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The Rise of the French Left

In today's French parliamentary election, a new coalition has united the Left around a bold programme and a common project: to elect Jean-Luc Mélenchon as the country's prime minister.

Radical-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon's new coalition threatens Macron's power . (AFP via Getty Images)

France is heading to the polls today for the parliamentary election with a left-wing coalition headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon poised to challenge the dominance of President Emmanuel Macron.

Recent weeks have seen a strong polling performance for the broad New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (NUPES), an alliance which includes all the major left-wing parties. NUPES itself sprang from the success of Mélenchon’s Popular Union, which sought to broaden the base of the movement after his narrow miss in the 2017 election, creating a ‘social parliament’ that brought together academics, trade unions, and working class activists. 

The approach has been successful uniting large swathes of progressive French civil society, including figures such as climate activist Alma Dufour, the writer Annie Ernaux, Rachel Keke, one of the leaders of the Ibis hotel Batignolles chambermaids strike, and the economist Aurélie Trouvé.

After Mélenchon’s 22 percent in this year’s presidential election, there is growing hope that this new broad left can mount a real challenge to Macron and his increasingly right wing and authoritarian presidency.

A New Coalition

In April’s presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon finished a close third behind Marine Le Pen, narrowly missing out on a second round run-off against Macron. It was a result that reflected a French Left growing in power and confidence, but also one which would benefit from increased strategic cooperation.

In the presidential election, Mélenchon had run against candidates from a variety of left-wing forces, including the centre-left Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens. The narrow nature of his defeat to Le Pen emphasised the need for the left to work towards greater co-operation and a common programme.

Ahead of the country’s parliamentary election, all of the major left-wing parties came together in a new electoral coalition called the Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale, or ‘NUPES’. Through NUPES, ecologists (Europe Écologie Les Verts and Génération·s), communists and socialists are working together to secure a majority in the National Assembly. The leader of the National Assembly is the Prime Minister, which means that if the left-wing coalition manages to win today it could force President Macron into a degree of power sharing.

NUPES doesn’t enjoy total support on the left. The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, the largest Trotskyist party, did not wish to participate in the coalition because of the presence of the Socialist Party (PS), France’s traditional centre-left party, but gave its support to some NUPES candidates such as Danielle Simonnet, Sarah Legrain and Danièle Obono in Paris. 

At the other end of the left spectrum, some PS ‘heavy weights’ such as Stéphane Le Foll, mayor of Le Mans, and Carole Delga, president of the regional council of Occitania, have refused to back NUPES. In reality, the fact that some members of the PS criticise the new coalition is a good thing: it prevents too much accommodation with the centre-left’s failures of recent years and allows for ideological clarification.

This new union on the French Left is not motivated by a ‘desire for unity’ for its own sake, as some political figures had advocated before the presidential election. The purpose is to bring together political parties on the basis of a common political programme.

Those who joined NUPES are committed to a bold and popular programme including a minimum wage of €1500 per month and a retirement age of 60. Inevitably, one cost of coalition building has been sacrificing clarity on some issues, most notably policies towards the European Union.

A Disruptive Left

NUPES is emerging at a time when the life had been slowly drained from French democracy. The second round of the presidential election was a deeply depressing spectacle which saw mass abstention and, in many respects, was a foregone conclusion.

The philosopher Jacques Rancière summed up the situation as ‘the regulated comedy of a presidential second round where the ‘lucid’ left closed in around the candidate of the financial oligarchy as the only bulwark of ‘reasonable’ democracy against the candidate of ‘illiberal democracy’’, in this case the far-right Marine Le Pen.

As attacks on NUPES from media pundits, ruling party spokespeople and elite interest groups escalate, one thing is clear: this new union frightens the defenders of the French status quo. It frightens them because it gives a new lease of life to parliamentary elections, which had become a formality since 2001 when the traditional electoral calendar was reversed in order to make sure that successive presidents would ritually confirm their grip on the political system.

These elections inject an ‘old style’ parliamentarianism into the Fifth Republic, which is a predominantly presidential regime. They threaten to upset President Macron’s game in the Assembly, which could be summarised for 5 years by the words: the president decides, his majority abides.

However, NUPES and its programme will fail if it does not generate enthusiasm and confidence in the wider social movements. First of all, it needs to translate progress into success at the ballot box today and on June 19. Then, it must maintain a popular mobilisation strong enough to support transformative policies, to stand together in social struggles and to apply sufficient pressure for the implementation of its policies.

Despite falling short in the presidential elections earlier this year, the Left in France continues to grow. This is testament to the building of a wider social movement that has been able to bring together separate strands of the Left to unite around a common agenda. In the parliamentary elections, the Left once again has a chance at taking power, and in doing so providing hope for many who might otherwise have given up on building a France for the working class.

About the Author

Marion Beauvalet is a PhD student in organisational theory, focusing on digital boredom at work. She is also an activist in La France Insoumise.

Tomek Skomski is a member of the Parti de Gauche and parliamentary attaché for La France Insoumise.