Our latest edition is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

France’s Left Has Lost Touch With the Working Class

Ahead of April’s presidential election, France’s left is badly divided. But calls for unity behind a milquetoast centrist threaten only to deepen the Left’s split with its historic working-class base.

French Socialist Party member and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo photographed in 2016. She is currently running for president of France. (A.Schneider83 / Wikimedia Commons)

The campaign for April’s French presidential election is already polarizing around the “culture war.” The flood of anti-immigrant messaging isn’t just coming from the far right or even President Emmanuel Macron’s administration, but also many of France’s leading capitalists — not least billionaire tycoon Vincent Bolloré, owner of the Fox-like CNews.

The situation ahead of this spring’s vote thus looks perilous. There is every likelihood that the runoff will again set the neoliberal (and increasingly conservative-hued) Macron against a candidate of the hard or far right. Logically enough, fear is spreading in left-wing circles, which by current polling seem hard-pressed to mount a strong challenge in April’s contest.

One expression of this fear is the plea for unity among the various left-wing candidates, none of whom currently polls much above 10 percent. While Jean-Luc Mélenchon generally stands out as the top-ranked left-wing candidate, there are a slew of alternatives, from the more liberal (such as Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, of the Socialist Party, and the Green Yannick Jadot) as well as the French Communist Party’s (PCF) Fabien Roussel, former Socialist minister Arnaud Montebourg, and three Trotskyist candidates (Philippe Poutou, Nathalie Arnaud, and Anasse Kazib). François Hollande’s former justice minister Christiane Taubira also looks increasingly likely to throw her hat into the ring.

Faced with such fragmentation — with at least eight candidates dividing barely 25 percent of the national vote — finding a joint candidate may sound like a plausible solution. With just three months before France heads to the polls, surely something must be done to bring together the divided family of the Left? On this account, the main obstacle to progress is various rival candidates’ petty defense of their own importance.

But the proposals for unity, as currently formulated, not only look unworkable (especially given the reticence of several major runners to take part) but in many ways promise to deepen the Left’s woes — not saving its blushes but rather guaranteeing that it will have no impact on the 2022 contest. The causes of these divisions run much deeper than candidates’ egos, owing as they do to a decades-long separation between the neoliberalized left and the working class. Calls for a “left-wing primary” cobbling together the existing small parties’ remaining activist core are hardly a recipe for reversing this process.

Common Ground?

The instrument generally expected to achieve this unity on the left is the online platform primairepopulaire.fr — a small organization built by a group of activists, with a leadership on a professionalized NGO model. Reflecting the appeal of calls for a primary among some liberal-left circles, it has collected nearly 300,000 signatures backing its approach.

Its plan had seemed to gain traction last month, thanks to unexpected support from Paris mayor Hidalgo. Candidate for the once-mighty Socialist Party (from the 1970s to the 2010s one of France’s two dominant forces), her flopped campaign launch and sub-five-percent polling numbers soon made her into a partisan of the primary call. Yet, this week, she announced she wouldn’t stand unless the Greens’ Jadot did so, too — admitting that this was off the table “for the moment.” With both the Green and Socialist candidates backing out for now, on Friday center-left figures exasperated by the lack of progress launched a hunger strike to demand that a joint candidate be found.

Primairepopulaire.fr does at least have a procedure in mind if the candidates agree to take part. First, there is to be a preselection of sponsored candidates, with a list to be announced on January 15. Then, a vote on January 27 to 30 will select a candidate via “majority judgement” (i.e., whoever secures the highest median score among primary voters).

This plan also sets out at least some notion of overcoming political differences on the Left — if not a very convincing one. The idea is that the winner of the primary will undertake to promote the spirit of “le Socle Commun” (a document apparently establishing “the Common Ground” of the Left, as determined by the platform’s organizers) and thus “rally together” the array of left-wing and progressive forces.

With at least eight candidates dividing barely 25 percent of the vote between them, the idea of a common candidate sounds plausible.

With this last point, we touch on the fundamental problem. Not only would the eventual winner only have to commit to a little-binding call to “promote the spirit of the Common Ground,” but this “Common Ground” is itself highly vague. Apart from a few measures (socializing the debts of farmers who switch to organic, the rejection of free trade treaties that defy the Paris climate agreements, gender parity on company boards, and the abandonment of unemployment insurance reforms), no issue is addressed in precise terms.

Instead, the Common Ground proposes unspecific calls for a “solidarity income from age 18” and “increasing health professionals’ incomes”. Most important, it speaks of “some form of reduction of working hours (differing according to candidates: the four-day or 32-hour week, more paid vacations, or retirement at 60).” Thus, while Macron has waged a major offensive against pensions — prompting a major social revolt that saw this plan suspended at the beginning of the pandemic — this question appears only in parenthesis, as one of so many possible ideas.

In reality, even this minimal basis is in dispute: While Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (LFI) backs full pensions from age sixty, Hidalgo wants to “protect” retirement at age sixty-two, i.e., at a level that right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy introduced only a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Greens’ program does not speak of returning to full retirement at age sixty for all, but only of the possibility of it for those doing especially arduous jobs.

Yet more striking is the silence on two other fundamental questions. The first is the European Union, an essential factor in the implementation of any major policy. But the word “Europe” does not appear in the document — still less so the question of the existing European institutions or treaties. This is no accident: the Left has been split on this issue since the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

The second question is racism or Islamophobia, which this Common Ground does not even mention, even though it is the main vector of the cultural wars waged by the bourgeois bloc (in its liberal, conservative, and fascist variants). This is hardly insignificant: We already saw the Socialist Party and its candidate refuse to participate in the November 2019 demonstration against Islamophobia after an armed attack on a mosque, while repeatedly attacking “Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ambiguities” over “Islamism” because of his defense of Muslims and participation in this same march. Hidalgo, Roussel, and Jadot each participated in a police unions’ demonstration in front of the National Assembly with far-right slogans calling for the submission of the judicial system to the police, whereas Mélenchon and the far-left candidates denounced this initiative.

The Soft Left’s Record

So, it would appear that the “Common Ground” will not provide for an even basic unity of purpose. But any chance of this intra-left vote choosing a joint candidate are also put into serious doubt by what already happened in 2017. Back then, in a Socialist Party primary light on programmatic detail, Benoît Hamon won by taking a line critical of the outgoing Hollande presidency. Yet far from then leading a united campaign, he was systematically abused and betrayed by the party’s most prominent figures, many of whom rallied behind Macron’s rival candidacy.

This also demands a certain vigilance regarding the profile adopted by the Socialist Party since 2017, which is certainly not well-placed to win back the millions of working-class voters it has alienated in recent years. Undeniably, Hollande’s presidency deepened divisions in party ranks. But in his five years as president, he did not just “betray” supporters by breaking promises but actively organized regressive, anti-working class measures such as the adoption of the “Loi Travail” and various other attacks on labor rights. While, in the National Assembly since 2017, the Socialist Party has generally opposed the decisions of the Macron-aligned majority, it has not rejected the Hollande experience.

This leads to surreal situations — for instance, Marylise Lebranchu, a former civil service minister who maintained a wage freeze under Hollande, accusing Macron of wanting to introduce neoliberalism to French soil. Even aside from party right-wingers who joined Macron, all the historic elements of the Socialist left have also abandoned the party (including Hamon); after launching her campaign, Hidalgo expressed her gratitude to Hollande and his interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who organized the repression of many demonstrations.

It might be argued that such a weakened Socialist Party, whatever its faults, is no longer strong enough to influence the direction the Left is headed. This would be to underestimate the capacity for nuisance of a party of local elected officials — so numerous in Hidalgo’s staff — marking continuity with the Hollande era. There is, simply put, no chance that such figures would support an anti-austerity campaign that even contemplated disobeying the EU, or consequentially fight against Islamophobia.

Despite a notable exodus of cadres to Macron, with several even becoming ministers, the Greens (Europe Ecology — the Greens, Europe Écologie Les Verts — EELV), a minority partner at the beginning of François Hollande’s mandate, have been less hit by voter disaffection than the Socialist Party. Last year, the Greens organized a primary that saw the narrow victory of the moderate Yannick Jadot over his competitor Sandrine Rousseau, who has a more left-wing profile. Unlike the Socialists, they are not similarly marked by right-wing personalities who have organized austerity in France and promote culture-war discourses.

Nevertheless, in addition to the cautious, moderate image pursued by their candidate Jadot, the Greens’ main divergence with LFI (and even the Communist PCF) concerns the European Union. Respect for the European treaties is a core credo for the party. In its electoral program, each mention of changing European norms is accompanied by the words “within the framework of the treaties.” Nowhere do the Greens reckon with the possibility that a minimally ambitious social policy (including their own proposals) could contradict the EU treaties, despite the austerian straitjacket the latter have time and again imposed on left-wing administrations. Contrary to this approach, LFI defends the possibility that it would disobey these treaties as soon as they contradict social reforms approved by the French population. It seems hard to imagine a joint campaign that skims over such a fundamental divide.

Faced with these divergences, the latest candidate to come along — former justice minister Christiane Taubira — has simply chosen not to talk about a program, preferring to evoke a “conception of France” made up of platitudes. Taubira does enjoy a certain sympathy on the Left, both as an embodiment of one of the few positive measures of the Hollande era — marriage for all — and a target of the far right, especially since she is a black woman. She wishes to capitalize on this, her oratorical abilities, and her literary culture to rally a “moderate”-left electorate sensitive to symbols while advancing no specific left-wing measures, even as someone who has four years’ governmental experience.

As for the three Trotskyist candidates, these are above all what are, in France, called “testimonial” candidacies to assert a party’s name and identity — often voicing necessary demands and providing particular satisfaction when they attack the various bourgeois candidates head-on in face-to-face debates.

Real Unity

Neither these political divisions, nor the current turmoil surrounding the primary proposal itself, imply that all forms of unity can be ruled out in advance. In particular, it seems artificial for the PCF and France Insoumise to run rival candidates, after they both supported Mélenchon in both 2012 and 2017. Differences on ecological issues (particularly nuclear power, which the PCF unlike France Insoumise supports) should not be insurmountable, given that they existed during previous campaigns. However, Roussel became PCF secretary essentially on the promise of asserting the party’s identity in national politics — all in service of its higher goal of reelecting its MPs and protecting its remaining local fortresses.

In addition, experiences in local elections have shown that, under certain conditions, unity was a (necessary but not sufficient) condition for victory. One key example came during the 2020 municipal elections in the country’s second-largest city, won by the broad-left Printemps Marseillais coalition. But however we analyze Printemps Marseillais’s record in office, this coalition was built on an explicit common program developed in advance, not a simple contest of personalities claiming to be of the Left.

Indeed, this question of what comes after the primary is all decisive. Let’s imagine a left-wing primary picked Mélenchon. He would be confronted every week by supposed left-wing allies insisting that they “cannot identify” with his remarks (on pensions, on the European Union, on Islamophobia, and so on) and must therefore withdraw their support. The effect would surely be destabilizing and demoralizing. It’s also not just a hypothesis but what actually happened to Hamon in 2017, after he won the primary of a party whose leaders opposed him.

Faced with growing right-wing hegemony, the call for a “unity candidate” in the run-up to this April’s presidential contest sounds like a “trick” that can paper over the differences between the different groups claiming to be on the Left. Yet these are fundamental differences: whether or not to support economic “liberalization,” whether or not to accept the existing EU treaties, and whether it matters to fight against Islamophobia. This isn’t just a problem for a future government, but also for any hope of a campaign in which the Left can mount a combative offensive against the current neoliberal quagmire.