France’s Left Unity Is Proving Short-Lived
In France’s parliamentary election, left-wing parties more than doubled their number of MPs, helping to deny Emmanuel Macron a majority. Yet the smaller forces who backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s coalition are already pulling back from any longer-term pact.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing alliance elected 142 MPs to France’s National Assembly on Sunday. In some ways this was a success: the broad left more than doubled its number of MPs and helped strip President Emmanuel Macron of his majority, though it also fell way short of the 289 seats needed to make Mélenchon prime minister. In the last such election five years ago, Mélenchon’s France Insoumise had taken seventeen seats, barely more than the number needed to form an independent group; this time, there were seventy-two, making up half of the overall left-wing bloc.
That alliance of parties is known as Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES). Formed in May, it brought together forces that have often had significantly divergent agendas. By the terms of their pact, they will collaborate in parliament to pursue the policies in their common program — largely based on the one Mélenchon ran on in April’s presidential election — but maintain their independence where they differ. Among other NUPES forces, the once-mighty Socialist Party won twenty-eight seats on Sunday, the Greens twenty-three, and the French Communist Party twelve.
NUPES’s candidates and program were largely drawn from France Insoumise, with Mélenchon’s 22 percent score in the presidential contest affirming his leadership role on the Left. Yet there are already questions as to how long the alliance can last.
Keeping NUPES Together
On Monday afternoon, Mélenchon declared that “NUPES should constitute a single group in Parliament.” “Yesterday,” he went on, “I had the impression that that was what Julien Bayou and Olivier Faure had in mind,” referring respectively to the leaders of the Green and Socialist Parties.
But there was immediately a chorus of pushback from three key members of the electoral alliance. The president of the Socialist Party during the last session of parliament, Valérie Rabault, tweeted that “the Left is plural, [and] is represented in its diversity in the National Assembly . . . to want to suppress this diversity is an error, and I oppose it.”
The Socialist Party’s spokesman, Pierre Jouvet, went further, saying “there will be a Socialist group.”
André Chassaigne, the president of the Communist Party group in the parliament also pushed back, claiming that Mélenchon’s proposal “surprised” him.
“It wasn’t in the NUPES accord,” he said.
The Green Party spokesman Alain Coulombel rejected Mélenchon in starker terms.
First, he said that the party’s political bureau were “unanimously unfavorable” to the proposition of a single group. “There isn’t even any discussion between us on the subject.”
He then criticized Mélenchon for the suggestion, saying that “he isn’t a MP anymore, and it’s he who continues to speak in the name of [France Insoumises] MP? It’s strange, it’s something they need to sort out internally.” Mélenchon chose not to run this election for a local constituency so he could focus on making a national case for himself as prime minister. There is no requirement that the premier should be a member of the National Assembly.
In the first round of the presidential election, these three parties’ candidates had totaled a mere 8.66 percent of the vote. The Socialist Party performed the worst of any of them — with just 1.7 percent, it faced possible elimination as a group in the National Assembly. The Greens also underperformed heavily, and in the last parliament had no deputies in the Assembly. Their rise in this election owed greatly to the NUPES pact, especially in places where La France Insoumise could have seriously contested them in the first round.
In a blog post analyzing the results of the election, Mélenchon acknowledged that having one single group would mean less funding for each individual party, no doubt a concern for the forces in the alliance. “But this is a derisory inconvenience in relation to what’s at stake politically. Because once we declare ourselves a group, there will be no possible doubt that the opposition will be called NUPES.”
But for many figures in these parties who opposed the pact from the get-go, now’s the time to pull away from NUPES and a Mélenchon they now see as out of the picture. The election is over, they believe, and they no longer need him.
National Unity, Among Whom?
On Tuesday morning, Macron’s longtime ally François Bayrou, head of the neoliberal-centrist MoDem, held a press conference where he called for a government of national unity. Macron’s alliance had won just 246 deputies on Sunday — losing over a hundred seats — and won’t be able to govern stably on its own.
Later in the day, the reelected Communist Party (PCF) deputy Fabien Roussel, who was this party’s candidate in the presidential election, told reporters that Macron had asked him whether he thought it was a good idea to have a national unity government, and whether he would join one.
“We’ve participated in a national unity government before, in ’45, with General de Gaulle,” Roussel said, “so it’s not something that shocks us, to participate with others in the reconstruction of France.”
“But it all depends on the project,” he continued. “We need a major politics of investment, with large reforms. In ’45 we created social security, eighty years later it’s still around, so it’s this level of ambition we [need] for the country. So, for us if it’s at this high level, we’re ready to participate.”
Roussel’s outward willingness to join a government with Macron came a day after he clarified that the Communist Party would have its own group in the Assembly. Despite winning fewer seats than they need to form an independent group, Roussel said they’d manage it with the support of deputies from France’s overseas territories who have traditionally been a part of PCF-led formations. He emphasized that this would allow them the freedom to vote how they please.
Since the results came in on Sunday evening, Roussel’s media appearances have insistently emphasized the distance between his Communist Party and Mélenchon, counter-posing a vigorous, rural electorate for him with a metropolitan constituency based in the cities for Mélenchon.
Macron’s setbacks in this election — and difficulty cobbling together a majority even with the center-right Republicans — surely have overturned many previous dividing lines. On Monday, several key figures from his party said they weren’t ruling out seeking support for their legislation from Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National. On Sunday it took eighty-nine seats, beating expectations as it elected ten times more MPs than it had in 2017.
Céline Calvez, a pro-Macron deputy for Hauts-de-Seine — a department to the west of Paris, indeed one of the wealthiest in the country — was asked if the president’s camp would seek support from Le Pen’s allies on a case-by-case basis. “When we need to have a majority and when it’s good for the French people,” she said, “we’re going to look for those votes from the Rassemblement National.”
“Mélenchon Is in Great Difficulty…”
Of the 142 seats NUPES won, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise had the highest individual total, electing seventy-two of its candidates to the Assembly.
One of the prizes at play for members of the opposition is the Commission on Finances, General Economy, and Budgetary Control, concerned with a broad array of matters concerning public finances, local taxation, and economic and monetary policy.
Since 2009, according to the standing orders of the National Assembly, the president of this commission must be elected from a member of an opposition party. Traditionally, this has been the largest opposition party. One of the first orders of business for the new parliament is a series of votes for the composition of the Parliamentary commissions on June 30.
By convention the dominant party doesn’t involve itself in the vote for the commission presidency. So far, Macronites have signaled their intention to continue not taking part. But Éric Woerth, the president of the commission in the last parliament, said “It seems dangerous to me to have [Rassemblement National] or [France Insoumise] at the head of the commission.”
Woerth was elected president of the commission as a member of Les Républicains, the largest opposition party in the last parliament. But before his mandate was up, he switched sides to join Macron’s parliamentary group, thus putting the commission in the hands of the majority.
Just who the largest opposition party is becomes a sticky question depending on how the members of NUPES decide to arrange themselves. According to the accord between its member parties, NUPES’s parliamentary presence will consist of several political groups united within an “intergroup.” This intergroup will “serve as a permanent place of discussion and coordination between its individual components.”
The unexpectedly strong performance from Le Pen’s party throws a wrench into this problem. Unlike NUPES, the Rassemblement National MPs are all members of a single party, so their group will contain all their members. If France Insoumise constitutes a group consisting of just members elected under its own banner, they’ll fall short of being the largest single opposition in the Assembly.
Macron’s government has shown that it’s prepared to crown Le Pen as the official opposition. One spokesperson, Olivia Grégoire, said that “because NUPES is a gathering of parties, the real first opposition party is the [Rassemblement National].”
On Monday, Philippe Ballard, a newly elected Rassemblement National deputy from l’Oise, twenty-five miles north of Paris, insisted that the presidency of the Commission should go to a member of Marine Le Pen’s party.
“We’re the first party in France,” he said, and “the first opposition party, so the Finance Commission should go to us.”
On Tuesday morning, Gérard Larcher, the Les Républicains president of the Senate, where the mainstream conservative party still holds a large plurality of seats, called for Macron to change his attitude toward Marine Le Pen. He wrote that all elected MPs must be treated with “equality and respect.” Hence, because “the [Rassemblement National] is the first opposition party . . . [the presidency of the Finance Commission] must go to them.”
Toward a Majority?
On Tuesday morning, Macron spoke with Christian Jacob, the president of Les Républicains. In the presidential election, their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, scored an abysmal 4.7 percent; in 2017 their candidate had won 20 percent, and they’d elected over a hundred MPs, enough to be the main opposition party. While they suffered further losses this election, this historic center-right party avoided a complete collapse, winning sixty-four crucial deputies. Added to Macron’s coalition, their votes could easily serve as the majority needed to enact Macron’s right-wing agenda.
Macron’s centerpiece policy reforms are raising the retirement age to sixty-five, and overhauling the pension system. NUPES’s surge and Macron’s loss of an absolute majority complicates passing these measures. Le Pen’s party ostensibly opposes raising the retirement age, though she was pushed into this stance by Mélenchon’s position in the presidential election. Now the far right has to put its money its their mouth is. But Les Républicains have no such complexes to overcome. Jacob has previously said he wants the party to be an opposition force capable of “reforming the country,” ready to correct laws put forward by the majority, and “move them.”
But at a press conference Tuesday morning, he ruled out a formal alliance, saying “we won’t enter into the logic of a coalition, a pact. We won’t betray our voters.”
Les Républicains’ role in the upcoming Assembly could be critical in several ways. Without an absolute majority, Macron can no longer guarantee a confidence vote in his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne. On Tuesday at the National Assembly, Mélenchon called for Borne to submit herself to just such a vote. If she refuses, France Insoumise has the numbers to force such a vote on its own.
But though Le Pen’s Rassemblement National group would likely vote against the government as well, such a motion needs 289 deputies’ support to succeed. Les Républicains could block this without casting a single vote for Borne; abstention by them and the twelve other allies who will likely group with them would be enough to deny the 289 total that Mélenchon needs. In Jacob’s statement opposing a formal alliance, he said Les Républicains’ opposition will be “responsible” and that they’ll “never participate in blocking the institutions.”
Faced with the apparent crumbling of the NUPES coalition, Mélenchon can no longer rely on the alliance to support him in any motion he puts forward.
When reelected France Insoumise MP Éric Coquerel called, on Sunday, for a vote of no confidence in prime minister Borne to be held on July 5, there was silence from most of the rest of NUPES. While the Communists indicated they’d support it, there wasn’t a word from the Socialists or the Greens.
“Mélenchon is in great difficulty,” one person who worked on a successful France Insoumise parliamentary campaign told me with disappointment. “Ultimately [he] doesn’t represent very much in the National Assembly.”
For his part, Mélenchon says that France Insoumise’s strategy is to reemphasize the power of the parliament in French society.
Le Monde reported Tuesday that one of Macron’s counselors believes the president has no other choice but to dissolve the Assembly in a year. That time period is set by a provision in the Constitution, but there is a debate over whether the president would even have to wait this long.
In a blog post on Monday analyzing the outcome, Mélenchon lamented how close he thought he’d come to winning a majority. “Destiny is a tease,” he wrote. With just sixteen thousand more votes spread out in the right way across the country, NUPES would have been the single largest group. Despite winning twice as many votes nationally as the Rassemblement National, Le Pen’s party won 55 percent of its duels against NUPES, Mélenchon explained.
Because of the parliamentary impasse “the country is ungovernable,” wrote Mélenchon, and because of this, one of the benefits of a common group between all the members of NUPES is “to establish that an alternative opposition remains in the country.” This would show that “we’re ready at any moment” to govern, “including,” he concluded, “if there are new elections.”
“Vote after vote, amendment after amendment, the government will [have to] depend on one or another [group],” Mélenchon wrote, diagnosing the instability facing Macron’s government. “It’s the return of the Fourth Republic in the Fifth,” he commented.
The Fourth Republic is a watchword in France for governmental instability and constant parliamentary chaos. In the first four and a half years of the Fourth Republic, the average life of a cabinet was just six and a half months.
It’s this sort of confusion and chaos that Mélenchon and his allies in the National Assembly will try to exploit.
Adrien Quatennens, a France Insoumise MP from the North who is France Insoumise’s national coordinator, told CNews that his comrades were standing at the ready for whatever came. “We must, we remain ready, at any moment . . . to take over government.”