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The French left: its own worst enemy?

For as long as the left has existed, leftist infighting has existed with it. The task of achieving social progress is no mean feat. It requires clear goals founded upon clear values, organisation and above all political unity. 

To say that the French left has a political unity problem would be an understatement. On the 17th of October 2023, the French Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) suspended its membership of NUPES, the broad left-wing opposition alliance, after Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the alliance’s largest party, refused to refer to Hamas’ recent attacks against civilians in Israel as “terrorism”. Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) said that his position had been misrepresented. He condemns Hamas, but considers their recent actions to be war crimes, and not terrorist attacks. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, was unequivocal in their statement, which “unreservedly” condemned “Hamas’ terrorist attack against Israel”. After the fallout, Mélenchon and the Socialist Party leader, Olivier Faure, accused one another of sowing division. Mélenchon blamed Faure for “splitting up” the left-wing alliance, claiming that the Hamas controversy was merely a convenient pretext for the Socialist Party’s withdrawal. Faure, on the other hand, said that Mélenchon had become an “obstacle” to the alliance, and called for “radical change” in the organisation of the French left. Faure is not alone in this view. Former Green presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, has called for his party, Les Écologistes (The Ecologists), to suspend its partnership with NUPES. Le Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party) has recently adopted a resolution condemning the “hegemonic will” of France Unbowed within the alliance, and calling for a “new type of union” on the left. The perception that the French left has a Mélenchon problem is now fairly widespread. “We cannot work with someone who decides everything for everyone”, said Socialist Party politician Johann Cesa. “What the French people want […] is for us to put forward a common programme, with a single candidate [for the presidency] in 2027.” Mélenchon may be the most recognisable figure on the French left, having come third in the 2022 presidential race, but he is no longer seen by his alliance partners as a unifying figure. If “radical change” in the left alliance comes to pass, it is possible that another figure will emerge as the left’s candidate for the next presidential election. 

Just over a year on from its founding, NUPES appears to be on the brink of collapse. Arguably, its unity has been fractured from the very beginning. Founded in 2022 to contest the June legislative elections, NUPES brought together France’s main left-wing parties. These parties became deeply divided following the political realignment effected by the victory of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche! party in 2017. By 2022, the Socialist Party, a former titan of French politics, was relegated to tenth place in the first round of the presidential race. The left-wing vote was split between six candidates, which, if consolidated into one, would have won the first round, preventing the far-right Marine Le Pen from contesting the presidency in the second round. Something had to change. Mélenchon took the initiative and entered into talks with other left-wing parties to find a common platform on which to fight the upcoming legislative elections. Their main points of alignment were:

  • A reduction in the retirement age from 62 to 60
  • A raise in the minimum wage to €1,500
  • The reintroduction on wealth taxes
  • A freeze in the price of essential goods
  • The creation of a million jobs

However, this offer did not appeal to the French people enough to secure the parliamentary majority which the alliance had hoped for. NUPES candidates won 131 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats, far behind Macron’s party, which was able to form a government through an alliance with other centrist and conservative parties. At this time, NUPES’s tensions were already beginning to show. Mélenchon had proposed that the newly elected NUPES MPs should form a fully fledged parliamentary group, but was shot down by the junior parties in his alliance, who stressed the importance of a “plural” left. 

Controversy struck again later that year, when the France Insoumise national co-ordinator and MP, Adrien Quatennens, was accused of domestic abuse by his wife. He was not expelled from the party and Mélenchon initially rushed to his defence. Junior NUPES parties vocally protested this decision, expressing support for Quatennens’ wife. Some pointed out that if one of their number had been in the same position, they would have been suspended from the party.

Suspicion of Mélenchon’s party has run deep within the alliance since its inception. A 2022 poll indicated that 51% of Socialist Party supporters and 43% of Écologistes supporters considered France Insoumise to be “dangerous for democracy”. The same poll found that a majority of Socialist Party supporters disapprove of the way France Insoumise conducts itself in parliament, and find its views “too radical”. Although NUPES seemed to converge in the fight against Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, their strategy was not coherent. Communists sought to vote on the bill as soon as possible, in the hopes that it would fail, whilst the other parties flooded the floor with amendments, aiming to avoid a vote and build momentum among protestors. Mélenchon openly criticised the Communist Party during this process, further alienating his NUPES partner and laying bare the internal division plaguing the alliance. Despite a mass protest movement against Macron’s plans, NUPES was unable to prevent the bill’s passage and to gain the political initiative. Opinion polls show no significant rise in support for the alliance in the wake of the protests, despite a marked decline in Macron’s popularity.

It is clear, then, that the recent Socialist-NUPES split is a symptom of historical division, infighting, and political failure. Whether the Hamas controversy was the last straw, or simply a convenient excuse for the Socialist Party, is largely unimportant. What matters is how the dust will settle. Mélenchon, a veteran of the French left, doubtless sees himself as the natural rallying point for progressives in the next election cycle. But the animosity which has grown between him and the other left-wing parties has cast doubt on this order. A left-wing alliance that can pose a real threat to the centre and the far-right must succeed first in making all its parties feel like valued contributors to its goals and strategy. It must shun the curse of leftist infighting and stand united around a clear, popular political project. Currently, French law prevents Macron from running for re-election in 2027. In fact, he has recently indicated that he will step away from politics altogether after the end of his second presidential term. This could be the opening the left needs to climb their way to the presidency, provided they rally around a figure who is not an “obstacle”, but a lightning rod for progressive energy.

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