In Marseille, the French Left is Finally Uniting

For years, divisions on France’s left have helped Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen dominate the political terrain. But in the country’s second city, grassroots pressure has forced them to put aside their differences — and ahead of March 2020’s elections, they’re promising to launch a “Marseille Spring.”

The Marseille harbor. Andy Wright / flickr

The working-class port city of Marseille has always had something of an independent streak — and today, that extends to politics.

Galvanized by fears of being crowded out by the competition, left-wing activists in this age-old melting pot on the shores of the Mediterranean are setting aside their differences — and working together. Ahead of municipal elections set for March, the Socialist Party (PS), La France Insoumise, the French Communist Party, and former presidential candidate Benoît Hamon’s Génération.s. are all running under a single ticket: Le Printemps Marseillais, or Marseille Spring.

Such an alliance stands in stark contrast to the main forces at the national level, a landscape dominated by Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République en Marche! and Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National. But Marseille Spring isn’t just hoping to make a good showing. Indeed, if the city’s past voting patterns are any indication, this brand-new coalition stands a decent chance of actually taking over municipal government.

“We’re in this to win it,” Jean-Marc Coppola, a Communist member of the city’s municipal council and prominent backer of Marseille Spring, tells Jacobin. “We’re in this to really change things in this city. That means having a new team and a new, more democratic way of running the city.”

Marseille has long suffered from its rough-and-tumble image, caricatured as a beacon of crime and corruption. The reputation is unfair, no doubt, but it hasn’t been helped by the city’s current mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, an eighty-year-old member of the right-wing Republicans finally stepping down in spring after twenty-five years at the helm. Gaudin has faced well-documented accusations of clientelism — with his administration allegedly doling out services like social housing and public-sector jobs on the basis of personal relationships. (Last month, government auditors accused Gaudin of mismanaging the city’s civil service, authorizing relatively short working hours and keeping certain employees on above the retirement age, including his seventy-nine-year-old chief of staff.)

This situation has helped to fuel widespread cynicism about local politics, as economic hardship runs rampant for many residents: the unemployment rate for Marseille and the nearby suburb of Aubagne, for example, stands at 11 percent (nearly three percentage points above the figure for metropolitan France as a whole) while poverty rates in some neighborhoods hover around a whopping 70 percent. Backers of the Left coalition say all of that can change.

“My grandmother has an image that’s very easy to understand,” says Benoît Payan, the head of the Socialist opposition in city council and a supporter of Marseille Spring. “When you want to start cleaning a staircase, you start at the top and you finish at the bottom. Getting the city back on track means attacking those promoters and bankers doing business on the backs of the poor. These people shouldn’t benefit from public money.”

As the Communist representative Coppola puts it, “Marseille isn’t a poor city, it’s a very unequal city.”

“A New Actor in the Game”

The bid for unity on the Left may seem surprising. National leaders of the Socialist Party and La France Insoumise (LFI) remain far apart from one another in both ideology and practice. One is seen as tainted by the presidency of François Hollande and decades of opportunistic compromise; the other as a pack of sectarians who consistently overestimate their public support. The Communists, too, have a complicated relationship with LFI. While they backed Mélenchon’s presidential campaign in 2017, they maintain a separate parliamentary group and ran their own list in this year’s European elections.

However, these distinctions tend to matter less on the local level — but especially when, as in Marseille, all three parties are in opposition, and perhaps even more so when they need one another’s support to win. (The Marseille Spring coalition has also earned backing from Ensemble!, a small group on the left flank of LFI, while the more movement-oriented New Anticapitalist Party has not thrown in its support.)

Still, Marseille’s left alliance isn’t the mere product of good will between rival political parties. Above all, it’s the result of grassroots pressure, spurred on by fatal tragedy. As the thirty-seven-year-old community activist Mathilde Chaboche explains over coffee at downtown Place Stalingrad, Mayor Gaudin’s increasingly unpopular tenure has helped push people into action, but a major turning point came with the so-called “drama of the Rue d’Aubagne.” Last November, two dilapidated buildings collapsed in the heart of the city, killing six people. The disaster shined light on the city’s housing crisis — and, more broadly, public neglect for Marseille’s least well-off. “It led many come to terms with the depth of the crisis faced by our city, and including people who were not politicized, people who were interested in the public sphere, but weren’t practicing politics on a daily basis,” Chaboche says of the building collapses.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Mathilde Chaboche and others formed the Mad Mars collective. Their founding goal was simple, she says: to put the Left in a position to win the next municipal elections, and therefore, to build the largest possible coalition. In late 2018, Mad Mars began working with other groups of left-wing activists called “Reinventing the Left” and “Marseille and Me.” Through conversations and public forums, they sought to build popular demand for a united left-wing ticket in 2020.

“At the beginning, a year ago, it maybe seemed a bit crazy. People would say ‘this a nice idea,’ but given the divisions, the quarrels between parties, everyone’s egos, it seemed an insurmountable task,” Chaboche says. “We said maybe we need a new actor in the game — citizens without partisan hats who just share the idea of taking back their city back. This happened to echo what was happening with the Yellow Vests in terms of reappropriating the public sphere and thinking about public policies by grassroots citizens who aren’t necessarily affiliated with a party.”

In the early months of 2019, the coalition of activist groups grew larger and ramped up conversations with political parties, dubbing itself the “Movement Without Precedent.” Then, in July, it published an op-ed in national daily Libération, calling for a united left ticket in Marseille. The group has since settled on a much snappier name — and won support from the local General Confederation of Labour (CGT) trade union — but has maintained its unique structure: decisions are approved by a coalition “parliament” divided equally between a “citizens’” branch and a “political” branch, giving founding grassroots members as much sway as the political parties they’ve rallied to the cause.

That hasn’t dissuaded political parties from coming on board. “The situation demands it,” says the Socialist Benoît Payan. “When we’re the second biggest city in the world’s fifth largest power faced with major crises — when 250,000 people live in precarity, when 100,000 people live in housing that’s dangerous to their health or security, when 2,600 people die each year from pollution . . . when everything is lacking in this city, we step up and take our responsibilities.”

The Path to Victory

Assuming no single list wins an outright majority in the first round, Marseille’s municipal election — as in other major French cities — will head to a runoff round. That final round will feature every list that has received at least 10 percent of the first-round vote, while lists with at least 5 percent of the vote will be authorized to lend their support to another list. In the runoff round, it pays heavily to come in first. In addition to capturing city hall, the winning ticket earns a bonus share of city council members.

The idea behind forming Marseille Spring months ahead of the election — as opposed to throwing together a haphazard, last-minute alliance after the first-round — is to put the Left in a position of power for the runoff round. And the stakes are high: in Marseille, the right-wing Republicans and far-right National Rally (the former National Front) are also both expected to qualify for the second round. By securing a strong first-round showing for the Left, supporters of Marseille Spring aim to prevent a scenario in which voters feel pressure to support the mainstream right in order to deny control of the city to the far right: in other words, to avoid a grim showdown between the city’s tainted establishment and something that could be far worse.

There are still some obstacles, though. While the Left coalition can point to an impressive amount of unity thus far, it’s nevertheless marked by a major absence: the Green Party. While some Green activists have broken from party leadership and chosen to support Marseille Spring, the party has officially voted to run its own list in March — at least for now.

“They’ve decided to play a more electoral game, where they can make alliances in the second round to gain power,” says Théo Challande, a dissident member of the Greens who’s closely involved in Marseille Spring. “I think there’s a complete disconnect from Marseille and the reality of people’s daily lives.”

The Left coalition is still hoping to win over formal Green support — and a recent poll helps explain why. It found various hypothetical candidates for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the right-wing Republicans leading the pack, followed by around 13–14 percent for each of Marseille Spring and the Greens. (At the same time, observers caution against reading too much into these figures — indeed, the left-wing coalition has yet to name its mayoral candidate and the survey also included another Socialist who would only run in a single part of the city.)

No matter what, the fortunes of Marseille Spring will hinge heavily on voter turnout. Marseille is a solidly left-wing city — but only when people show up at the polls. For example, in the first round of the last presidential election, marked by 75 percent participation, voters preferred Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise to any other candidate. In contrast, European elections this May saw turnout drop to 43 percent, resulting in a first-place finish for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. The swing was especially staggering in the city’s low-income northern neighborhoods, where less than a third of voters showed up to the polls.

The current administration has thrived on voter apathy — especially among the working class — and it’s exactly what Marseille Spring hopes to reverse.

“We can create popular energy, which is to say, we want to go talk to the 50 percent of Marseille residents who didn’t vote, not because they’re against civic engagement, but because they don’t think politics gives them anything,” says Communist city councilor Copolla. “Marseille is still a city that is majority working class and a majority left-wing.”

With the exception of Paris — which the Socialists, Communists, and Greens govern together — arguably no other left-wing electoral coalition is operating on quite the same scale as in Marseille. In the southwestern city of Toulouse, the “Citizens’ Archipelago” list has united Greens and La France Insoumise, but the Socialists and Communists have opted to run their own separate list. Varying left-wing coalitions are also active in medium-size cities like Grenoble (currently held by the Greens) and in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon. But in many other large cities that the Left either hopes to win or hold on to—Nantes, Lille, Montpellier, Rennes, and Le Havre, among others—parties have yet to firm up plans. As campaign season heats up, it could be hard for them to ignore what’s happening in Marseille.

“I don’t think we should have the pretention to say what we’re doing needs to be perfectly replicated elsewhere,” says Théo Challande. But he acknowledges there’s growing attention — from the press and from left-wingers nationwide. “They’re saying something is happening in Marseille.”