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Left Unity Can Stop France’s Rightward Drift

Next year's French presidential election looks set to be dominated by Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, with the Left struggling in the polls. We have to unite or face certain defeat.

French president Emmanuel Macron meets with far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen in Paris, France, on February 6, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer / AFP via Getty Images)

The first thing to understand about next year’s presidential election in France is that it probably won’t go as you expect.

The last two contests have made a mockery of pundits: around this time in 2016, center-right former PM Alain Juppé of Les Républicains (LR) was the odds-on favorite to succeed François Hollande. Instead, that fall, he lost his party’s primary to the more conservative François Fillon, opening up space in the center for Emmanuel Macron to sneak into the second round. By this time in the year in 2011, the widely expected challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy was former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn — but sexual assault allegations in New York abruptly derailed his political career, opening the door for Hollande to win the Socialist Party (PS) primary.

Any unexpected drama this year will be taking place within a historically unstable political environment. Upended by Macron, the old equilibrium of the Fifth Republic no longer exists, even as its two main forces — the LR and PS — retain solid support on the local and regional levels. After Marine Le Pen’s record score in 2017, polls show the far-right National Rally (RN) in a strong position to compete for the presidency. And the parties of the Left remain as divided as ever, with a mix of political differences and competing interests keeping any national-level accord off the table for now, though an electoral pact between at least some of the parties is not inconceivable.

Add to all this a pandemic shaking up global politics and the country’s worst recession since World War II, and it feels like the only sure bet about France’s 2022 presidential election is that it’s going to be an extremely volatile campaign.

Rightward Drift

All that aside, the favorites at this stage are the same ones who competed in the runoff round last time. President Macron benefits from his carefully crafted image of a strong leader adept at modernizing France and guiding the nation through a period of uncertainty, with solid support from business leaders to boot. Le Pen, on the other hand, can point to anti-system credentials unsullied by any past participation in government. More than that, she has reaped the rewards of a national political climate increasingly focused on the preferred themes of the far right: immigration, security, terrorism, and the place of Islam in French society.

And yet both front-runners are also tremendously vulnerable. While Macron’s approval ratings are higher than his predecessors at this stage in his presidency, they are still objectively low, hovering at just around 40 percent. Le Pen, for her part, remains ultra-polarizing, with polls consistently showing high disapproval ratings.

The question is whether the favorites have enough true believers to overcome the hostility. As the current president put on spectacular display in 2017, the French electoral system rewards candidates with strong bases. One doesn’t need to be very popular from the onset to win: the key is to build just enough support in the first round and to rally electors against one’s opponent in the second round. This works especially well when the enemy’s name is Le Pen.

Who might spoil Macron and Le Pen’s dreams of a rematch then?

One possible source may come from within the right-wing Les Républicains. While former PM Édouard Philippe’s name is regularly floated as a possible challenger, another strong option could be Xavier Bertrand, the current president of France’s northern region of Hauts-de-France who has already declared his candidacy. A former minister under Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy, Bertrand has promised to prioritize the interests of rural and peripheral France, offering a different flavor of governance for those who basically agree with the bulk of Macron’s policies but are put off by his style.

Macron has aimed to neutralize the threat of an LR challenger over the course of his presidency — after all, both his prime ministers have hailed from the party. But this strategy has moved into high gear over the last year or so, with the government moving to legislate on topics like security and terrorism and cabinet members stoking hysterical culture wars like the recent battle against the scourge of “Islamo-leftism.” All of this is meant to send a message to mainstream conservatives: in addition to defending your economic interests, Macron takes your social concerns seriously too. He’s not the rootless cosmopolitan the far right makes him out to be.

Le Pen is jostling to win over a similar chunk of conservative voters. After her marked Euroscepticism in 2017, she looks set to run on a more unabashedly neoliberal economic platform next year. Talk of leaving the eurozone or the European Union has been brushed aside, as have calls to cancel or renegotiate France’s debt which has skyrocketed under the crisis. This is not a program meant to turn out the working masses — it’s meant to calm business owners, middle-managers, retirees, and white-collar professionals worried about rocking the boat.

Marine Le Pen. (European Union 2015 – European Parliament)

In other words, the leading contenders all offer different shades of the same basic vision: a mix of chest-beating law-and-order policies, support for the economic status quo, and varying degrees of hostility toward immigrants and those of recent immigrant origin, Muslims in particular. While many pundits insist this is basically what the country wants, it’s hard to imagine the rightward lurch going unchallenged during the campaign.

Ultimately, that’s because no matter how ignored they are by government today, millions of French people have other ideas. They have faith in the state as a powerful tool to redistribute wealth and tackle climate change, they’re concerned by the government’s securitarian drift, and they believe in a more open and tolerant society. Depending on the candidate and the campaign articulating this vision, millions more working-class voters who might otherwise stay home from the polls could be won over.

A Divided Left

The emergence of a serious left-wing contender is not outside the realm of possibility, whether it’s a left-populist like La France Insoumise’s (LFI) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a center-left option more palatable to the PS like Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, or, as unlikely as it seems today, someone else entirely who manages to bridge the divide between the two camps. As in 2017, multiple left tickets may be on offer — the open questions are who, if anyone, will stand a chance of actually qualifying for the runoff round and, if so, where will the center of gravity be on the Left?

At this stage, La France Insoumise, Europe Ecology–The Greens (EELV), and the French Communist Party (PCF) are all preparing to mount their own presidential campaigns while the Socialist Party is waiting for more clarity before cutting an agreement or trying to rally others behind their own candidate. Leaders from all four parties insist they’re not opposed to making an electoral pact of some kind, but they’re not exactly moving full speed in that direction either. While top representatives from LFI, EELV, PCF, and the PS sat down for a high-profile meeting in Paris last month, agreeing to a mutual nonaggression pact and to a second roundtable discussion in late May, a united ticket remains off the table for now.

At this stage, the de facto left front-runner Jean-Luc Mélenchon essentially hopes to recreate the magic of his 2017 bid. That campaign saw him finish in fourth place, but only about six hundred thousand votes behind Le Pen for a spot in the runoff round, thanks to solid support from youth and working-class voters.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon speaks to journalists before a demonstration as part of a nationwide day of protests to demand better working conditions for health workers in Marseille, France, on June 16, 2020. (Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images)

However, Mélenchon’s image has taken a heavy blow since then, something even his own supporters acknowledge. As La France Insoumise spokesperson David Guiraud says, some of that stems from the police raid on LFI party headquarters in late 2018, with the two-time presidential candidate’s overheated reaction before court officers making the rounds on social media. But much of it also flows from attacks from Macron supporters, political foes who have tried to paint Mélenchon as an extremist who doesn’t respect France’s basic Republican values.

“There’s something that’s new, which is the violence of the attacks against us, on Islamo-leftism, on the notion that we’re complicit with terrorists, that we hate the police,” Guiraud says. “The government has decided to build a cordon sanitaire not around the RN but around La France Insoumise.”

The polling may be unfavorable right now, but Guiraud says it should be taken with a grain of salt and that one shouldn’t discount Mélenchon’s battle-tested talents on the campaign trail. “If we want to compare Mélenchon today, compare him to where he was in 2016, [not his score in 2017],” he says. “We have an electoral base that holds, whatever the attacks are. The question is how to extend it during the presidential elections.”

Mélenchon’s relative appeal to young voters may be another asset. “The first big protests for a lot of people who are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen were about police violence,” says Guiraud, referring to last summer’s wave of anti-racist protests spearheaded by Assa Traoré. “This could play in the campaign. People don’t realize it, but that first protest defines you for life.”

Guiraud says he’s not opposed to the idea of left unity, but that substantive differences — not just interpersonal rivalries — lie in the way.

“In the discourse around left unity, even if it can be an interesting objective, one can’t delude oneself either about the fact that there are political currents that are contradictory within the broad left,” says Guiraud, who also serves as an adviser to MP Éric Coquerel, the only LFI representative present at last month’s meeting with left-wing leaders in Paris. “I think an accord is possible, but there are people who won’t be part of it together.”

“There are people we can talk to, and there are others who are preparing to rally behind Macronism,” Guiraud continues. “Inside Europe Ecology–The Greens, there are a lot of people who we can talk to, but there are others who clearly have a more economically liberal orientation and who we’ve seen end up like [former environment minister François] de Rugy, people who finish dissolved into economic liberalism and capitalism.”

It’s not just competition from the Greens or the PS that could hurt LFI. At least for now, Mélenchon won’t be able to count on support from the Communist Party, which for the first time since 2007 plans to field its own presidential candidate.

“I have no animosity toward Jean-Luc Mélenchon — the Communist Party supported him twice,” says Ian Brossat, a national spokesperson for the PCF and the deputy mayor of housing for Paris, also at last month’s meeting in the city. “But the experience is also that we supported him twice, and he lost twice. I think there’s also an aspiration among French people for something new and for the election in 2022 not to be a remake of 2017.”

Brossat insists the PCF’s candidate, Fabien Roussel, can help direct the national political debate toward bread-and-butter economic issues, contributing to a more favorable dynamic for the Left. Critics have said Roussel’s candidacy is designed largely to boost the PCF as the party’s influence wanes, but Brossat insists the ambitions are much bigger than that.

“A positive result would be for the Communist Party to contribute to a victory of the Left, but this requires a fundamental change of the situation we’re in today,” says Brossat, who points to the 1981 presidential election which saw François Mitterrand triumph after Communist George Marchais earned 15 percent of the first-round vote. “It’s not the number of candidates which is decisive in the end, it’s the general electoral influence of the Left.”

Green Aspirations

Europe Ecology–The Greens may also have a pivotal role to play in the campaign and in any unity accord that arises. With a strong performance in the 2019 European elections and in last year’s municipal elections, the party has seen an influx of support from young people and voters disappointed with both Macron and Mélenchon. While the Socialist Party has signaled its interest in a joint presidential campaign with EELV, party leader Julien Bayou insists the Greens are sticking to their own schedule — focusing first on June’s regional elections, then the party’s presidential primary in September.

A strong showing in June could strengthen the party’s aspirations to play kingmaker in 2022. In Bayou’s view, the only way to avoid a Macron and Le Pen rematch is through a campaign that puts ecology front and center. “The future project is responding to the great challenges of the century, the fight against climate change, and the fight against inequalities,” he tells Tribune.

The Greens have said they are prepared to make an electoral agreement to do just that — the question is how far the future pact extends and who ultimately heads it. “After the regional elections, in the summer, in the fall, yes, we’ll work on bringing people together, on this grand coalition, on a shared project that’s ambitious and radical,” Bayou says. “We don’t necessarily need to agree on everything . . . [just] ten, fifteen major measures can bring people together.”

Other than the results of the regional elections, the Greens’ role in 2022 may hinge heavily on who wins the party’s primary. Grenoble mayor Éric Piolle is considered to be the most LFI-friendly of the bunch; Yannick Jadot has more centrist politics to match his long-standing presidential ambitions, though he too says he supports left unity; Sandrine Rousseau, meanwhile, offers an alternative somewhere in the middle.

Waiting for the dust to clear on all this is Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who says she’ll announce whether she’s running or not in the fall. Among other factors, the socialist’s decision could be influenced by how Mélenchon fares in the polls, the balance of forces between the PS and EELV after the regional elections, and ultimately whether she feels a path to victory exists.

Joint Campaigns

Something that nearly everyone can agree on is that the climate needs to change substantially for someone on the Left to stand a chance at winning the presidency. It’s clear the number of candidates does not help, and the absence of an electoral pact before next April would be an almost insurmountable mathematical roadblock. Still, the much larger obstacle to victory is the overwhelmingly hostile landscape and an inability for parties to break out of a news cycle dominated by right-wing concerns and talking points.

To some extent, the next eleven months are outside of parties’ control. But as David Guiraud of LFI explains, two simple tactics may help to reverse France’s rightward drift: ceasing attacks on one another and coordinating campaigns.

“That’s the first step toward unity for me — to find each other in the street and to fight battles,” says Guiraud. “Otherwise, people will look us at like aliens and say the same thing they told the PS [who allied with EELV] in 2017, which is, ‘Ok you’re working together, but what have you done for us?”’

There are some signs of initiatives in that direction. Last Sunday, leaders of all four major left parties backed a series of nationwide marches for climate justice, against the government’s climate legislation and in favor of more radical action against the fossil fuel sector. Another group of leaders from LFI, EELV, and PCF has called to demonstrate for “liberties, against the ideas of the far right,” with a protest date expected to be finalized this summer.

These are good initiatives, though far more work needs to be done in common. And at some point, personal ambitions and short-term interests will likely need to be set aside for the greater good. Unity is not a virtue in and of itself, and it cannot simply conjure political power, but an electoral pact of some kind seems like it’ll be a key condition for success in 2022. The clock is ticking.