France’s Left Needs to Speak to All Parts of the Working Class

The French left made gains in spring’s elections — but it did much better in big cities than in deindustrialized areas. Debates in France Insoumise have highlighted the need to win back the older working class without giving up on political radicalism.

Leader of the left-wing NUPES coalition Jean-Luc Melenchon delivers a speech after the second round of the parliamentary elections in Paris, June 19, 2022.(BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images)

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s followers barely had time to appreciate their champion’s progress in April’s presidential election before François Ruffin sounded the alarm in Libération: “Peripheral France, the France of the small towns, does not appear to be a priority. And when we look at the vote numbers, that’s where we’re losing.”

Ruffin — an MP for France Insoumise, representing a constituency in the Northern département of La Somme — reiterated the charge in Mediapart ahead of June’s legislative elections: “We’re hurting in the former industrial basins of the North and East, in once-red areas where the Left has fallen very low.” After his reelection with 61 percent of the vote, he hammered the point home in L’Obs: “Are we acknowledging, without saying it, that we are becoming the Left of Île-de-France [the region around Paris] and the metropolises?”

These interventions are reminiscent of now old controversies. First, the one stemming from a blog post published in 2011 by the think tank Terra Nova. It called for the Left to make up for its losses among working-class voters by seeking to pick up support among the middle classes and a series of social categories that supposedly share progressive cultural values. At the time, many intellectuals and political leaders were up in arms, criticizing the analytical errors and “class contempt” that shined through from the text.

At the end of the decade, it was the notion of peripheral France — sometimes associated with the idea of “cultural insecurity” — that aroused controversy. The essayist Christophe Guilluy, in particular, popularized the thesis of two communities of fate: the France of the big cities, the winners of globalization, and its peripheral counterpart, home to a white middle class in the process of material and symbolic decline. Guilluy was criticized, in scholarly terms, for advancing an excessively schematic vision, and suspected of feeding nationalist resentment on the political level.

While these precedents still loom large in public debate, it would be wrong to conclude that the strategic debate on the Left — and in particular within its main force, France Insoumise — is simply going round in circles.

In reality, everyone is avoiding being their own caricature. François Ruffin is now careful to put “peripheral France” in the plural, thus acknowledging its lack of homogeneity. Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself added some nuance to Ruffin’s observations, insisting on the need to avoid “social or geographical reductionism,” but recognizing that “we must be attentive to the characteristics of the places that need conquering and not rest on our laurels.” Moreover, Mélenchon has repeatedly referred to his own bid to speak to the “fâchés pas fachos” — people who are fed up, not fascists.

The electoral balance of forces demands that all sensibilities show some nuance. On the one hand, it is clear that the strategy of Communist presidential candidate Fabien Roussel — who has exhibited certain affinities with Ruffin’s approach — has failed.

During his campaign, Roussel constantly distanced himself from the positions typically defended by the Greens, associated with a city-dwelling, well-heeled left, whether over food, energy, or secularism. Roussel, also an MP for a Northern constituency, insisted, “We must go beyond la péripherique [the ring roads around Paris and other cities], speak to all French people, both those in large urban centers and those in rural areas,” he recently commented in Libération, before telling BFMTV that it was “unacceptable” for Mélenchon to use the words “the police kill.”

In the end, however, his electoral score was only one-tenth of what Mélenchon achieved. “Roussel’s is the strategy of the Left that does not want to annoy people on the Right,” says economist Stefano Palombarini, a member of the parliament of activists and personalities created by the Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES) alliance. “You can’t start a strategy of broadening social alliances by risking disgusting left-wing voters who don’t see themselves in its approach,” he warns.

On the other hand, Mélenchon’s performance was insufficient to reach the runoff of the presidential election, while NUPES lost most of its second-round duels in the parliamentary elections, whatever the matchup in question. The electoral base of this camp still appears too narrow, both in its size and in its composition.

“A whole part of France escapes the Left’s reach,” says political scientist Rémi Lefebvre. “The Left’s sociology is very metropolitan, and this can be seen in the profile of its elected officials. Given the weight of the latter, there is a risk of reinforcing this logic.” The geographer Jean Rivière, for his part, is keen to emphasize that the electoral base Mélenchon has brought together “is indeed inter-classist.” However, he admits that the vote in his favor has tended to become polarized.

“Between 2017 and 2022,” explains this lecturer at the University of Nantes, “we observe a consolidation of strong bases, which are located, more than elsewhere, in the gentrified city districts at the top of the urban hierarchy, and in the racialized fractions of the working classes. Conversely, Mélenchon’s base is declining where it was already less strong, in certain rural parts of the North and East.”

In fact, the discussion that is opening up within France Insoumise and NUPES is about refining this diagnosis, and about concrete ways to seek a wider electoral audience. According to the information we have received, work in this direction has also been initiated by Intérêt Général — an independent think tank close to the orbit of France Insoumise — which is preparing to put politicians, geographers, and statisticians to work on this issue after the summer break.

The Fragmentation of the Working Class

In the meantime, many voices stress the importance of preserving both the coherence of the current political line and the components of the electoral base already acquired.

Clémentine Autain, a France Insoumise MP for Seine-Saint-Denis, believes, for example, that “we can still look for abstentionists in the sectors where we are strong already.” There are also other disappointing performances to interrogate, such as the very clear underrepresentation of the Left among the over-sixties.

According to Autain, we must not ignore the areas where the Left is struggling to win cultural hegemony over both liberal and identitarian right-wing forces. But rather than turning everything upside down, at the risk of straying from a course that has worked thus far, the challenge is to “articulate a narrative” that better echoes the expectations of a currently disaffected electorate. “But the conclusion cannot be to stop denouncing police violence,” she warns.

It wasn’t just Roussel: Mélenchon’s comment that “the police kill” was also criticized by Ruffin, who explained that it had “caused offense” in his constituency. He had himself written a long Facebook post to call for action over the day-to-day antisocial behavior that causes a stink in the lives of residents of working-class neighborhoods. “Denouncing police violence is one thing, making it such a prominent part of our discourse is quite another,” says a member of Intérêt Général. “This fight remains within the logic of political minorities, whereas we are in search of a majority logic, to win.”

Geographer Jean Rivière is not surprised by this debate.

The criticism of the police is consistent with the objective of continuing to mobilize the populations of the big housing projects, and it is true that this does less well in rural areas. But an important part of the working classes has always been attached to forms of order, that’s nothing new. Even at the height of their alignment [to the Left] in the 1970s, a third of them voted for the Right.

For Stefano Palombarini, the hopes of winning back the working classes must recognize the different profiles that exist.

Some of them, who have simply moved from the right to the far right, are hardly reachable. On the other hand, in deindustrialized areas that were once favorable to the Left, there are people who are not out of reach. These are the ones who Ruffin rather more has in mind. Then, among those who have already voted for the far right, things will be more difficult if they’ve already repeated that vote till it leads to a sense of political belonging.

In any case, says the professor at the University of Paris 8, “doing electoral marketing by changing what you say according to this or that segment of the population would be counterproductive. The real issue is to convince people that NUPES’s program of rupture is realistic, and could be applied.” And for that, there is nothing like a militant effort of building roots on the ground, allowing the Left to reach people atomized in their work, those who have less educational qualifications, and who mainly get their information through the mass media.”

Uniting Different Causes

This concern over France Insoumise’s presence on the ground is something that can unite all its sensibilities. In a blog for Mediapart, Clementine Autain MP writes that “the job to be done” to secure NUPES’s future “is obviously also about militant work, local rootedness, building a presence everywhere.” François Ruffin speaks of “bastions” to be built in society.

In his July 5 conference, Jean-Luc Mélenchon emphasized the importance of caravans and door-to-door canvassing, calling for constituency-level assemblies throughout France. He did not, however, offer any details on what structure should be given to this surge of activity. This latter would seem to correct France Insoumise’s self-described “gaseous” character, which translates into a total autonomy of the leadership from a base that has no say over the main strategic decisions.

“What strikes me is that the sociology of NUPES is also where Jean-Luc Mélenchon held his rallies,” remarked Rémi Lefebvre, referring to the campaign events held mainly in large cities. “One of the keys to broadening this sociology is therefore to work in territories where the Left is weak. But this presupposes a strong questioning of the internal distribution of power and money.” France Insoumise’s supporter groups, it is true, do not have substantial resources to organize locally, and have no structures to either coordinate among themselves or make demands on the leadership.

However, this problem surely is worth reflecting on. Researching social democratic parties, academics Björn Bremer and Line Rennwald have shown that their decline could be aggravated by a lack of “emotional” connection with a significant part of their electorate. In other words, it is risky to be satisfied with an electorate that has an only weak identification with the political force for which it votes: over time, their loyalty could prove fragile.

Such work of laying down roots on the ground would surely be a long and thankless task. In the meantime, there is also another effort to be made, less regarding the Left’s political project than its discourse, in the attempt to unify the causes defended by France Insoumise and the Left as a whole. “It is the opposite of the logic of segmentation,” insists Rémi Lefebvre. He also believes that it would be a “dead end” to choose between graduates from big cities and working-class areas, and within the latter, between the inhabitants of large housing projects and the rest.

“We must not symbolically widen the gap between the poorest and the average, the ‘in’ and the ‘out,’ the very ‘down below’ and the slightly ‘higher up,’” urges historian Roger Martelli in Regards. “The strategic challenge, to reunite a today fragmented ‘people,’ is to strengthen the link that has been made with part of the suburbs, while breaking up the bases of the working-class vote for the far right.”

In this respect, the situation in France is no exception among Western democracies. In a recent study, renowned political scientists Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm established that the driving force of left-wing parties’ vote now comes from the highly educated, low- and middle-income electorate. This is no strategic disaster — quite the contrary, since it is a demographically growing group. However, their support alone is not enough to form a majority electoral coalition.

Other support is needed. According to the two researchers, this support is unlikely to be found among the low-educated, high-income electorate, which is very much aligned with the Right. The groups that are more internally divided are those with high levels of education and income, or low levels of both. Among the latter, the most disadvantaged tend more to the left, but those managing to keep their heads above water have authoritarian leanings that draw them more to the right.

For François Ruffin, the call for a “climate war economy” could help to overcome these electoral splits and add the greatest number toward the current left-wing base. “We must unite the country in this common project,” he proposes. For Ruffin, the social question — now also shaped by ecological constraints — can provide the glue binding all those who think that there is “something rotten” in the current social order.

This is an interesting idea, provided that we remember that so-called cultural demands — concerning gender or racial discrimination, for example — often have a social content, and that social demands also express a need for recognition and dignity. The Left thus has room to escape the false alternative between the hedonism of the privileged big cities and the resentment of the abandoned towns.