The Shape of the French Left and Upcoming Elections: The Last Chance for Unity

By JHANVI MEHTA

With elections in France looming, the left – previously a potent force within French politics – is predominantly disunited, which is concerning as many experts and supporters argue that the road to victory is solely achievable through unity. In a nation that is ideologically moving to the right, the left has lacked a voice regarding contentious issues, particularly immigration and security. The left has also been unsuccessful in making the most of protests on climate change and social justice, which would have been an opportunity to capitalise on electoral support.


The bleak position of the French left prior to April’s presidential elections are best summarised by a string of phone calls made by Arnaud Montebourg, a former socialist government minister whose presidential campaign has hardly made an impact in polls. Montebourg made phone calls to four other left-wing presidential candidates, who are just as staggeringly behind in polling, in a last-attempt bid to appeal to Greens, Socialists, and other leftists to come together behind one presidential election ticket or face a heavy defeat by the right in April. This failed with no response.


In spite of the inept turmoil amongst the left, and the situation of unparalleled ideological frailty it faces, “Primary of the People” have pushed to restore order on the left. The group has circumvented conventional party strategies to lead a nascent effort to move away from factionalism and divisions present on the left. A vote will be held in January for supporters to back one candidate prior to the French electorate casting their votes this year.


Recent polls are indicative of why some on the French left are seeking an alternative route to power, given that seven left-wing candidates are presently in the presidential race and, on an individual basis, are currently polling in singular digits. Jointly, all left-wing candidates in the presidential race represent a quarter of the vote, which is approximately twenty points lower compared to a decade ago. The possibility of any united and cohesive candidate from the left to gain a sufficient number of votes to reach the next stage of the race, likely to face Macron, appears slim.


The leaders behind the primary campaign were at work in January 2021, and spent months in negotiations amongst most parties on the left to compromise on a baseline of ten proposals to achieve social and climate justice, which consist of a tax rise for the wealthy and banning pesticide use by 2030. “Primary for the People” will vote this January to nominate a presidential candidate and they have vowed to back and campaign for that candidate.


Efforts to hold a primary at the start of 2022 signals optimism and a chance to allow the left to gain revitalised credibility and relevance within French politics. This has the potential to wreak havoc with the presidential race that has now been topped by Eric Zemmour, a divisive far-right writer, and could provide the opportunity for the left to gain a foothold in the race.


The French left enjoyed a long period of dominance by the Socialist Party that embodies social-democratic politics, however, Macron’s electoral victory in 2017 marked the end of the two-party system that allowed the left to sit securely. The left now consists of a boisterous combination of divisions amongst Socialists, Greens, and France Unbowed, a far-left party. This divisive electoral cocktail also includes a collection of small far-left parties that have emerged as a result of the Communist Party facing near ruin. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the Socialist Party’s candidate, is struggling to gain prominence with her presidential campaign and insists that the splintered left need to reunite.


However, this is an intensive last-ditch effort for ideological unity. Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is the leader of France Unbowed, has deemed the push for ideological unity to be too late and ludicrous, although this push is gaining momentum. Montebourg’s eager calls for unity gained traction eventually, and Hidalgo, who is polling at less than five percent, has recognised that the left is headed for political suicide and will need to organise a primary. Hidalgo’s remarks come after a public letter implored parties to decide on a primary. The movement to reunite the left increased in prominence when Christiane Taubira, an ex-justice minister who served under Hollande’s presidency between 2012-2017, insisted that she would place her efforts into achieving unity. Taubira’s move is likely an attempt to pressurise candidates on the left into unifying, particularly those that have currently hesitated in joining left-wing primaries, for example Yannick Jadot for the Greens.


The allure to establish a primary by citizens has echoed the rising disillusionment with conventional left-wing parties. Many who align themselves with the left currently consider the parties’ policies concerned with a balanced economy and social justice as outdated. Furthermore, Hollande’s openness to policies that appealed to businesses were regarded as disloyalty to the left.


France has been rocked by multiple protests and social movements in recent years, dealing with pressing issues like racism, domestic violence, and economic disparities. However, left-wing parties haven’t capitalised on this and have struggled to convert these protests into solid policy propositions and garner a wider support base. The left is increasingly disjointed from new social movements, is lagging in gaining a political footing outside large cities, and is becoming increasingly divided politically. This has led to a loss of contact with its support base.


Where these efforts will take the left in the French political system is uncertain, although the left can equip themselves for victory through political convergence and unity to shift away from the disarray.


Image: Unsplash (Ilnur Kalimullin)