La France Insoumise: The Future of the French Left? By Sergio Inglán
With the French elections coming up the 10th of April and polls starting to air out, the general public has started to elucidate what comes next for France. Despite all the surveys agreeing on a landslide victory for incumbent Emmanuel Macron, the question as to who will get to challenge him on second round is still open. Last second round contender against Macron, Marine Le Pen, is still the favourite this time around but left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is starting to close the gap. The following survey from Elabe shows French political
parties organised from left to right according to their political ideology and the respective percentage of votes they would get on the election. Looking the election polls, it doesn’t take too long for one to realise that the race is fairly one-sided and mostly focused on the right. However, there’s an outlier on the analysis, La France Insoumise. But why is Melenchon’s party the exception to the rule on the French left?
La France Insoumise is often defined by media as a “far-left populist” party and it is true most of its proposals may fit into that category. Among others, Melenchon’s manifesto includes the seizure of inheritances above €12mn, a referendum for the collectivisation of common goods and essential resources, a “jobs for all” programme, the cancellation of public sector debt, stop subsidising fossil fuels and cancelling oil price increases since 2017, the limitation of banking fees, legalising cannabis under state monopoly, pulling out of NATO… Even when compared to other parties in the same European Parliamentary Group, GUE-NGL, such as Unidas Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece or Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal, La France Insoumise stands out as one of the most radical. Since the aftermath of the 2008 crisis and the ensuing sovereign debt crises, these populist-left parties have been on the low in Europe, partly because they all ended up entering their respective governments and finding out that, surprisingly, the system offers too little room for manoeuvre to carry out their “structural change” proposals. Working within the pre-determined fine lines of a capitalist, European, liberal democracy watered down all these parties’ radical rhetoric and ended up wearing out their projects rather quickly. However, and as eerie as it may sound, La France Insoumise has the advantage that it appeared late on the scene and didn’t get to grasp executive power. They have the perfect opportunity to seize the moment and jump into the new populist wave coming from the Covid crisis, the supply chain issues, inflation and the war in Ukraine. For populism worse is always better but Melenchon seems to be the only one on the French left understanding this. Looking at all the other candidates on the left flank in the race to the Élysée Palace, one cannot help but wonder… why? French politics are clearly shifting rightwards -the last elections in 2017 were between a liberal and a far-right populist- and yet the left is still on a seemingly sectarian behaviour. The unwillingness of the left to unite forces is something beyond understanding when the stakes are as high as they are but French society is past that point now and they just need, at least, one party that is able to fathom the new political reality from a left perspective. However, that is a mission that old-fashioned parties such as the collapsing Socialist Party and the 20th century French Communist Party cannot embark on.
The French Socialist Party –much like its German or Spanish version- is a moderate, pro-EU,
centre-left political party. The once great Socialist Party that got Mitterrand elected in the 80s and kept him in the Élysée for a rough 14 years has been on a steady decline since the sovereign debt crises. François Hollande, the socialist president from 2012-2017 followed the European recipe of austerity and massive cuts and doubled down on it with his labour reform that allowed companies to lay-off workers and cut their salaries during times of economic difficulty. Actions had results and the Socialist Party went from winning second round in 2012 with a 51.6% of the vote to a 6.36% in the first round in 2017, now polls show them barely getting a 2%. Media reports indicate that Parti Socialiste membership has fallen to 22,000 in 2021, from 220,000 in 2007. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party candidate this time around even admitted herself that Hollande’s actions sparked hesitance about the party’s project: “the 2008 financial crisis raised doubts about how social-democrats will respond to it” she said to Reuters in regards to the Covid crisis. There is no room for a moderate, progressive, pro-EU party on the French landscape, that’s Macron’s field. Macron was Hollande’s Minister of Economy and Industry; the centrist, diluted part of the SP went to vote for Macron. Looking at data from ipsos from the first round of the 2017 elections, more people that declared to be on the left – S/T Gauche - and centre left - plutôt à gauche – voted for Macron. This isn’t because Macron has anything to do with the left at all but, rather, because his socially liberal stances and relation to the more establishment part of the Socialist Party gained him some recognition within SP voters that felt their party had earned bad recognition. Melenchon picked up the rest.
The Communist Party supported Melenchon in 2017 –despite some disagreements- and didn’t campaign independently, but after some ego-inducing fights they decided to run this time. Their campaign aims to reassert the PCF’s long-gone identity from the Cold War days by trying to get working-class voters disenfranchised with the left and the current state of politics. Basically, they are trying to be La France Insoumise but with an outdated structure and base of support. The fall of the USSR and the failure to integrate an ever growing immigrant population ended up with the decay of the party. Despite the party’s intents to overcome these and relaunch themselves to stardom, the USSR is still long-gone and their base of support largely skews white and old. Melenchon, on the other hand, has the strongest base of support among immigrants and young people. An Ipsos poll from 2017 showed that 30% of voters between 18 and 24 years old voted for him. In current polls for the upcoming elections, Melenchon has a 36% of support amongst immigrants whereas Roussell –the FCP candidate- has the least, even an openly xenophobic, anti-immigration candidate such as Zemmour has a greater percentage. The proletariat in France has a big immigration component and not being able to rally it behind you as a communist party is a major disservice to any working-class project.
In the last few years, the French society has seen a complete shift from workers to the right, particularly to Marine Le Pen’s party. The SP betrayed the French working class with their neo-liberal proposals so they ended up fleeing to the populist National Front that welcomed them with reactionary nationalism and some convenient pleas for sovereignty against the free-market. But Melenchon is doing a great effort to reverse this tendency towards another inevitable betrayal of the working class. An IPSOS poll from 2017 shows that, after Le Pen, Melenchon has the greatest support from people earning less than 1.250€. Furthermore, to the question: “How are you doing with your household income? Very Badly, Badly or Well” Le Pen and Melenchon have the greatest percentage of voters answering “Very Badly” while most of Macron and Hamon -PS- voters said “Well”. La France Insoumise is the only left-wing party that’s polling above 10% and is well positioned to pass the first round. It is clear that Melenchon is the only one on the left understanding the current populist era that France is experiencing and the only one that can fight right-wing extremism in the country. He is endowed with a very powerful and diverse base capable of shifting narratives in France even if they don’t manage to beat Macron.