Is the French Left already resigned to defeat at the 2022 presidential election?

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Various factions on the Left are already focussing on the Parliamentary elections in June 2022, in apparent acceptance that they are unlikely to perform well at the presidential election that takes place two months earlier. Opinion polls currently suggest that the battle to be the next French head of state in April 2022 will primarily be between the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, the far-right and, just possibly, the traditional Right. The subsequent Parliamentary elections, to be held over two rounds on June 12th and June 19th, will meanwhile determine the political influence of the various parties on the Left in the National Assembly. Mathieu Dejean and Pauline Graulle report on the potential horse-trading among the Left ahead of those legislative elections and the impact this may have, too, on the race for the presidency itself.

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It is a sign that a battle is under way. A motion adopted at the last meeting of the green Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV) party's national council has caused something of a stir on the Left in France. This motion refers to the Parliamentary elections that will take place in June 2022, two months after the presidential election. In it the greens call for the “start of discussions over all of the 577 [Parliamentary] constituencies with a view to a national agreement” with other groups on the ecological left.

Further down, however, the text lists one of the three “objectives” that any such agreement must meet: “The support of the ecology candidate at the presidential election.” In other words, anyone taking part in the Parliamentary election agreement would first have to support the EELV candidate Yannick Jadot in next April's presidential election.

Not surprisingly this “objective” has sent shudders through supporters of the socialist presidential candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who are more used to being the ones who set the terms of any alliance with their partners on the Left. The Socialist Party's former first secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis is none too impressed either. “It's suicidal!” he told Mediapart. “It would mean [communist Fabien] Roussel, [radical-left Jean-Luc] Mélenchon and Hidalgo giving up on the presidential election. So the environmentalists are preventing the possibility of an agreement. Yet if you have five candidates from the Left per constituency in the Parliamentary elections, in the end no one from the Left will be elected.”

The National Assembly. © Photo Sébastien Calvet / Mediapart The National Assembly. © Photo Sébastien Calvet / Mediapart

While most politicians decline to say so publicly, the June 2022 Parliamentary elections have been on everyone's mind for months. “The truth is, the reason there hasn't been nuclear war between the different [presidential] candidates on the Left is because everyone wants to be a Member of Parliament and so everyone will need each other,” an existing MP who asked to remain anonymous said at a recent gathering of the Left at the Fête de l’Humanité event in September.

Moreover, in view of the current political landscape in France, doubts on the Left about the possibility of them winning the race to the Élysée appear well-founded and real. Current polls put all the left-of-centre candidates well behind the centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and candidates from the far-right and the traditional Right. “Some [editor's note, political leaders] have told us that it's about 2027 [editor's note, in other words the subsequent presidential election] and that they were more interested in doubling or tripling their number of MPs because that determines the financing of the parties,” Samuel Grzybowski, one of the spokespeople for Primaire Populaire, an initiative to find a common candidate for the Left via a primary election, told France Inter radio.

Fearing yet another defeat at a presidential election, and rather than missing their opportunity completely, parties on the Left are thus focussing on – perhaps even prioritising – how to boost their numbers in the National Assembly.

There are certainly good reasons for doing this. One is a financial incentive; each vote a party receives in the Parliamentary elections brings them 1.40 euros in public funds. The other is that these legislative elections will define the balance of power not just between the government and the opposition in 2022, but within the Left itself too.

There is also a more immediate reason for the discussions about a possible agreement over the 2022 Parliamentary elections; any such accord could have an impact on how the Left approaches the presidential election itself. The first impact it could have might be on the number of rival candidates that the Left fields next April in the race for the Élysée.

This is a lever that the EELV green party has decided to use by explicitly linking any agreement on the Parliamentary elections to the presidential campaign. “If there are some points of agreement between us [editor's note, the EELV and the rest of the Left], and I think they're powerful, then we must explore the idea of having just one candidate, with a government coalition that could feed through to the Parliamentary elections,” said the EELV national secretary Julien Bayou. “If there's no agreement we'll part as good friends, and we can review the situation after the presidential election. But we'd prefer an agreement on support, and are ready to make every effort.”

In other words, if Anne Hidalgo agreed to support Yannick Jadot's candidacy to be president – and withdraw her own – then the Socialist Party (PS) would not face rival EELV candidates in many constituencies. Bayou was also signalling that the days when the greens lined up behind the socialist candidate at the presidential election in return for guaranteed seats at the National Assembly have gone.

The greens also have painful memories of the last Parliamentary elections in 2017. Despite an agreement reached with the PS that year the group of green MPs – who had numbered 17 under the presidency of François Hollande – simply vanished from the Assembly.

Discussions between 'partners'

Proof that people on the Left are already preparing for after the presidential election is the way the term “coalition” has come back into the vocabulary of current PS first secretary Olivier Faure in recent weeks. And while the French Communist Party's national secretary, Fabien Roussel, has remained firm on his intention to stand as a candidate in the presidential election, he completely changes his tone when the issue of a Parliamentary election agreement comes up.

“We believe it's possible to build a new majority in the National Assembly with the greatest number of Left and ecology MPs,” said Roussel. He has held bilateral meetings with personnel in charge of elections at the PS, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's radical-left La France Insoumise (LFI) ('France Unbowed') and the EELV. And in mid-September he called for a “joint pact committing to the legislative elections” from all on the Left, with no one group holding a privileged position.

In the 2017 Parliamentary elections the French Communist party (PCF) had something of a lucky escape. Amid great tensions at the time with their sometime allies the LFI, there was no agreement reached between them over the legislative elections even though both parties had agreed to support one candidate for the presidency – Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The communist candidates still scraped in, obtaining 15 MPs, the minimum number required at the Assembly to form a Parliamentary 'group'. Having enough MPs to form a group at the National Assembly confers greater influence and boosts a party's ability to challenge the government.

If the PCF just managed to form a group at the Assembly, it was because their sitting MPs did not have LFI candidates standing against them,” said historian Roger Martelli, a specialist in the history of communism. “In contrast, each time there was a LFI/PCF duel the LFI candidate won, with the exception of Elsa Faucillon at Gennevilliers [in the north-west suburbs of Paris] and Hubert Wulfranc in Seine-Maritime [in northern France]. In any case, if the PCF want to find the winning formula again in 2017, it will have to have obtain favourable conditions from its partners on the Left.”

We can't imagine an agreement that's not linked to the result of the presidential election, that would be a terrible admission of defeat.

Michel Bompard, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign director

La France Insoumise, meanwhile, which has still not abandoned the hope that the PCF will rally behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon as presidential candidate in 2022, is also using the Parliamentary elections as a potential lever over its old allies. This move has been given more urgency by the fact that the LFI has failed to transform its national standing into winning local support in mid-term elections; it now finds itself in a perilous position in terms of holding on to its present Parliamentary group, which currently contains 17 MPs. Nor has the LFI completely ruled out a national agreement with other groups on the Left for the legislative elections.

However, La France Insoumise is in no hurry on the issue. “At the moment we can't imagine an agreement that's not linked to the result of the presidential election, that would be a terrible admission of defeat, that would mean that you forget about 2022,” said Michel Bompard, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign director, who said that talking about a national agreement on the Parliamentary elections without knowing the balance of power at the end of the presidential campaign makes no sense politically.

Nevertheless, it is not certain that the momentum of a presidential election is enough to enable a party to go it alone at the subsequent legislative elections, even if that party comes top among other movements on the Left. Historian Roger Martelli pointed out that in 2017 the gap between Mélenchon's vote in the first round of the presidential election – when he attracted 19.6% of voters – and his LFI's vote at the subsequent legislative elections was 8%. This awareness has given rise to the current paradoxical situation that with no current dominant force on the Left, all parties are pursuing their own plans for the 2022 presidential election. But at the same time they are emphasising their willingness to be team players for the Parliamentary elections two months later.

“The volatility of all their performances in the most recent elections [editor's note, European, municipal and in the country's départements or counties] means that they are not negotiating for the time being. It will only be their scores at the presidential election which will determine the political capital of each [party],” said political scientist Frédéric Sawicki. The Left also knows that if it produces a disappointing overall performance in April's presidential elections, then it could be staring down the barrel of a double defeat.

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  • The original French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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