The French Left Is Uniting Around Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Radical Agenda


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Source: Jacobin
For much of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, the French left has been badly divided. In April, this culminated in a nightmarish string of individual presidential bids that complicated the clear front-runner Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hopes of advancing to the runoff.Yet today, a tectonic shift is underway: for the various left-wing parties are moving toward an alliance for the parliamentary elections in June, with Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI) the undisputed leader of the group.

Following Mélenchon’s near-qualification for the second round, LFI, Europe Ecology–the Greens (EELV), and the French Communist Party (PCF), are in advanced talks over an accord based on the platform of the Union Populaire, Mélenchon’s campaign vehicle meant to appeal to a broad left-leaning and working-class electorate. Discussions have also begun with the Socialist Party (PS) and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). Sources close to the negotiations say they’re aiming to wrap up a deal by the end of this week, just in time for the annual May Day marches on Sunday.

“We’ve shown there’s a bloc led by the Union Populaire, and so the discussions necessarily have to reflect this,” says David Guiraud, a member of LFI and parliamentary assistant running for the National Assembly in the northern city of Roubaix. “We’re not trying to dominate everything. We’ve extended our hand, but we still have demands; people voted for us for a reason.”

Those demands come straight from Mélenchon’s platform: a hike in the minimum wage; a reversal of recent labor law reforms; lowering the retirement age to sixty; reimplementing a wealth tax; green policies guided by the concept of ecological planning; a transition to a Sixth Republic; and repealing recent laws on national security and Islamist “separatism,” among others.

Of course, building a parliamentary majority and forcing Emmanuel Macron into a situation of “cohabitation” with a left-wing government won’t be easy. An absolute majority would require obtaining at least 289 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats — far more than the combined sixty seats controlled by the Insoumis, Communists, and Socialists today. (In discussions, LFI negotiators have reportedly talked about 165 seats that appear particularly favorable.)

But Guiraud remains hopeful about earning a majority. “There’s a small window of opportunity,” he says, using a term regularly employed by Mélenchon to describe the prospects of making the presidential runoff — “trou de souris,” which literally means “mouse hole.”

“It’s not easy, but it’s never been easy for us,” Guiraud continues. “We have a program of rupture that requires us to take advantage of certain periods. [Right now] everyone who feels like they weren’t represented in these presidential elections has another fight ahead of them.”

The party also hopes to deploy a secret weapon. To lift turnout in an election that usually sees a steep decline in participation after the presidential race, the party is billing June’s vote as a “third round” of the election season, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon directly appealing to voters to elect him as prime minister. It’s an unconventional strategy ahead of parliamentary elections, but the goal is to tap into the candidate’s popularity and image as a principled challenger to Macron and Marine Le Pen.

“This is someone who brought together millions of votes, who almost made the second round, and who brought together a powerful popular bloc,” Guiraud says.

Missed Opportunities

The conditions for a left-wing pact are far more favorable today than they were after Macron’s first victory in 2017: for one, the president now has an actual track record and there are a few illusions about his agenda; second, the far right is gaining traction, with its leaders salivating at the prospects of taking power in the post-Macron era.

But internal dynamics have also made left-wing parties more amenable to an accord. After largely going it alone and missing out on many winnable seats in 2017, LFI’s baseline conditions for a pact are easier to meet this time, while its two major partners of choice — the Greens and Communists — are both coming off disappointing presidential campaigns and hoping to salvage a presence in the National Assembly. (It also helps that parties receive public money according to their results in the parliamentary elections.)

Sandrine Rousseau, an economist and self-described “eco-feminist” who narrowly lost last year’s Green presidential primary to Yannick Jadot, says she’s on board with Mélenchon as prime minister. “I think it’d be great,” she tells Jacobin. “It’s what’s needed.”

While the idea of left unity has been repeatedly floated — and rejected — over the last few years, she says the results of this month’s presidential election have changed the calculus. “I think everyone’s conscious of the wasted opportunity from going at it separately,” Rousseau tells me. “And then, there’s also a defined leader. There wasn’t one before. Everybody was claiming leadership.”

Like many within EELV, Rousseau is now openly critical of her party’s presidential campaign. Earning just 4.6 percent of the vote, Jadot ultimately failed to clear the 5 percent threshold required to get a major chunk of spending reimbursed by the government — resulting in an embarrassing call for contributions in the middle of his speech on Election Night.

“It was an enormous missed opportunity,” Rousseau says. “Jean-Luc Mélenchon didn’t get into the second round, and we didn’t even get 5 percent.”

“At the end, we needed to come together,” she says, regretting her party’s criticism of Mélenchon. “We didn’t understand the important demand from left and ecologist voters that we actually win, not just get a respectable score.”

After starting off on a good note, talks with the Greens have lagged somewhat this week, with EELV head Julien Bayou pushing for more seats and criticizing the lack of the word “ecology” in the coalition name Union Populaire, while LFI negotiators have bemoaned the Greens’ internal divisions. But Bayou has told the press he remains hopeful about a deal, with EELV leadership set to meet Saturday.

Communist Doubts

Igor Zamichei, coordinator for the French Communist Party’s national executive committee and a participant in the ongoing negotiations, says today’s dangerous political moment requires unity. “The situation is urgent,” he says. “The immense majority of French people did not want this match-up between Macron and Le Pen.”

When asked why there wasn’t emphasis on unity before the presidential race to prevent such a rematch, Zamichei defends his party’s candidate Fabien Roussel for bringing attention to issues like labor and energy independence. (Roussel ultimately won just around 800,000 votes — or 2.3 percent — while Mélenchon missed out on the second round by about 400,000 votes.)

Zamichei suggests that beating Macron would’ve been difficult since the combined first-round score of left-wing parties was only around 30 percent. “For the Left to win, we need 40 to 45 percent in the first round,” Zamichei says. “The problem for the Left is that it’s too weak . . . and denying its diversity won’t give it strength.”

At the same time, Zamichei acknowledges it was “a disappointing result” for Roussel. “In the end, we suffered from the institutions of the Fifth Republic — the fact that there are only two candidates who qualify for the runoff round and that this encourages tactical voting,” he says. “That’s the reality.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a member of the PCF’s national council says the first-round results showed the party is out of touch with a swath of young and working-class voters and that it badly misjudged the appeal of Mélenchon’s candidacy. At the same time, the PCF activist says it would’ve been near impossible to back out of the race in the end, since the party had already invested so much time and energy into it. Abandoning the campaign would’ve also required some form of rank-and-file input, since PCF members had themselves voted for a shift in strategy in 2018 when they elected Fabien Roussel as party leader and endorsed his presidential bid in 2021.

In any case, the Communists are now ready to get behind Mélenchon’s bid for prime minister. “It’s natural that he’d become prime minister if we had a majority,” says Zamichei.

Fallen Giant

As negotiations roll on, La France Insoumise has also extended an invitation to the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), a respected presence in social movements that could provide some valuable pressure from the left, and which has responded favorably so far. But that hasn’t sparked as much controversy as another question: should an accord for the parliamentary elections include the Socialist Party (PS)?

The bad blood between LFI and the PS runs deep: Socialist presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who won just 1.8 percent of the first-round vote, repeatedly bashed Mélenchon on the campaign trail. Years of broken promises and the disappointment of the François Hollande presidency have led many left-leaning voters to distrust the entire party apparatus.

And yet there are reasons that make a deal compelling to both sides: the PS is facing an existential crisis and desperately wants to elect legislators — a big reason why party leaders have voted to open negotiations with LFI despite all their criticism over the years. Meanwhile, from a sheer mathematical perspective, the Socialist Party could provide valuable assets to the Union Populaire as it seeks to build a majority. (Despite its fall from glory, the PS still has more seats in the National Assembly today than LFI or the PCF.)

Like the Communists, the Socialists also have a solid base of elected officials at the municipal and regional levels. La France Insoumise, on the other hand, has struggled to convert its nationwide appeal into a presence on the local level.

Either way, David Guiraud says the ultimate responsibility lies with the Socialist Party and its willingness to endorse what’s on the table. “It’s up to it to be clear in its positions,” he says.

So far, talks appear to be moving in the right direction. After a first round of meetings on Wednesday, LFI’s chief negotiator Manuel Bompard told the press he didn’t feel like he was “talking to the same PS from two or three years ago,” adding that nothing “seemed insurmountable.”

While an accord with the PS would likely rankle some of the Insoumis rank-and-file — Mélenchon has long lambasted the party he left in 2008 — it’s also generating frictions within the Socialist camp. (Ex-president François Hollande is reportedly furious about the party’s openness to LFI, though he’s in the minority, and party leader Olivier Faure has encouraged those unhappy about the talks to leave the PS.)

While the first round of the parliamentary elections on June 12 is still weeks away and an agreement has yet to be finalized, there’s a remarkable irony about the current state of play. While left-wing parties are moving toward a pact after years of division, for once their bitterest rivals seem rather more divided. On the far right, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally has shot down an invitation from Éric Zemmour to ally with his Reconquest party. In the meantime, the leader of the right-wing Les Républicains has vowed his party will remain an independent force in Parliament, only adding to the doubts over how Macron will be able to cobble together a friendly majority in the National Assembly.

In France’s highly volatile political climate, all that division — coupled with broad left unity — might just keep the “mouse hole” open.

“We can’t forget that we were supported by a whole lot of young people, in a whole lot of working-class neighborhoods,” Guiraud says. “We need to go out and keep these people mobilized.”

 

Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist writing about labor and politics. A former staff writer at International Business Times and In These Times, he has also published work in VICE, the Nation, and the Village Voice.

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