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Does the French left have a future?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing alliance Nupes could continue to disrupt French politics – if it doesn't collapse first.

By David Broder

“We achieved the political objective that we set ourselves.” When he addressed chanting supporters at his election night soirée on 19 June, the French left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon was in bullish form. He told those packed into the sweltering Élysée Montmartre concert hall in Paris that the parliamentary election had brought a “total political rout” of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, and a historic opportunity for the left. The first projections on BFM TV, relayed by a giant screen in front of the stage, suggested that his left-wing alliance, the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (Nupes), would have up to 190 MPs, and Macron’s allies no more than 230, in the 577-member National Assembly.   

After Mélenchon scored 22 per cent in the presidential election in April, narrowly missing out on a place in the run-off vote, his parliamentary campaign posters had matched his face with the words “Mélenchon prime minister”, in the hope that he could form a government at odds with Macron’s agenda. The Greens, Communists and much-depleted Socialists – more established parties with which Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (France Unbowed) has often had contentious relations – had scored low single figures in April. For the parliamentary election, they accepted Mélenchon’s leadership and most of his programme in the newly minted Nupes alliance.  

Yet early optimism faltered. In the end the alliance came well short of a majority; Nupes would only be the biggest opposition, with 142 seats, while Macron’s allies ticked up to 246, albeit more than 40 short of a majority. Worse, the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally), defying all predictions, took 89 seats: fewer than Nupes, but more than France Insoumise alone, on 72.

The electoral soirée, a stone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge, seemed dominated by France Insoumise supporters, who jostled with reporters for control of the vast and diverse cheeseboards. On stage there was also a wide selection of what the French left had to offer, as representatives of each of Nupes’s member parties spoke in turn. While Mélenchon had commanded the attention – and chants – of adoring supporters, as soon as the Socialist Corinne Narassiguin began to speak, the crowd returned to discussing the results among themselves. There was a far warmer welcome for Julien Bayou, national secretary of the Greens; he got the crowd to cheer each of the Nupes parties in turn, including the Socialists from which Mélenchon acrimoniously split in 2008.

The big question became whether the alliance had simply been one of convenience. On stage Mélenchon referred to Nupes as an “extraordinary tool of organisation”, especially for the “younger generations”, and his speech was heavy on hints that others would have to pick up the leadership role; Bayou, from the left wing of the Greens, similarly suggested that the parties would work together beyond this election. Yet when on 20 June Mélenchon proposed they form a joint parliamentary group, which would thus be bigger than Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, the other Nupes parties each insisted that they could have more speaking time and funding by forming their own groups. The early signs are that they will continue to collaborate, but in a less formalised way than Mélenchon would prefer.

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Indeed, France Insoumise’s hegemony within Nupes is not well-liked by its other components. Before the presidential election Mélenchon’s team rejected proposals to fall in behind a joint “progressive” candidate, insisting that it was up to voters to designate the best programme. In 2022 as in 2017, Mélenchon outflanked the older parties with a late polling surge, mobilising those who typically would not vote. The April result pushed the rest of the left into a subordinate position in Nupes, in which France Insoumise had 56 per cent of the candidates and set most of the programme. While Mélenchon’s party went from 17 to 72 MPs, and the Greens also soared from one to 23, the Socialists and Communists merely hung on to their existing numbers.

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This experience will not easily be repeated. In local elections throughout the last five years, Mélenchon’s party has struggled to win over a broad voter base. While in April’s presidential election it racked up high scores in urban France, many key city halls – Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Nantes and Montpellier – are dominated by other Nupes parties, who will be determined not to give up their leading role.

The other left-wing candidates whom Mélenchon humiliated in the presidential election have been especially scathing about Nupes’s performance. The Communists’ Fabien Roussel had made earthy, populist rhetoric central to his campaign – promising to “defend the French people’s steaks” – and in the run-up to the presidential and the parliamentary elections he damned Mélenchon’s recent criticisms of police violence. Roussel, who represents a northern, ex-industrial seat where he defeated Le Pen’s candidate, claimed that Nupes spoke “only to part of France”: the cities. Yannick Jadot, from the liberal-centrist flank of the Greens, focused much of his fire during the presidential campaign on Mélenchon and he was unenthused by Nupes; after the parliamentary result, he said the alliance had failed to make the most of the diversity of parties included. In late June both Roussel and Jadot refused to rule out joining a government with Macron, in comments apparently intended to distance themselves from Nupes.

At a deeper level, the left remains divided by attitudes toward the European Union. A key moment in Mélenchon’s initial break with the Socialist Party was the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution, in which he helped to lead the victorious “No” camp. He damned the constitution’s undemocratic character, and when most of its provisions were implemented despite the referendum result he quit the Socialists to form a new party. His 2017 presidential campaign touted the idea of breaking from the EU were it to frustrate a left-wing government’s plans. In recent years he has changed his tone; France Insoumise today speaks of “disobeying” the EU’s treaties when necessary, but also emphasises that even outwardly pro-European governments routinely flout EU rules. The other Nupes parties signed up to this approach, although their alliance declarations pointedly noted their different traditions on this issue. Conversely, some Socialists who cast themselves as defenders of “European social democracy” were openly hostile to Nupes: The former president François Hollande dismissed its programme as “unfeasible”, and Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the Socialist presidential candidate, backed an unsuccessful dissident candidate who ran against Nupes in the north-east of the capital.

While France Insoumise is known for having a relatively insular leadership, there is a variety approaches within its ranks, emphasising either building up turnout among young, urban voters or else winning back Le Pen supporters in provincial France. François Ruffin, an MP re-elected with a large majority in the Somme, part of a northern region known for its large blue-collar far-right vote, has in recent weeks insisted that the party cannot focus on big cities alone and needs to sink more roots in the provinces. Meanwhile, some figures in the “people’s union parliament” tasked with developing the party’s programme are said to be planning to give it more structured organisation. As a self-described “movement”, France Insoumise thus far has neither formal membership nor real internal democracy.

After the line-up of Nupes parties had each had their say on election night, it was announced that Mélenchon would address the hundreds of people gathered outside the venue. To chants of “merci, merci” – and now sans jacket and tie – he spoke of his withdrawal from the limelight, having given up his role as an MP. He is widely expected to remain central to France Insoumise’s internal decision-making and another bid for the presidency in 2027, when he would be 75, is not ruled out entirely. Yet on election night he emphasised that he would be “taking up a different post in the struggle”, away from the front line. “You will have to liberate yourselves,” he concluded, “in order to liberate society.” After his peroration, the youthful crowd launched into an emotional rendition of the final lines of the Internationale. Soon, the rain began pounding the streets, as if to mark the final act.

Young people were, the septuagenarian Mélenchon insisted, the future of the left; indeed, those under-35s who voted did so heavily for Nupes, though there was around 70 per cent abstention in this age group, against 54 per cent nationally. Within France Insoumise’s ranks it seems that the leading roles will increasingly be taken up by rising stars of this campaign such as the national coordinator Adrien Quatennens, 32, the presidential campaign chief Manuel Bompard, 36, and Mathilde Panot, 33, a combative debater who is head of the France Insoumise group in the National Assembly. 

France is now sharply divided between three mutually hostile sides: the left, the president’s camp and Le Pen’s. Macron has spoken of a “government of national unity” but this seems difficult to put into practice. His most obvious potential ally is the centre-right Républicains, yet the main figures from its more liberal wing have already defected to Macron’s camp in previous years and its leader, Christian Jacob, has promised “constructive opposition” but no “pact, coalition or agreement”. For the left, the hope is that Macron’s weakness will allow it to galvanise opposition to his key measures on the cost of living and welfare, in particular his plan to raise the retirement age to 65. With such instability, there is already considerable speculation that Macron will call another election in a year’s time.

The first test of the new political arithmetic arrived with the vote for the head of the National Assembly’s powerful budget committee, who must come from an opposition party. While the Socialists initially put up their own candidate, they withdrew in favour of France Insoumise’s Éric Coquerel; he was elected on 30 June and will thus be supported by the whole of Nupes. In a sign of the strife to come, before his election Coquerel called for an immediate vote of no-confidence in Macron’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne.

The first weeks following the parliamentary elections thus suggest more stasis ahead, with neither a stable government nor a single clear alternative. But after years in which France’s traditional ruling parties have faced continual setbacks, the veteran campaigner Mélenchon can at least be proud that his part of the left is still in the fight.   

[See also: Is Emmanuel Macron to blame for the rise of the far right? | France Elects]