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17 June 2024

The French left is rallying against the far right

The New Popular Front represents their most united coalition in decades

By Natasha Voase

The far right is knocking at the doors of power in France. Protests united by one sole ambition – thwarting Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in the forthcoming election – swept the country at the weekend, with up to 640,000 people turning out on Saturday 15 June. Many of them are desperate for an alternative to Le Pen and her protégé, Jordan Bardella. And after a week of intense negotiations, the French left have done the impossible and formed a New Popular Front in united opposition to the RN.

But the battle is far from over. National Rally took a third of the vote at the European elections, only slightly less than the combined total for Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance coalition, the moderate left party led by Raphaël Glucksmann, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise (LFI). Previously, Macron was seen as the unifying candidate against the far right, while left-wing votes were split between several parties. But, now voters have deserted him, many on the left believe that the only solution is a coalition of their voters.

The choice of name is no accident. The original Popular Front, formed as a union of left-wing parties against the rise of the far right in 1934, occupies a mythical place in left-wing French thought. This was one of the few times when the French left stood together, united by a single goal. But this is also a chequered history. Holding together a broad coalition of parties and egos proved more difficult once the Popular Front took power in 1936, and the coalition quickly dissolved.

Now as then, bringing all parties onside seemed impossible at first. The power balance between them is delicate, with the constituencies divided according to the popularity of each respective party. Mélenchon’s LFI has been the most popular party in recent years, but trailed behind the Socialist Party in the European elections. However, they eventually reached an agreement on Thursday 13 June recalibrating the votes so that, while LFI remains the biggest party, the socialists now have more candidates. So far so good.

The biggest question now concerns the choice of leader.  Here, things get tricky. With such a broad range of parties united under the same banner, in theory the leadership should go to the politician with the broadest support. Given his performance in the presidential election in 2022, that would be Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

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Mélenchon has a strong support base, particularly among the urban youth, but he is also divisive, both within the left and with the wider French population. Allegations of anti-Semitism have followed him for years, exploding after he failed to condemn Hamas’ actions on 7 October, writing on X that: “The violence unleashed against Israel and Gaza proves only one thing: violence only produces and reproduces itself.” This caused a rupture between LFI and the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), a coalition of left-wing parties formed in 2022. It has also led to accusations that the New Popular Front is betraying the legacy of its predecessor, led by Léon Blum, a Jew who was later imprisoned and deported by the Nazis.

Shortly before the European elections, a poll by Ifop found that 76 per cent of those surveyed thought Mélenchon was a hindrance for LFI, while 80 per cent thought he is holding back the left in general from returning to power. And with Mélenchon increasingly seen as a hindrance not a help, other left-wing leaders have been quick to rule out his premiership. Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Socialist Party, declared on Tuesday morning that it would not be logical for Mélenchon to lead the coalition. Meanwhile, Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the Communist Party, said that he wasn’t included in the discussions on Monday evening.

A purge of rivals within LFI from the candidate list on 15 June provoked further opposition to a potential Mélenchon leadership. For most of the week, Mélenchon continually refused to rule himself out. Then on Sunday 16 June, he acknowledged that the leader should be chosen by the whole coalition, saying: “If you don’t think I should be prime minister, I won’t be.”

The ambiguity of the Popular Front’s exact relationship with Mélenchon remains a problem for the coalition. And if the French left is to take power, it needs every vote it can get. With the first round of elections just two weeks away, an OpinionWay poll found that 33 per cent of voters intend to vote for the National Rally, while 25 per cent will vote for the Popular Front and 20 per cent for Emmanuel Macron’s party.

On 7 July, French politics could change dramatically. With Macron’s party currently unlikely to secure a majority in the legislative assembly, a period of “cohabitation”, in which the prime minister and the president are from different parties, is almost certain. The question is: can the left head off the RN and seize power next to Macron?

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