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29 June 2024

Can a feuding French left keep out the far right?

The New Popular Front is beset by ideological and personal division.

By Oliver Haynes

Ahead of the first round of voting in the legislative elections this Sunday, the French left has united for only the second time in its recent history. The first was in 2022, when the competing parties fell in line behind Jean Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist vehicle La France Insoumise. Mélenchon’s presidential score of 22 per cent had almost put him through in the second round, whereas every other candidate failed to even gain the required 5 per cent to have their campaign costs reimbursed. The shock of this result forced the entirety of the left into the LFI-dominated alliance.

The need to present a united front has only become more acute since. The left parties all ran separate lists in the European elections, with dismal results. Raphael Glucksmann, who ran on a joint list of the Parti Socialiste (PS) and his own outfit Place Publique, came out on top with 13.8 per cent, which he achieved by appealing to disaffected Macronists and positioning himself as the anti-Mélenchon. Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise scored 9.9 per cent, up from their 2019 EU elections score, but not as impressive as their presidential vote share, while Les Ecologistes scored 5.5 per cent and the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF) scored 2 per cent.

When Macron called these legislative elections, Francois Ruffin, an MP then in La France Insoumise, called for a New Popular Front. His call was taken up by trade unions and youth protesters who shouted outside the building representatives from the parties met in, demanding they unify. Over pizza, they thrashed out an accord. The programme that the left agreed on was heavily influenced by Mélenchonism. It spoke of rupture with the existing system, and promised price controls, the creation of a public bank and expansions of social housing and public services, with concessions to the PS and Place Publique over arms shipments to Ukraine. The alliance is not as unified as it might seem however, and the New Popular Front is in fact the site of an intense power struggle on the French left.

To start with, La France Insoumise (LFI) decided against backing several of their incumbents. These were MPs who were critical of Mélenchon, including some who wanted to water down the party line on anti-racism and tone down the conflict-embracing populism that is characteristic of LFI’s political style. This was interpreted by the rest of the New Popular Front as evidence of a purge. L’Express reported that LFI dissidents, Francois Ruffin, Clementine Autain and Alexis Corbière had been meeting quietly with members of Les Ecologistes, the PS and PCF to prepare a post-Mélenchon left for 2027. The dissolution triggered uproar. They had been planning, according to L’Express, to unify ahead of 2027 and pull LFI along with them, altering the balance of power in the left alliance away from the control of the Mélenchoniste hardcore. In the event though, LFI joined the New Popular Front without needing to be pulled along.

Ruffin and Autain broke with the party on seeing the purge, and the dissident LFI candidates have received the backing of some of the other parties, against the official line of the New Popular Front. And this has turned Montreuil, the safe seat of the incumbent former LFI MP Alexis Corbière, into the locus of this power struggle, as LFI are running a candidate, local nurse Sabrina Ali Benali, against Corbière. When I spoke to Benali the tensions were evident. “I am not campaigning against him,” she said. “I am the only candidate selected by the union, he remains a dissident. I campaigned for Alexis both times. No one wins alone. He won because of the programme of Jean Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise. I am going to win because of the programme of Jean Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise. If I turned up and said I supported Ciotti, they wouldn’t elect me.” The writers Édouard Louis and Geoffroy de Lagasnerie who came to canvass for here went one further, denouncing the “conformist left” that they argued Corbière represents.

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For their part, LFI’s dissident faction believes that this is their moment. Ruffin is popular among figures in all parties and has been given extensive media coverage in the last year. He has been careful to continue supporting some LFI MPs while criticising Mélenchon, calling him “an obstacle to the victory of the left”. Cyril Porcreaux a member of Fakir, the satirical journal established by Ruffin, claimed that Ruffin is ready and is being met with “enthusiasm the likes of which we have never seen before”.

There is, however, a third faction at play: the right of the PS and Place Publique, who also view the New Popular Front as means to regain the left not just from Mélenchon but from the politics of “rupture” set out in the programme of the New Popular Front more broadly. And the surprise return of Francois Hollande – the former president who was responsible for the collapse of the centre-left and is the figure LFI have set their whole political project against – is indicative of this. In a recent interview Hollande seemed uncomfortable defending the Front’s programme of price controls and told the interviewer that he believed Mélenchon should be quiet for the good of the left. And Zoe Reyners, a staffer at Place Publique, says that in the second round runoffs they will call to open up a wider front against the RN to include Macronists, a further attempt to shift the balance away from the populist left and re-establish the centre vs centre-left conflict.

Ali Benali summed up the conflict from the perspective of LFI. She said she regards Hollande and Glucksman as outside of the left because they “abandoned the popular classes”. She added that LFI has the ability “to change strategy in a matter of hours” according to shifting circumstance. Whatever happens tomorrow or next week on July 7, one thing is clear. The New Popular Front is far from united, leaving the future of French politics itself wide open.

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