France’s Divided Left Is Struggling to Challenge the Macron–Le Pen Duopoly

Emmanuel Macron's first term has seen him wage war on yellow vest protesters, trade unions, and France's Muslims, undermining his image as a shiny progressive. Yet as the 2022 presidential election draws closer, the broad left is divided — and faces a tough challenge to avoid another runoff between Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen.

Election posters of current French president Emmanuel Macron (L) and far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen during the second round of the presidential vote on May 7, 2017. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)

Will 2021 be a year full of twists and surprises? Many on the Left are hoping for a small miracle, given the desperate political landscape emerging ahead of the presidential election. “We all have the distinct feeling that the New Year is going to see disastrous polls that will cause everyone’s morale to plummet,” a former Socialist Party (PS) MP predicted grimly just before Christmas.

He was not wrong. On January 25, a poll by Harris Interactive on voting intentions in the presidential election put Jean-Luc Mélenchon at around 10 percent, the PS’s Anne Hidalgo at 6 or 7 percent, with Green candidate Yannick Jadot hovering between 7 and 10 percent. In other words, with two or even three candidates, making it through to the second round of the presidential election currently seems like mission impossible for the Left.

More Candidates and Voters?

Paradoxically, however, while the whole space to the left polls around 25 percent, the number of presidential contenders has steadily increased in recent months. After Jean-Luc Mélenchon officially announced his candidacy in November, Paris mayor Hidalgo is now openly admitting that she is getting ready,” and Yannick Jadot has just launched his own platform for 2022: l’écologie! In addition to these three putative candidates, another new contender is PS man Arnaud Montebourg, who wants to gather support by striking a patriotic chord. Then there is Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the French Communist Party (PCF); he has not ruled out rebuffing Jean-Luc Mélenchon (whom the party backed in 2012 and again in 2017) and standing for his own party.

This profusion of candidates, far from coming across as a sign of democratic vitality, was quickly perceived as yet another symptom of a rudderless Left. “2022: more candidates than voters on the left soon,” the soft-left daily Libération wryly observed on January 11. And as if to admit that winning the presidential election is looking like an increasingly tall order, the parties’ senior officials have recently been talking a lot about the parliamentary elections that will come after . . .

Will 2022 be a year of reckoning for the Left? The closer the election gets, the more the obstacles piling up on the path appear difficult to surmount. It must be said that the pandemic has only exacerbated the structural weaknesses of a Left that has struggled, since François Hollande’s five-year term as president, to articulate an alternative vision. For the time being, the virus is preventing not only the prospect of unleashing a large social movement but also the emergence of a political leadership capable of inspiring a strong following and the development of a common line to pit against both President Emmanuel Macron and the far right.

Indeed, how can one make a dissenting voice heard when, for the past year, COVID-19 has been devouring the headspace of a society reeling from hundreds of deaths every day? Admittedly, despite public-health orders to stay at home, the past year has seen protests against the global security law and racism and police violence, and Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor, is even promising a resurgence in protests in the early months of 2021. Nevertheless, for at least the next few months, the epidemic is thwarting any attempt to structure the anger (or hope) that could serve as a launch pad for an environmental and social alternative.

Last spring’s municipal elections were fairly successful for the Left, especially for the Greens, who won seven of France’s forty largest cities; these elections were widely considered a key stepping-stone on the way to the presidential election. But once again, as lockdown followed lockdown, the sense of renewal that emerged from the elections failed to crystalize around a movement or an identifiable figure.

A fresh — and final — attempt will be made with this year’s departmental and regional elections, in which the Greens hope to take at least one region (possibly New Aquitaine, which returned a Green mayor for Bordeaux in the municipal elections), while the Socialist Party (PS) aims to hold onto Occitania and Brittany, and a number of unity lists (not including the Greens) hope to do well in the Grand East and the North.

Still, the divisions exposed in the first round among the Greens, PS, and La France Insoumise are a significant factor, especially in Île-de-France (the region around Paris), where the three lists make a defeat of the Republican (conservative) regional president Valérie Pécresse unlikely. And the far right, currently waiting patiently in ambush, could spring a surprise in two or three regions.

One further factor is that the postponement of these regional and departmental elections from March to June of this year has forced the Greens to delay their primary until September.

Pandemic: A Positive Test

So, we have a lackluster and inaudible left, which the public health situation has prevented from embarking on a much-needed restructuring in the post-Hollande era — well, that’s one way of looking at it. But despite the general context putting politics on hold, the pandemic could, in theory, also prove to be a blessing in disguise for the opposition.

Following the lies about masks and the shilly-shallying around testing, the third act of this saga — vaccines — has turned into a political quagmire for the government. The chaotic start to the mass vaccination program is already looking like a resounding defeat for Macron, and the government led by Prime Minister Jean Castex now seems incapable of avoiding the current stop-and-go strategy, with its colossal collateral damage to the economy.

However, to press home their advantage, opposition players have to succeed in offering an alternative with substance. This means not only convincing people that COVID-19 is a monstrous creature spawned by a capitalist system that destroys ecosystems, but also putting forward another credible model for society. That is, a program that can be implemented quickly and is capable of addressing the deep crisis facing public services, which decades of budget choices have brought to a state of dereliction — starting with hospitals, which have shown both their efficiency and their underfunding during the coronavirus crisis.

On the societal level, Emmanuel Macron’s rightward tack over the past year could also present some prospects for a left-wing environmental offer. Even if the president tries to realign his position during the campaign by moving to the left, his backtracking on environmental issues (watering down climate convention measures, rowing back from the ban on glyphosate, etc.); his far-right discourse on the republic (laws on Muslim “separatism” and global security); and the stifling of all social protest (first the yellow vests, then opponents of pension reform, and most recently protesters against the global security law) will not be forgotten. The same can be said of the February 11 debate between Gérald Darmanin and Marine Le Pen, in which the interior minister’s posturing made him appear even more Islamophobic than the Rassemblement national (National Rally) candidate herself — quite a feat.

But will the Left be able to capitalize on these shortcomings and use this period of disruption as a springboard for the months ahead? They would also need to unite — and at record speed — around a common roadmap and a single candidate capable of representing them. This is something that a number of civil society groups, organized or otherwise, have been demanding through petitions (such as the appel des 1000 launched in October), well aware that unity, while not enough by itself, is nonetheless a necessity.

So far, though, all the (feeble) attempts at joining forces have failed, one after the other. The idea of holding joint summer schools for left-wing and green parties last August was briefly mooted, in the wake of the municipal elections, but has since fizzled out. Then the hopes raised by the Marseille Spring — a coalition of Greens, Socialists, Communists, and La France Insoumise that won the municipal elections in Marseille — were dashed when the unconventional green mayor Michèle Rubirola resigned and was replaced by her number two, Socialist apparatchik Benoît Payan — a blow to those who prided themselves on changing how politics is done.

On top of this, the ideological divisions that were erased for a time by the coronavirus crisis — during the first lockdown, the Socialists, La France Insoumise, and the Greens were united in calling for ecological planning, the return of the solidarity tax on wealth, and the scrapping of pension reform and reshoring — have reemerged starkly in recent months. For one thing, there remains a fundamental split on the relationship to capitalism, between a camp that rejects liberalism outright (La France Insoumise, the PCF, and part of the Greens), and a social-environmental left more in favor of regulation of the market economy.

The recent murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher from the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine beheaded by an Islamist terrorist, has further widened the gap. Stoking the polemical fire, both the PS’s Hidalgo and her party’s first secretary, Olivier Faure, took the opportunity, during this highly charged period, to accuse the Greens and La France Insoumise of being “ambivalent” in their relationship to the Republic, an accusation for which they provided no evidence. “At odds on economic issues, the Left is indulging in a deep division on questions of secularism and Islam,” is how political scientist Rémi Lefebvre sums up the situation. “‘Racialisation,’ ‘Islamophobia,’ and ‘decolonialism’ are the words at the center of this new discord. Attitudes to the ‘republic’ have become a powerful marker of differentiation and fragmentation, further complicating the situation when it comes to rallying the Left.”

2021 Contests

This doctrinal split is also a reflection of the personal and party-political strategies at work, with each player trying to advance their pawns for 2022 in the hope that the polls will eventually settle the question, and force everyone to get behind the favorite. For instance, the PS mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is trying to embody a green and republican form of social democracy, capable of winning over both the metropolitan middle classes and disillusioned Macron voters from 2017. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon sees himself as the guardian of the true left, and, with a huge economic crisis looming, is looking to attract the working-class vote (especially the yellow vests).

As for Yannick Jadot, who believes that green issues are in the process of replacing the social-democratic worldview, he has to get through the ordeal of the Greens’ primary first. This is an open primary, which he wants to be as broadly inclusive as possible (as the most high-profile Green, he hopes that half a million people will turn out to vote, in order to really get things moving). He imagines that this could produce a contest between himself and several left-wing candidates, in particular Hidalgo, whom he thinks he can beat “fair and square.” “There can only be one candidate between Mélenchon and Macron,” is now the mantra of the Green MEP — a de facto admission that a union of the whole left is impossible.

After the regional and departmental elections that will see the PS, La France Insoumise, and the Greens standing against each other almost everywhere in the first round, will next autumn be the time for electoral pacts and cross-party unity? Will the polls carry sufficient legitimacy to “filter out” the various candidates? Will a common program command broad enough support to compete with the Macron–Le Pen duopoly? So many questions and so little time . . . though as the 2017 presidential election as well as the COVID-19 crisis have shown us, surprises can sometimes arrive in a hurry.