most deprived areas. Seine Saint Denis, the poorest département in mainland France, reached a record-high second round abstention rate at 47.8% (combining abstention, blank ballots, and spoiled ballots). The area opted massively for Mélenchon in the first round, but abstention was also very high, at 30%. I spoke to a man in Saint-Denis itself who liked Mélenchon, but still hadn’t voted out of a lack of belief that politics could change anything.

Another factor is a sense of political blackmail: having been forced to choose between a centre-right and far-right president in 2002 and again in 2017, left-leaning voters experienced a real sense of fatigue this time about being forced to make that choice once again. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s score increased: with each successive election fought entirely on the right, the conservative right becomes more extreme, and the republican front against the far-right crumbles further.

Next Steps

The backdrop to the recent developments in French politics is the death of the two-party system. The traditional parties that governed alternately throughout the post-war years may have been dealt a death blow by this past election, at least at the national level. Anne Hidalgo of the Parti Socialiste earned less than 2% of the vote, and Valerie Pécresse of Les Républicains 4.7%—both under the threshold for reimbursement of campaign funds, leaving Pécresse in five million euros of personal debt. Alliances at the legislative elections could perhaps revive these parties’ fortunes, but at present their pulses are beating weakly.

What has grown in the two-party system’s place is agile movements led by charismatic leaders, but they continue to lack the infrastructure to implement themselves locally: neither Macron’s La République En Marche!, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, or Le Pen’s Rassemblement National performed particularly well in the most recent regional elections.

The shape Macron’s second term will take thus depends on the legislative elections in June. Having trounced every other faction on the left in terms of first round score, Mélenchon has dubbed the elections ‘the third round’ and is casting himself as a potential prime minister. La France Insoumise has just brokered a deal with the EELV (the greens), the Parti Socialiste, and the Parti Communiste Français, and they are now running together on a platform called the New Ecological and Social People’s Union.

Cassandre Begous, an activist in Mélenchon’s party who contributed to the LGBT rights section of the Union Populaire programme, told me that he thinks it could mark the start of a new mass party if Mélenchon were to become Prime Minister. It would also allow the left to frustrate Macron and potentially push through some legislation themselves. Socialist François Mitterand’s cohabitation government with Gaullist Jacques Chirac in the 1980s saw Chirac lower taxes and privatise several state-owned businesses; the Union Populaire is aiming to achieve something similar from the left.

The strategy of unity with the Parti Socialiste has had a mixed response. Optimists have pointed to the achievements of Leon Blum’s Popular Front government of the 1930s, when various factions of the left united, resulting (with the help of a general strike) in the strengthening of labour rights and various economic and social reforms. Others like figures in the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste have criticised the pact with the PS, suggesting the liberal left should be excluded in favour of the ‘left of rupture’ (although the NPA remains in discussions with the alliance). A majority for this grouping may well be difficult either way, but a key intention is to deprive Macron of one.

If Macron does win a majority, it seems reasonable to expect a similar presidency to last time, only more. Macron appeared contrite in his victory speech, addressing abstentionists and nodding to the left-wing voters who helped him block Le Pen. His rhetoric was that of a social, ecological, humanist, and liberatory project—but there’s no obvious reason to expect this rhetoric to be followed through with policy. Macron has a history of appealing to environmental politics only to renege, as his rejection of most of the citizens’ climate convention’s proposals and Nicholas Hulot’s resignation from his first cabinet demonstrate.

Crucially, despite the help he received from the left, Macron’s core vote remains a bourgeois bloc enthusiastic about the pro-market reforms to which he recommitted before the election. This time, he doesn’t even need to worry about re-election, and can focus on enacting policies like the much-despised pension and welfare reforms external factors blocked him from completing in his first term.

Building an Alternative

In contrast with the abstentionism widespread in electoral politics, Macron’s first-term policies led to waves of fierce resistance, from the yellow vest revolt to the strike wave against pension reform to smaller protest movements against the security law and vaccine mandates. If he wins a parliamentary majority, this term may also generate another backlash. The question is the direction it will take.

The French working class is incredibly fragmented. Le Pen did not capture most of it by any means—millions of working-class people did not vote, and some of them that did so for her are among the 17% that transferred from Mélenchon. Even so, the Left should be troubled by her strength. The answer is not to follow the Macron strategy of convergence with the Rassemblement National, but to disrupt the sinister consensus that that French identity is under threat and that immigration is the issue people care about most. The protest movements that characterised Macron’s first term demonstrate that there is a base in France crying out for change, and that it is willing to fight.

Only a politics that addresses people’s material needs and redistributes power as well as wealth can wrench France away from its current direction. It is no easy challenge: just like Macron’s bourgeois bloc, the creation of a popular bloc will also, inevitably, be riven by contradiction. But unless the Left responds to the needs of this base, we still run the risk of someone with the surname Le Pen being given the keys to the Elysée.