The Left Has to Show France’s Election Isn’t Just Macron vs. Le Pen

Faced with uninspiring candidates, April’s French presidential election looks set to draw a historically low turnout. Jean-Luc Mélenchon insists he stands for a real alternative — but his task will be turning popular discontent into votes.

La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Melenchon in Valence, 2021. (Olivier Chassignole / AFP via Getty Images)

“We need to work towards reinforcing the subject,” a man in the waning days of middle age replied, ending a brief digression on Jacques Lacan and how capitalism thrives on the plane of desire. “That may be a bit complicated, but I just wanted to share that with you all.”

Seated on lawn chairs around one of the smaller wooden stages sprinkling the campgrounds of La France Insoumise (LFI)’s summer meetup, dozens of activists had gathered to hear Clémentine Autain MP lead a discussion on the question “What is essential?” There was more than meets the eye in this debate, especially for the embattled LFI — a left-populist movement which has weathered a turbulent four years as the main progressive opposition to President Emmanuel Macron.

LFI had been formed back in 2016 as a political outlet for the discontented, at a time when both French and European politics were reorganizing around the failure of third-way social liberalism and its growth model. The strategic bet: bring the “people” — the collective trampled-upon of the post-2008 world — onto one side, and array them against the “caste” and the “oligarchy.” Throw out all the shibboleths about a post-ideological consensus, but veer away from fights over immigration and multiculturalism. Tap into the fundamentally antagonistic and conflictual nature of politics by confronting head-on the dizzying inequality and misery produced by financial capitalism.

In this sense, the question organizers posed at the movement’s meetup on this summer Saturday afternoon was the sign of a shift. For what needs grappling with in 2021 is the old order’s staying power — the strength of a well-situated minority with enormous cultural clout. True, there have been plenty of revolts in France since the hopeful days of LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s 2017 presidential election campaign. But it was not difficult to sense that this political gathering was undergirded by a certain absence. Why, despite such a rich bevy of propositions and solutions, despite the bankruptcy of business-as-usual — to say nothing of the other alternatives — is LFI’s message not sticking?

Right-Wing Dominance

From August 26 to 29, some forty-five hundred rank-and-file LFI members and elected officials gathered outside the south-central city of Valence for this summer convention, officially called “Les Amfis.” It was a weekend of debate, organization, and entertainment — including a Saturday evening water and light show over the lake at Chateauneuf-sur-Isère. The conference officially anointed old-guard left-winger Mélenchon as candidate for France’s 2022 presidential election, and he capped things off on the Sunday morning with an inaugural campaign speech.

“It’s time to get to work,” Mélenchon thundered with his characteristic gusto. “There are thousands of ways of acting: by unions, by associations. What else? By protests, petitions, parliamentary work, popular education. But when it comes to making decisions, you unavoidably need political power.”

The gathering in Valence was a breath of fresh air in a French political landscape seemingly dominated by centrist doublespeak and far-right anxieties. But whatever way you look at it, Mélenchon faces an uphill battle in the months before voters go to the polls in April 2022 and either confirm Macron’s grip on the presidency or consign him to history as the nation’s third consecutive single-term head-of-state.

The tenor of French politics — funneled by ministerial priorities and the dominant media institutions — points to an election season dominated by right-wing concerns. Starting this fall’s political circuit, Macron landed in Marseilles on September 1 to launch a round of discussions and debate on urban renewal for the Mediterranean port city. Though his program promises to shower Marseilles with a much-needed infusion of cash, the president was eager to tap into the topics of the day — lashing out at a wave of delinquency and petty criminality.

Pasting together a web of governmental pronouncements and press releases, flagship centrist daily Le Monde devoted its main, double-page national news story on September 1 to Macron’s orchestration of an election centered on “security” — a PR coup that Le Monde, like many of its counterparts, has not hesitated to feed into.

Like a car wreck that you can’t look away from, pundits are salivating at the prospect of far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour joining the fray as a candidate, spicing up a campaign that has otherwise been prewritten as a solitary contest between the centrist incumbent and the more established far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

This all says nothing of the headwinds of the pandemic, the day-to-day handling of which may very well set the pace of things up through next April — draining attention from the nation’s feeble economy, its underfunded public services, and its feet-dragging on emissions reductions and questions of environmental, racial, and sexual justice. By this point, it is almost quaint to note that the most pressing long-term issues — and the concrete problems facing French people — are being drowned out.

Popular Disaffection

But it’s worth remembering that these social issues were the subjects that did drive French politics up to the onset of the pandemic, as a series of popular revolts shook the early years of the Macron presidency. From December 2019 through much of the winter before the COVID lockdown, France was on strike, bringing to a crest widespread popular disapproval of the government’s plan to reform the retirement system.

Days before the lockdown began, thousands of feminists marched in Paris in unauthorized protests — leading to grim repression by police in the capital’s Place de la République. The dust had also barely settled on the Yellow Vests revolt of winter 2018–19, which had fed a growing consensus that effective environmental action would also require substantial measures to rein in economic inequality. Even aside from the masks, social distancing, and “sanitary passes,” if you had fallen into a coma in February 2020 and woken up eighteen months later, it would feel like you were in a different country.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration by the Yellow Vests on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, 2018. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Manon Aubry — a member of the EU Parliament and a copresident of the left-wing caucus in that assembly — told Jacobin that a bridge can still be built between these movements, the debates they fueled, and the 2022 presidential contest. The revolt is “there, in the streets,” Aubry maintained, and “in France it is being expressed in many different ways. It was the Yellow Vests, it was the movement against retirement reforms, #MeToo. I don’t think that people will be able to bury it. [These forces] are still there, they exist. What’s essential is to give them a political outlet.”

The main strategic bet behind Mélenchon’s presidential run — his third in the past decade — is that the popular turbulence of the late 2010s can still provide the foundation for a progressive, governing majority. He and his comrades are wagering that conservative saber-rattling over the ensauvagement — “turning-savage” — of French society, and government-backed media frenzies over cancel culture don’t actually capture what the French care about in 2021.

“The propositions that we stand for have majority-support in French opinion” Aubry told me. “You have 80 percent of the population that supports the Sixth Republic” (referring to LFI’s plan for a democratic refounding of the French state), “that is for ecological planning, that wants to see a reduction of work time. The difficulty today is that it is not around these things that French political debate is polarized. This is true in France, just as it is true in other countries. But it’s particularly true in France. As soon as you enter a TV studio — as a spokesperson, as a political figure — the questions that you’re asked are about Islam, the burkini, or I don’t know whatever other latest focus of polemic. It’s no surprise that that isn’t doing wonders for the state of the political debate. The task for us is to reorient the debate around our program.”

In his inaugural campaign speech for 2022, Mélenchon insisted that a vote for his candidacy is support for a program, not a man. And there’s no denying that the more than a hundred propositions enshrined in this program, entitled A Common Future, do provide the building blocks for tackling contemporary crises — from raising taxes on multinational corporations and large fortunes, to the protection of biodiversity and the creation of hundreds of thousands of green jobs.

But as a political force, La France Insoumise suffers from the same disenchantment that affects the country’s political spectrum as a whole. Taking this disaffection for granted, political statisticians and commentators alike are betting that the nearly 19.6 percent that the candidate earned in 2017 is a ceiling — a generous one at that, given that Mélenchon hovers around the 10-percent mark in recent polling. With the Communist, Socialist, and Green Parties also putting forward separate candidacies, Mélenchon is eschewing an already crowded field on the Left and will be running under a “Popular Union” banner, hoping to tap into this same popular disaffection with the political system.

If the Popular Union can rebuild or even go beyond the foundations laid by Mélenchon’s 2017 campaign, it would also mark a reversal of the worrying trends seen in local and European elections in recent years. The midterm contests that have peppered Macron’s presidency have been marked by universally low voter turnout; and “abstention is a vote for Macron” is the line coming from nearly everyone at the Valence LFI meetup.

With only one-third of the eligible electorate turning out to vote — a historic low — France’s regional elections this June were all but a rump contest, returning incumbent center-left and center-right regional presidents to power. This was despite a high-profile Greens-Socialists-LFI ticket in the North, and a second-round alliance in the Paris capital region.

France Insoumise is not just a potential antidote to the deep crisis of legitimacy in contemporary France — with its proposals to reinforce local power and parliamentary sovereignty through the institution of the Sixth Republic — but itself a victim of the country’s seemingly engrained voter apathy.

Death of Politics

Natalie Tarnaud is a municipal councilor in the small town of Saint-Junien, west of Limoges. Before winning her seat in the 2020 municipal elections, held in the opening months of the health crisis, she was a union organizer at the local hospital where she works as a nurse. “The main problem, as I see it, is that there is a general loss of confidence in political life,” Tarnaud told Jacobin. “It’s sad to see what politicians have done to politics.”

Aubry is blunter in her analysis. “The government’s and the Right’s strategy more broadly is to kill all the intermediary bodies, all the frameworks of organization and representation within civil society,” Aubry said. “This is clearly an error, because when you have no organized frames, well that leads into a complete disintegration of the political space.”

The political crisis in France is an extension of something deeper: a crisis of politics as such. Institutions such as unions and associations, which people have relied on to form political identities and influence those in power, have been pummeled by Macronism’s particularly top-down style of rule.

Declining party affiliation, the redundancy of local elected positions under the weight of a Paris-centric system, the narrowing of the political spectrum to the divide between Le Pen–style nationalism and Macronism — these are symptoms of both the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic, and of the political class’s strategy for holding on to power.

If that domestic French space is challenging enough for Mélenchon, the European context is no less forgiving. His counterparts such as Jeremy Corbyn and Pablo Iglesias have been marginalized or outright defeated — with figures like the ultraconservative Viktor Orbán instead coming to occupy the continental limelight. However well-thought-out the proposals, and however sincere the convictions of the attendees at the campaign launch in Valence, it was not difficult to feel transported back to the mid-2010s, the halcyon days of European left-populism.

There is still time to reverse the EU-wide balance of power, Aubry maintains. “If a political force like ours is able to arrive in power in France, which implements a social and environmental program, which demonstrates that we can do it in the French context and shift the political lines on a European level, well, that shows that it’s still possible,” she argues. “And I think that that can give ideas to people elsewhere, and that it can also push civil societies to organize in these countries to also go in this direction.”

But building that force back up will involve a painstaking revival of the grassroots forces that were rocking French politics just a few years ago. Twenty-six-year-old Pierre Titouan came of age politically in the lead-up to the 2017 campaign, when he was galvanized by Mélenchon and France Insoumise’s environmental platform.

Finishing training to become an elementary school teacher, he knows that it will take an almost herculean effort to break out of a campaign straitjacketed by the Right. “My strategy today is to convince people around me who are already convinced to become convincing for others,” he said of his plans for the coming months of organizing. “It’s essential to make the leap to go and speak to others, and to share.” A small step, perhaps, toward reinforcing the subject.