France’s Fifth Republic hands extensive powers to its president — and incumbent Emmanuel Macron is widely accused of ruling more like a king than a democrat. But today, faced with the most hotly contested parliamentary race in decades, left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon is betting that he can build a counterpower to Macron’s monarchical executive. In April’s presidential election, even Mélenchon’s 22 percent wasn’t enough, leaving him agonizingly short of making the runoff. But today, the France Insoumise leader suddenly again seems to be on the verge of power.
On April 6, I had watched Mélenchon’s last speech as a presidential candidate in Lille, an event simultaneously broadcast by hologram to a dozen other locations at the end of his seemingly final campaign. When he failed to make the second round a few days later, I had the bittersweet realization that I might have seen the great tribune address a vast crowd like this for the last time. But I shouldn’t have kidded myself. Even before Macron had sealed his second-round victory over far-right Marine Le Pen, Mélenchon was preparing for what he called the “third round”: this month’s elections to the National Assembly.
At Paris’s Maison de La Chimie in Paris on April 21, Mélenchon was already talking about the combined power of the left-wing parties that hadn’t backed him. Most disappointing had been the French Communist Party (PCF), which had supported him in 2012 and 2017; this time it ran separately. The party’s candidate, Fabien Roussel, took eight hundred thousand votes — double the margin Mélenchon needed to beat Le Pen to the runoff.
Still, said Mélenchon, these parties’ total score was as high as the PCF in its post-1945 heyday, a high point of labor-movement power when much of France’s now-threatened social model was built. Avoiding the temptation to sink into recriminations over the missed opportunity, Mélenchon spent this spring building an alliance of left-wing parties, including the Greens, the PCF, and the Socialist Party he’d broken away from in 2008 as it hurtled to the right.
A first for the Left in the twenty-first century — defying morbid predictions of eternal infighting — the alliance came together under the banner of the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES); the Académie Française, the august body that has for almost four centuries delivered arcane judgements on the proper use of its sacred national language, ruled that the acronym is pronounced “noop.”
Its emergence was indeed a portent. In Sunday’s first round, NUPES won 26.1 percent of the vote throughout France and its overseas territories — more than any other party, including the president’s own. “There was a very good mobilization on our part . . . so it’s normal that all those who weren’t expecting that are suddenly on edge,” Mélenchon proudly told reporters outside of campaign HQ in Paris.
Turnaround on the Left
Not everything was so good. Sunday saw the highest ever abstention rate since 1958, when the Fifth Republic was founded, with just under half of eligible voters casting a ballot. But in some places where NUPES surged, like Montreuil, a suburb to the east of Paris, turnout actually went up. There, local MP Alexis Corbière, Mélenchon’s spokesman in the 2017 presidential contest, was reelected in the first round with 62 percent of the vote, the highest in the country. To win without a runoff, a candidate needs over 50 percent of the vote on over 25 percent turnout. Just five candidates did so nationally, four of them France Insoumise figures backed by NUPES.
One breakthrough was Danielle Simonnet, in Paris’s 15th constituency, which includes the twentieth arrondissement. She said that the places where her supporters consistently went door knocking saw far lower abstention than in other areas. The France Insoumise contender’s victory was a further humiliation for Paris’s flailing Socialist Party mayor, Anne Hidalgo, following her dismal 1.7 percent score in the presidential contest.
Hidalgo called her brand of social-liberal politics “the left which has learned from its mistakes”: a business-friendly left, represented in this constituency by one of her close allies, Lamia El Aaraje, who edged out Simonnet in a June 2021 by-election. But with the Socialist Party’s credibility smashed by the presidential election, this time the outcome was almost inverted. Despite support from former Socialist prime ministers Lionel Jospin and Bernard Cazeneuve, El Aaraje crashed to just 17.5 percent, while Simonnet rose to over 47 percent. Elsewhere 2014–16 prime minister, Manuel Valls, a former Socialist now running in an overseas constituency on Macron’s list, was eliminated in the first round. The humiliated Valls soon announced he’d be deleting his Twitter account.
Yet, despite the shifting power balance on the Left and the high overall score for NUPES, the worry is that there are few reserves of votes for it to draw on in the June 19 second round. Instead, the Left will have to seek a majority by tapping sources of voters who abstained this past Sunday. A massive 69 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds and 71 percent of twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds didn’t vote in the first round, and Mélenchon has called on these categories — who favored NUPES candidates by huge margins when they did vote — to carry him to the prime minister’s office.
Macron’s bid to avoid this outcome — and keep his majority in parliament — is being waged under the banner of “Ensemble!” (“Together!”), a cluster of neoliberal-centrist and center-right parties. His own preferred choice for prime minister is Élisabeth Borne, a staid functionary with a long history of technocratic roles in the French state, but who has fitted more awkwardly into a political role.
If in the past parliamentary elections have often been a mere formality for newly elected presidents, Mélenchon has turned this race into a real contest between two contrasting programs. In the first round, Macron’s supporters came in first in 203 constituencies, and Mélenchon’s in 194; in some 272 of the runoffs lined up for next Sunday Macron’s candidate will face Mélenchon’s.
Also decisive, apart from the much-depleted fiefdoms of the conservative Républicains, are constituencies where either Ensemble! or NUPES face a far-right candidate. Ahead of the presidential runoff two months ago, some Macron allies had bitterly complained that Mélenchon did not endorse the incumbent even when faced with the threat from Le Pen. Such attacks came despite Mélenchon’s clear instruction to his supporters in a results-night speech at the Cirque d’Hiver that there must be — as he repeated three times — “not a single vote” for the Rassemblement National (RN) leader.
Now, equivocation from Macron’s camp has opened it up to the same charge. On results night, Borne called for the French people to support Macron’s project, but also condemned both “extremes,” with no sign as to who she would support in the sixty-one second-round contests between NUPES and the RN, in which Macron’s candidate is out of the running.
“By refusing to give the slightest voting instruction in the case of such a duel,” observed Le Monde, Borne had set the two camps “on an equal footing.” The inside line was that, chez Macron, support for NUPES candidates against Le Pen would be made on a case by case basis.
This lack of clarity immediately sparked indignation among what remains of the liberal wing of Macron’s party. One spokeswoman, Maud Bregeon, announced that “not a single vote must go to the far right,” echoing a phrase repeatedly used by Mélenchon. Only one junior minister, Clément Beaune, came out unequivocally for NUPES candidates against Le Pen’s RN.
Facing criticism at her initial reaction, Borne modified her position — just past midnight she tweeted a warning against any votes for the far right. But she also qualified this, saying that the president’s party would only support “republican” candidates and not those who “insulted the police or demanded that we no longer support Ukraine.” Such a framing could easily exclude any candidate supported by Mélenchon, who has forcefully criticized police brutality and been damned as “un-republican” on the basis of bigoted claims about his purported indulgence of “Islamo-leftism.” (One figure to promote such claims, Macron’s former education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was unceremoniously eliminated by a NUPES candidate in Sunday’s first round.)
Particularly telling is Le Pen’s own patch in the 11th district of Pas-de-Calais in northern France. Despite her high score, she faces a second-round ballot, on account of the dismal turnout in the constituency. Macron’s eliminated candidate, Alexandrine Pintus, however, refused to call for a vote for Marine Tondelier, the NUPES-backed Green who came second.
“The choice is between the extremes and a blank vote,” Pintus said. “Thus, my vote will be blank.” The president of Macron’s party, Stanislas Guerini, sensing trouble, pushed back and called for a ballot for Tondelier.
There’s an irony in these ambiguities given Macron’s position ahead of the presidential election, barely two months ago. Then, the Macron camp had desperately painted Mélenchon voters as salivating at the idea of electing Le Pen, just to stick it to the liberals. This, unsurprisingly, failed to materialize, and a plurality of left-wing voters did cast a ballot against Le Pen. Yet, going into the second round of this parliamentary election, only six of sixty-one defeated Macronite candidates have clearly backed NUPES against their RN opponents.
This is hardly a new development. Already ahead of the 2021 regional elections, Macron had broached the idea of ending the so-called “republican front” against the far right. He suggested that no directives should be given from up on high, and that the decision should instead be made at the local level. Ahead of that contest, Gabriel Attal, Macron’s minister of public action and accounts, gave a blunt appraisal of the state of the republican front: “It’s dead.” But with a strategic eye on this April’s presidential election, government spokesman Christophe Castaner had taken a different tack: “We’ll need it,” he explained to his allies.
With the demands of that election now out of the way, the front against the far right has indeed been dispensed with, and Castaner can freely accuse Mélenchon of taking orders from Moscow. Most remarkable was the change of tack by Richard Ferrand, the Macronite president of the National Assembly. Calling on Mélenchon’s voters to support Macron over Le Pen in April, he had talked about the “common values” they shared. Now, going into a parliamentary election where every seat counts, Ferrand spits at a vote for the Left, saying what’s at stake is “a choice of values.”
The ambiguity came in no small part because nobody close to Macron had anticipated the need to think about potential runoffs between Mélenchon and Le Pen candidates. At the most, reported l’Express, they’d expected maybe ten. One of Macron’s closest aides, the paper said, had given them a “bold assurance” four days before the election: “The goal is that there won’t be any RN/NUPES duels.”
“Challenge failed,” the paper noted dryly.
But there are also other reasons why every seat counts. Even if Mélenchon doesn’t get enough seats to make him prime minister, the number of MPs elected for NUPES also affects what he can do in the National Assembly. Already with just fifteen deputies (France Insoumise won seventeen in the same contest five years ago), a group gets access to state funds to pay for parliamentary assistants, and more time to speak when parties pose questions to the government.
A next threshold is fifty-eight MPs, at which point a group can sign a censure motion which gets tabled for discussion in the National Assembly. If an absolute majority of deputies, 289, support the motion, then the government falls and the president has to name a new prime minister. Mélenchon has already talked about using such a motion to block Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age to sixty-five.
At sixty MPs, a group can address a law to the Constitutional Council. Already in the last parliament, an alliance of Socialist Party and France Insoumise MPs used this power to strike down certain provisions of the government’s law on the vaccine pass, including the demand that such a pass be presented to enter political meetings.
More significantly, a group of 185 MPs can present a bill to the French electorate, though its path to adoption under the current system is convoluted. This so-called “common initiative referendum,” as the wonky process is called, is just one way Mélenchon has proposed facilitating a referendum for a constituent assembly that would get rid of the presidency altogether.
An Encouraging Signal
All these parliamentary techniques could become important tools for Mélenchon’s movement for a “Citizens’ Revolution” if, as projections suggest, he doesn’t take up the prime minister’s office at Matignon. To force that outcome on the president, he’d need at least 289 of 577 MPs. Le Monde projects that NUPES is instead set to take between 150 and 190 seats.
But these predictions are hardly set in stone. A week before the 2017 parliamentary elections, the best projections had Macron’s coalition winning between 415 and 455 seats. In the end, he took 350: an overwhelming majority, but still far short of expectations. In a campaign where so many races have come down to a competition between Mélenchon and Macron’s respective candidates, a polling error like that could easily have enormous consequences for the Fifth Republic.
“What will make the difference in the next five days?” a reporter asked Mélenchon on Monday.
“We’ll campaign,” he said. “Me, I continue to believe in democracy.” He went on, “I think people have received an encouraging signal.”
“How is Matignon still possible for you?” the reporter asked him.
“All that’s needed is a majority of NUPES deputies be elected and I’ll be in Matignon.”
“Easy to say, but not so much to do,” she shot back.
“No, well, thank you madam, we’re well aware of that.”