Less than 12 months before next year’s presidential elections in France, the Left is staring at the spectre of a repeat scenario of the elections in 2017 that brought Emmanuel Macron to power, when its divisions saw rival candidates wiped out in the first round of voting, leading to a second-round playoff between Macron and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.
For despite the public demonstration of unity, notably a meeting in Paris last month between representatives from across the spectrum of leftwing parties, and including the Greens, to explore a common alliance for the elections, and which is due to resume at the end of this month, a different reality is emerging. Namely, the creation of two competing blocs that, for the time being, are advancing separately towards the presidential poll and the legislative elections which follow immediately afterwards.
On one side there is the radical-left La France insoumise (LFI) party, and on the other, a coalition of Green parties and the Parti socialiste (PS), joined by a few tiny leftwing movements and parties (Place publique, Nouvelle Donne, Parti radical de gauche). While the discussions between both camps – and notably regarding the legislative elections – have been kept confidential, the constitution of two blocs on the Left has been openly theorized about for months.
Beginning with LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who last November was the first to throw his hat into the ring as a presidential candidate. He hopes to draw the abstentionist leftwing voters by occupying a space that is opposed to the traditional Left, which he describes as acting as an “accompaniment” to capitalism. Facing him is the PS and Yannick Jadot, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the EELV Green party and the likely presidential election candidate for all the Green parties who are to vote in primaries in October. The PS and Jadot together believe that if they have any chance of reaching the second and final round of the presidential elections – that is, the play-off between the two highest-scoring candidates in the first round – they must attract the disenchanted electorate that once supported Emmanuel Macron. But to do so, they are better off without the divisive figure of Mélenchon.
Yannick Jadot makes no secret of wanting to situate himself between Mélenchon and Macron. The divide between the two camps of the Left has seen the EELV refusing to form an alliance with the LFI in the south-east PACA region during next month’s nationwide regional council elections, while the incumbent socialist leader of the south-west Occitanie region, Carole Delga, has similarly refused an alliance with Mélenchon’s party, even in the second round of the polling, underlining her disagreement with his “positions on Europe and about secularity”.
While LFI has reacted angrily to the rejections, denouncing the “duplicity” of the Greens and socialists for calling for a union of the Left while adopting the stance of former socialist prime minister Manuel Valls who spoke of “irreconcilable” differences with Mélenchon’s party, the situation is not entirely to their dissatisfaction; it places the blame for the division on their socialist and Green rivals, and offers a welcome clarification on policy differences.
Further still, if Yannick Jadot does stand in the presidential election it could possibly be a boost for Mélenchon, as the latter himself explained in a recent press conference, by “taking one or two points away from Macron” in the first-round vote, and thus helping the radical-left leader’s chances of reaching the second and final round. The same scenario could be envisaged if ever, as some have predicted, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, a centre-ground socialist, was to become candidate (although her poor performance in current opinion polls suggests that to be unlikely).
In the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, Mélenchon came in fourth position with 19.6% of votes cast, just behind the conservative candidate with 20.01% and two percentage points behind second-placed Marine Le Pen. Macron led with 24.01% of votes cast. Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the PS, which was sent reeling by the unpopularity of outgoing socialist president François Hollande, garnered just 6.36%.
Mélenchon believes that over the coming months a more radical trend will develop among the leftwing electorate, and that the Greens will, by association, suffer from the slow decomposition witnessed by the PS since its resounding defeat in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. Mélenchon’s manifesto, entitled “A future in common”, which is the only solid policy programme to have so far emerged among the Left, has rupture as its theme, entailing France’s exit from EU treaties, a return to retirement and pension rights as of the age of 60, and the establishment of a constituent assembly to change the constitution.
“The social-liberal PS is destined for a more or less rapid extinction as the solidarity between the middle classes and the larger lower-class battalion crumbles,” Mélenchon scathingly told French daily Le Monde in an interview published earlier this month. “Their programme, based on endless growth, is obsolete. The ecologists [Greens] have a future for as long as we don’t see them in action [in government]. They have the label and many people think they represent the ecological preoccupations of our time. But what is meant by a political ecology which compromises with the multinationals, and which would misunderstand the necessity, at every occasion, of the sovereignty of the people? Well-meaning ecological capitalism does not exist.”
The process of attempting this is underway, with Mélenchon lending his support, in regional council election campaigning in Normandy, to PCF candidates Elsa Faucillon, Marie-George Buffet and Sébastien Jumel, rivals of the PS/EELV alliance. They in turn have suggested they might support Mélenchon instead of their own party leader in the 2022 elections. Meanwhile, an online list published last week of mayors and local councillors who support Mélenchon’s presidential bid, and who total more than 1,000, notably includes the PCF mayors of Paris suburbs Stains and La Courneuve.
But just how much of an inroad Mélenchon can in fact make among the communist electorate is uncertain. In a vote held May 7th-9th among more than 30,000 PCF members, more than 80% voted in favour of Fabien Roussel standing as their solo candidate in the presidential elections. “Each one makes their choice, the members have well marked out theirs,” Roussel said afterwards.
In an attempt to create his own political space, Roussel, during his first press conference as a presidential candidate, last Tuesday unveiled themes of his campaign that set a clear distance from both LFI and the Greens. These include proposing a minimum 30-year prison sentence for those who murder state representatives – notably police officers – and leant his support for nuclear energy, which he described as “decarbonised and inexpensive”. That, however, was not to the taste of all in his party.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also eyeing a section of the Green vote, and even some among the EELV party’s cadres. “If Jadot and the PS are on a line that is too liberal, yes that could cause a split among us, and some ecologists might leave,” said one EELV source, who asked not to be named, while another party member commented: “Over recent years, it’s more the opposite that has happened. We saw the return of ecologists who had left for LFI and who weren’t treated very well.” He cited the examples of Karima Delli, now leading the EELV’s list of candidates in next month’s council elections in the Nord region in north-east France, and Bénédicte Monville, a councillor on the Île-de-France (greater Paris) regional council. “If Mélenchon wants to seduce the Greens, he must stop endlessly having a go at us.”
In a text addressed to the EELV federal council, Yannick Jadot underlined that he believed “no-one must be excluded” by the party’s candidate – which he hopes will be himself. “That means that we keep the doors and windows open, including for LFI,” said the campaign director for Jadot’s bid in the October primaries, Mounir Satouri.
But in reality, the probability of a union of the Left behind one presidential candidate is far from certain, and notably because the parties are also eyeing the legislative elections that will follow immediately after. “A section of the Green leadership, like the PS, have accepted the fact that [the presidential elections in] 2022 are lost,” said an EELV source. “So they’re going for the legislative elections, and the logic of partisan survival. But all that is the politics of the sandbox.”
Interviewed last Wednesday in Mediapart’s weekday video discussion programme “À l’air libre”, Benoît Hamon, the PS candidate in the 2017 presidential elections, commented: “I don’t want to hear about those, and they exist, who begin by talking about the legislative elections, and who have decided on a line of a defeat. At a time when we have the peril of [far-right leader and presidential candidate] Marine Le Pen, I don’t want to be told that to save the finances of a party there needs to be a parliamentary group, and that we think about the survival of residual [party] apparatuses. Those who pass over the presidential election and who talk about [legislative seats], if that’s their priority they are not worthy of the moment.”
Also running in the Green parties’ primaries to elect a presidential candidate is Sandrine Rousseau. “In reality, the issue will be settled in the opinion polls, each block trying to overtake the other to force it to get in line behind,” she said. “But this old manner of doing politics, through the balance of power and submission, won’t work. Not only will that not make anyone get in line, it will not create a victorious dynamic.” She, like Hamon and the prominent EELV member and mayor of Grenoble, Éric Piolle, argues for “a common political construction” between the EELV, LFI and the PS – if the latter accepts a “rupture”.
Meanwhile, the busy political agenda between now and the autumn has the potential of upsetting the plans of some. This begins with the elections of regional and département (county) councils in June, when Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party (the former Front National) is hoping for significant success, notably in north-east France. In September, the PS will hold its national conference when it will decide whether or not to ally itself with the Greens, as argued for by party leader Olivier Faure. That same month, the five Green parties, including EELV, the largest, will hold their primaries to designate a common presidential candidate, no doubt one who is more or less compatible with Mélenchon. In October, a left-leaning “civil society” collective of individuals from outside of the official parties will hold a so-called “popular primary” open to a public vote – they hope to have two million participants – which they hope will influence party choices for a presidential candidate.
When also considering the developing and potentially explosive economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, the road to the 2022 elections promises to be a long one.
- The original French version of this report can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse