With the coronavirus crisis accelerating the pace of politics, the campaign for France’s April 2022 presidential election is already getting underway. This contest is the key to the entire political system, including the parliamentary elections slated for June 2022. After all, the presidency still today enjoys the monarchic-style powers it assumed with Charles de Gaulle’s 1958 constitution, passed at the height of France’s war in Algeria.
Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic — the most important crisis to hit France since it was driven out of North Africa — president Emmanuel Macron has adopted a warlike vocabulary. In recent months in particular, he has emphasized his role as the head of political and military power in France, guaranteeing order and security despite the turmoil.
Since his election in 2017, Macron has proven to be the most authoritarian president in decades. The repression of the gilets jaunes protests led to 3,100 arrests and left 2,495 people wounded, and a new global security law this fall bans the circulation of videos of police officers. This itself prompted massive demonstrations, with up to half a million people protesting the new measures.
The combination of mounting crisis and authoritarianism poses a particular political challenge for the Left. This is a key theme addressed by Spain’s Íñigo Errejón, cofounder of Podemos: How can an alternative force provide citizens with a sense of security and harmony, when the powers-that-be are so determined to marginalize it as nothing but the “party of disorder”? This is the problem today confronted by France Insoumise (LFI) leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon as he mounts his third presidential campaign.
In the last presidential contest in 2017, Mélenchon surged to 19.6 percent of the vote — coming under 2 percent short of making the second-round runoff. Announcing his fresh bid for the presidency at the end of November, he bet on the power of social media, introducing his new platform NousSommesPour (“WeAreFor”). Declaring early — eighteen months ahead of the actual election — he sought a hundred fifty thousand citizens to sign up online to sponsor his candidacy and achieved this target in just a few days.
Announcing his campaign, Mélenchon has asserted an agenda wholly unlike Macron’s own, presenting big ambitions in reassuring language. His proposals are summed up by the idea of “harmony between humanity and nature.” While Mélenchon faces rival candidates even on the Left of French politics, his previous strong result, his ability to draw crowds (up to a hundred twenty thousand, in Paris on March 18, 2017) and his ability to assert himself in national TV debates, all augur well for his hopes of pushing himself into the forefront.
The choice of “WeAreFor” was itself indicative. After previous campaigns focused on the notion of conflict with the oligarchy — a vote against the powers-that-be, summed up in the slogan “get out!” — here LFI is placing more focus on the seriousness of its alternative project. Drawing on the work done by LFI’s members of the National Assembly, who were first elected in 2017, this also takes the form of more concrete proposals for government, such as a properly accounted counter-budget.
But it is no accident that Mélenchon has decided to declare his candidacy a full eighteen months ahead of the election. The local elections this summer as well as the 2019 European elections were a defeat for LFI. And while in the 2017 presidential race Mélenchon’s campaign was built around massive public rallies, this approach is evidently more difficult in pandemic conditions. In the lead-up to the 2022 contest, it is clear that LFI needs to present itself not simply as a disruptive force, but one that can reassure a population devastated by the social and economic consequences of COVID-19.
The Left’s Many Unity Projects
LFI’s job is certainly not an easy one. It has faced setbacks in its recent history, in particular as forces across the rest of the political spectrum have worked to demonize it, whether through allegations of “Islamo-leftism” and “creating a new Venezuela” or with aspectacular police raid on party headquarters and Mélenchon’s own home. The Parti socialiste (PS) has itself backed such a campaign, seeking to marginalize the LFI leader in order to reassert its own previous role as a rallying point for the broad center-left.
In the 2017 race, part of Mélenchon’s surge owed to the collapse of the center-left, then represented by the PS and the Greens (EELV), following François Hollande’s five years as president. These parties’ joint candidate Benoît Hamon took just 6 percent of the vote, his poll score collapsing in favor of Mélenchon and Macron. But since their disaster in 2017, these parties have scored some good results.
In the 2019 European elections, the EELV came in third place nationally (behind Macron’s LREM and Marine Le Pen’s far-right RN); this ecologist force and the PS have also won mayoral contests in major cities like Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg, and Montpellier.
Notwithstanding the limits to such achievements (notably, the dismal, sub-50 percent turnout for such elections) these results have emboldened calls for a center-left candidate in the election — perhaps in the guise of a “unity candidate.” The problem is that, with this part of the political spectrum in so much flux, no single candidate seems hegemonic. Hence all potential runners claim the opportunity for themselves.
Among the ecologists, one key contender is Yannick Jadot, who heads the liberal wing of the party. A member of the European Parliament, he led EELV to its 13 percent score in last May’s vote for the Brussels assembly. But even if there is an EELV candidate, Jadot faces competition from current party leader Julien Bayou and Éric Piolle, the left-wing mayor of Grenoble, who fronts a local-level alliance with LFI.
As for the PS, both current Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and former president Hollande are pushing themselves into the spotlight, as is Christiane Taubira — not herself a party member, but a prominent minister in the Hollande government, key to its same-sex marriage bill.
Such candidates raise the eternal slogan “unite the whole Left.” But in reality, the Left is more divided than ever, and each of them stands for unity behind themselves. In the context of France’s super-personalized presidential elections, this is a key weakness for EELV as well as the PS, in particular as compared to LFI, which remains strongly identified with Mélenchon individually. Polls suggest that Mélenchon (15 percent nationally) enjoys broader support than either Jadot or Hidalgo (13 percent) as a hypothetical united-left candidate.
While there have been some calls for a “primary of the Left,” such a mechanism has little traction in France. When past efforts were made to organize such contests, they did not even include all the main candidates, and Jadot has already expressed distrust toward a party primary for EELV.
More broadly, such processes tend to be seen as a matter of agreements among small party bureaucracies rather than of promoting a program among the wider population as in the USA — and nor are they well-suited to engage working-class voters not already committed to the parties involved.
This does, however, remain a possible means of finding a left candidate, unless one emerges from upcoming regional elections, where EELV and the PS will likely again show their enduring local implantation.
President of the Right
For now, Emmanuel Macron is leading opinion polls, at the same time as his leadership assumes increasingly authoritarian trappings. He was previously hit by scandal, when his personal bodyguard was caught on camera dressing as a riot cop in order to beat protestors.
But his new global security law only entrenches this aspect of his presidency, threatening to ban citizens from circulating footage of policemen. The recent video of a Paris music producer being beaten by police, revealed by Loopsider, has, however, added energy to the movement against the bill.
Macron appears to be reveling in his authoritarian image — helping him to capture votes from the right-wing Republicans (LR), who are yet to recover from their bruising defeat in the 2017 contest. The historic party of the Right and still a leading force in local politics, it is unclear whether LR will be able to insert itself as a real contender, faced with Macron’s own capturing of part of its base.
Yet while there are many unknowns, both the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout add to the extremely tense context in French politics, framed by both Macron’s own authoritarianism and the still-major threat of Le Pen’s far right. Faced with the mounting violence of the political terrain, NousSommesPour expresses the hopes of an alternative. The hope is that it can indeed emerge as a force — and revive the strong challenge of 2017.