France’s Revived Left Can Stop Emmanuel Macron in His Tracks

Manon Aubry

Neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron has lost his majority in the French parliament. The mass of newly elected left-wing MPs can disrupt his attacks on France’s welfare model — but it also needs to help rebuild resistance in wider society.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the French left-wing NUPES coalition, leaves the National Assembly accompanied by other coalition members, June 21, 2022. (JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

Tuesday saw the opening of France’s new National Assembly, with its face radically changed after elections in June. While allies of neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron remain the biggest single group, holding 245 out of 577 seats (a loss of 105 compared to 2017), the results also left Macron struggling to cobble together a majority for his agenda.

As one sign of the changed political climate, proceedings were opened by José Gonzalez, the most elderly MP, of the far-right Rassemblement National. One of eighty-nine members for Marine Le Pen’s party — up from just eight in the previous parliament — he used his address to praise the traditions of French colonialism in Algeria.

Yet there are also dozens of new left-wing MPs thanks to the result for the Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES), whose various parties amount to 142 MPs. This broad front — including Socialists, Communists, Greens, and others — was led into June’s elections by France Insoumise’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but now seems set to pursue a looser form of collaboration.

Manon Aubry is a prominent spokesperson for France Insoumise and leads its group in the European Parliament. Jacobin’s David Broder asked her about NUPES’ future, the stability of the Macron government, and how the Left can rebuild its working-class base.

David Broder

I was at the NUPES results night on Sunday, June 19, and everyone seemed very pleased by the initial seat projections — even if the final scores were a bit less good. Were you pleased by the result?

Manon Aubry

We could say the night started better than it ended. But the result is still historic for the Left. Over the last five years, there were a total of sixty-four MPs across all left-wing parties, with seventeen for France Insoumise. But it increased its number four times over, and the whole Left was two and a half times bigger. It’s an important demonstration that the Left is alive in France — a Left that is proud of its values despite the lies, slander, and invective from Macron’s party.

The president’s camp has demonized us and, in so doing, has normalized the far right. Indeed, this election was also a historic breakthrough for Le Pen’s party, with eighty-nine MPs elected. This has never happened in our history, especially as this electoral system is generally unfavorable to them. And this is the direct result of the attitude of Macron’s government. First, because it constantly avoided any real debate for these elections. Second, because it demonized us, making us out as public enemy number one. Third, as a consequence, in the runoffs between NUPES and Rassemblement National, Macron’s party didn’t issue a call for how to vote; but by constantly making out that we are “anti-republican,” it brought the far right back into the republican camp.

So Macron’s party bears heavy responsibility both for the far right’s breakthrough and the historic setback for the president’s majority. Never in our history has a newly elected president had such low numbers. Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande all had more than three hundred MPs. And here Macron has less than 250 representatives on his side.

David Broder

Already in April’s presidential runoff, Macron did not run an “anti-fascist” campaign against Le Pen but said he wanted a vote of endorsement of his program, and already then, the turnout and majority was poor. Again in the parliamentary elections we saw the French didn’t vote for his reform project. But it seems he’s determined to maintain the same course . . .

Manon Aubry

What he doesn’t understand is that we have memories. In the period between the two rounds of the presidential election, seeking left-wing votes, Macron referred to certain ideas where he said we had led the way, including ecological planning. He said that he was aware that some people were voting by default. But now he says that he was elected on a clear program and that this won broad support — but this simply isn’t the case.

The parliamentary elections are a symptom of this. Macron was elected by default and not out of endorsement for his program. He will try to lay responsibility for the immobility to come with the oppositions in the National Assembly, but it is up to him to take note of the fact that his project is a minority one in the country. I think it is extremely dangerous and irresponsible not to acknowledge what really happened in these elections.

David Broder

But now some figures from Macron’s camp and even the opposition parties are discussing the possibility of a “government of national unity,” or even the president relying on far-right votes on a case-by-case basis. What do you see as the prospects of a stable government emerging?

Manon Aubry

First, what struck me most after the second round of the legislative election is that not only is Macron’s party responsible for the rise of the far right but they have learned absolutely no lessons. They continued this week to make us out to be anti-republicans and to make appeals to the far right by saying that it might be possible to work with them or that they should even be given the presidency of parliament’s Finance Commission. This may not seem so important but it surely is symbolic, and this commission is normally given to the opposition. It is obvious that with 150 elected members for the NUPES, we have many more than the Rassemblement National, which has only 89.

For me, [these people in Macron’s camp] are playing with fire and they risk getting burned afterwards by talking up the prospect of a government of national unity. The truth is that no one wants such a government. What would its political line be? If it’s to apply Emmanuel Macron’s project, which does not have a majority in the country, it’s obvious that it wouldn’t work.

If he had reckoned with what happened at the ballot box, for example, one of the first things he would have done would be to drop the reform raising the retirement age to sixty-five, which is not supported by the majority of French people. The majority of the French people voted for political projects that opposed that — so that should be one of the things he should take into account, but he doesn’t. This will make it difficult for him to govern, since it is clear that he is not ready to change course. His only room for maneuver is on the right, with Les Républicains. On paper, they may have similar positions, but from their own strategic point of view, they don’t necessarily want to ally with Macron. So today he is an extremely weak president who will probably have difficulties with every bill he wants to pass. That’s why we should not exclude the possibility of the National Assembly being dissolved at some point if the deadlock persists.

But I think that it is the demonstration that our current political institutions are running on empty and need to be reviewed from top to bottom. If today we have a system that has never thought about political diversity, that’s because the Fifth Republic was conceived by General Charles de Gaulle to give all the power to the president and to give him the levers to act from a legislative point of view. Yet today we have an unprecedented situation where the president does not have a majority in the National Assembly. We are one of the few countries in the world that gives the executive so much power. So this raises the question of rebalancing these powers, of changing the voting system, of proportional representation — in short, of reshuffling the rules of the institutional game. I think this crisis should be cause for in-depth reflection and, I hope, new rules of the game and potentially a constituent assembly that would allow us to change the political regime.

David Broder

In many European countries, we have seen a political polarization that produces a basically two-sided contest between neoliberal centrists and the far right. In France, looking beyond elections as such, we can see also see a right-wing radicalization of the political field in recent years, with this obsessive focus on identity-based themes of immigration, Islam, secularism, and so on. But if France Insoumise and NUPES have been successful in breaking through the Macron–Le Pen duopoly and creating a genuinely three-sided struggle, what possibilities does the Left have to change the political agenda in France?

Manon Aubry

What this campaign has revealed is that the main issue is not the color of our neighbor’s skin or their religion, but how we are going to make ends meet and serve the basic needs of the population. An indicator of this is that even the far right has, to a certain extent, put aside its identity-based obsessions to take up social issues, even if the content of their proposals is actually pretty similar to Macron’s in term of neoliberal philosophy. So today the cost of living is back at the center of debate, in a context of massive inflation.

I heard this morning, for instance, that there has been a sharp drop in the consumption of meat, fish, and cheese in France, because people are having to cut back on products they can’t afford. So these very simple questions about reaching the end of the month are at the center of the agenda, including for this government, which has planned to pass its first law on the cost of living. So what will be interesting now is to confront Emmanuel Macron with reality, including people’s expectations.

We campaigned on two main policy levers in this regard. One is to freeze the prices of essential goods, energy bills, and rents, to limit inflation at least on these products. The other is to increase the minimum wage. These are proposals that we are going to make in the coming weeks and that we will also bring to the National Assembly. It is now up to the president and his camp to say if and why he rejects these proposals. We have always said that if they were taken up [on the government agenda], we would obviously be prepared to vote them through parliament.

This is a cultural battle, a political battle, but also a battle over concrete proposals, and the government will have no choice, in some respects, but to accept some of our proposals. And it’s good timing; it shows that it’s useful to have 150 elected representatives of the struggle who are going to lead the fight in the National Assembly, who are also going to lead the battle against bad government bills such as raising the pension age to sixty-five, and who will be ready and determined not to give in.

David Broder

Speaking of representatives of the struggle, I was interested by your focus, in these elections, on changing the face of parliament by electing workers and trade unionists. I’m thinking of the striking hotel maid Rachel Kéké, of course, but also others like Mathilde Hignet, a farmworker on minimum wage, and Andy Kerbrat, a call center worker and union activist.

Manon Aubry

Yes, it’s true that we have a national representation which does not reflect our society sufficiently, and this is a real problem. Indeed, there is Rachel Kéké, who is the first cleaning lady to become an MP in French history. But also, we have workers like Laurent Alexandre [a worker at an aircraft factory], we have climate activists — I’m thinking of Alma Dufour, with whom I was very active before she was elected.

So these are extremely diverse profiles who have fought battles, but who are also everyday women and men who resemble the French population and who will, I believe, enable us to reconnect the National Assembly with what is happening in society. That requires new faces too. In this respect, it is also good to have a strong influx of young people. We have the youngest MPs, two of whom are twenty-one years old, the youngest in the history of the Fifth Republic. And they will bring a breath of fresh air, but also bring a certain reality to a National Assembly which has sometimes tended to be cut off from society.

David Broder

This also brings us to the high abstention in parliamentary elections. In 2022, it was a bit less bad than 2017, but still very high at 54 percent. And while, in April, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential campaign had beaten polling expectations by driving up turnout in working-class neighborhoods, in June this seemed more difficult. Have you any initial analysis of what kinds of voters you were missing?

Manon Aubry

We know that parliamentary elections are traditionally harder to mobilize for, even if there was a little more mobilization than in 2017 in the second round. But it remains quite marginal, and the abstention rate is far too high.

We were missing two main categories. First were young people: there was 70 percent abstention among the under-thirty-fives. And then there’s also the working classes. For these populations, the difficulty is to show that parliamentary elections, which very often seem far-removed from people’s everyday lives, will actually have some concrete outcome. There’s also the problem of the concentration of power in the hands of the president. So while the French understand what’s at stake in electing a president of the republic, things are more complicated in this case. Many people wonder what the point is if Macron has won already. That’s why we used the slogan “Jean-Luc Mélenchon for Prime Minister,” to show the concrete outcome of a NUPES majority in the National Assembly. Clearly, it wasn’t enough.

Why wasn’t it enough? It’s also because there was no political debate about it. There was no debate that would tell the French people very clearly that here are two or three opposing visions of society and that the parliamentary elections would determine their direction. Instead, we had a succession of invectives, slanders, and insults from Macron’s party. That was the level of the political debate, which illustrates, I think, and demonstrates to what extent we have a problem in the current political debate in France. And this did not encourage turnout.

Then I think there’s also real work to be done on a more everyday basis in places that turn away from politics, either because they think that it won’t change their daily lives or because they have been let down before. In both cases, we can understand why. That’s why our challenge for the next few years is to continue this work in the field, to plough on building an alternative and telling people that we are not merely condemned to endure and suffer a policy being imposed upon us.

But even today, I feel the domination of the famous “There is no alternative,” which is very prevalent in the French political debate. It’s hard to bring out an alternative. This is really what Macron has relied on, saying that any alternative would be chaos, and so it’s better to either vote for him or stay at home. This isn’t conducive to having a substantive political debate.

David Broder

The president also seems to want the Rassemblement National to play the role of its main parliamentary opposition and polemical sparring partner. I wonder what you think NUPES can do to break through this — not only at the level of the parliament and the issues around the budget commission, but also in terms of building a mobilizing force in society outside of the president’s own chosen way of framing the debate.

Manon Aubry

I think we need to make the movement sustainable. NUPES’ greatest strength is its common program, with 650 measures which form the basis of its unity. What sense would there be in agreeing on a program today and not agreeing with it in six months, a year, or two years’ time? This also applies to the intermediate elections [such as regional or local contests, or even the European elections]. But it’s also important to be directly useful to people and to demonstrate that having a NUPES elected representative has a useful bearing on daily life.

Obviously, we are not in power, which means it isn’t so easy. But our challenge will also be to build, over the coming months and years, an alternative together with the social movements, with the trade unions, with the associations, to stir the beating heart of a France that I believe is not dead. With these parliamentary elections and these presidential elections, we have shown that much already.

I have been asked a lot about the NUPES experience, for example by my colleagues at the European level, and I really see the hope that this can give. So I hope that, from the marker this has laid down, we will also be able to rebuild a left at the European level. Yes, the lesson of the NUPES is that the Left can reach agreements —not on a lukewarm basis but on a program for a rupture with the neoliberal policies that sets out an extremely clear political agenda. It was not the union of parties that created an electoral dynamic. Rather, it was political clarity, the perspective of transformation and changing people’s lives, that created the popular dynamic on which basis a union could be built.

We have a lot of work ahead of us to give more structure to NUPES, so that the hopes which have emerged in recent months can materialize in future electoral victories and, more than that, political victories that win social progress. To achieve this, I also believe enormously in the need to wage a cultural battle. I come back to this famous “There is no alternative” of which we have been the victims

So there’s a challenge to demonstrate that an alternative is possible, including working with intellectuals, and particularly on economic issues, to show that the economic system, such as it exists, leads us to chaos, to economic and financial instability. That also means showing that it’s possible to build another economic model based on the redistribution of wealth, on reviving consumption, on the people. And for that, there is a real media and cultural battle to be waged, and we have to organize for that. That’s what we’re going to do in the coming months.

David Broder

From what I’ve seen, this is the risk: that people in other countries will take your electoral results simply as evidence for the need for all “progressives” to unite for its own sake, rather than really see how the political radicalism of Mélenchon and France Insoumise drew sharp political dividing lines which created this sense of a possible alternative.

Manon Aubry

This is something that we have theorized. It’s not the union that creates the dynamic but the clarity of a political project that can change people’s lives. Once that dynamic was already underway, we could unite with others on that basis. It was also because we got 22 percent in the presidential election, on a project of rupture, that we were able to create a union which, in truth, would have been impossible beforehand.

For sure, it is difficult to carry examples across from one country to another, also because of their different political systems. On the other hand, I think that we can carry across our thinking on what direction the Left should take in the years to come, especially in order to respond to the aspirations of young people who are waiting for a real rupture — that is, a rupture which doesn’t wait for electoral timetables but seizes on the lively mobilizations taking place to respond to immediate needs.

So we also need to find a connection with these new forms of social mobilizations. I’m thinking of the feminist movements, I’m thinking of the climate movement. I’m thinking of the movement against police violence in which young people are particularly involved and which indicates a certain level of radicalism. We need to transform that into a political battle that we can win. But to do that, we really need young people, and to work with them.