France’s Left-Wing Coalition Risks Splitting Apart

Mass protests on Tuesday showed the strength of popular anger at Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the pension age. But the coalition of left-wing parties, NUPES, has fallen into infighting — which risks wasting the progress it has made since last spring.

La France Insoumise party leader and leader of left-wing coalition NUPES Jean-Luc Mélenchon and French MP of the 15th constituency of the Paris department, member of La France Insoumise, part of the NUPES intergroup Danielle Simonnet meet with teachers of the Charles de Gaulle Middle School during a rally against the closure of the school, in Paris on December 1, 2022. (Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images)

For the third time in the last month, on Tuesday hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities around France to voice their opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age. Ahead of the protests, MPs from left-wing alliance NUPES (New Ecological and Social Popular Union) stood side by side in front of the National Assembly to display their joint opposition to the reform, ahead of the parliamentary debates.

But behind this facade of unity there are growing fractures within the French left. Grappling with an increasingly uncertain fate, the NUPES has been paralyzed by tensions within the parties that form the coalition. What was, upon its creation, hailed by La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon as a “new page of history” could prove short-lived.

Things seemed rather different last May, when NUPES was launched ahead of the parliamentary elections. The left-wing pact emerged from an agreement between La France Insoumise, the Greens, Socialists, and Communists to join forces around a common and ambitious agenda. Crucially, the agreement provided for a single left-wing candidate in each constituency. The multiple rival candidacies in the 2017 elections had rendered the French left powerless against the tide of President Macron’s neoliberal En Marche! party. But this time around, indeed largely thanks to the NUPES’s joint candidacies, the Left revived its presence in the National Assembly, expanding its share of the seats from one-tenth to one-quarter. With 142 deputies — fifty-three more than the second main opposition group, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National — the NUPES asserted itself as the main challenger to Macron, whose supporters have now lost their majority in Parliament.

Right from its inception, the NUPES aspired to be far more than a mere electoral vehicle. The agreement among the parties stipulated that, following the parliamentary elections, La France Insoumise, Greens, Socialists, and Communists would each have their own group in the National Assembly and that, in addition, deputies would also join a NUPES “intergroup,” with the aim of facilitating cooperation between the different components of the coalition. In the face of the Rassemblement National’s unexpectedly strong showing, Mélenchon suggested scrapping the idea in favor of a single unified NUPES parliamentary group. The proposal, which would have further bound together the NUPES’s different components, was swiftly and unanimously rejected by the other parties. Fears among France Insoumise allies that they would be relegated to a status of junior partner within the parliamentary group, coupled with logistical concerns, motivated the refusal. The momentum toward ever-greater left-wing cooperation ground to a halt.

Party Congresses

With the congresses of the Communist, Green and Socialist parties each taking place this winter, the NUPES has been the subject of fierce debates. The Socialist congress, during which party members elected their first secretary (effective leader), quickly morphed into a referendum for or against participation in the NUPES. Incumbent Olivier Faure, defender of his party’s participation in the alliance, edged out Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, who regularly criticized the left-wing coalition. Winning a slim 51 percent majority at the congress, Faure faced an uphill battle to restore unity within his party. In an interview leading up to the congress, Mayer-Rossignol warned that Faure’s election would generate “a real risk of a split.” The statement reflects the aversion of many Socialists — including political heavyweights such as Carole Delga (president of the southwestern Occitane region) and 2012–17 French president François Hollande — to participating in a coalition with La France Insoumise, which they view as demagogic and extremist. The two protagonists ultimately succeeded in reaching an agreement by the end of the congress, quelling fears of a split. However, the agreement, which elevates Mayer-Rossignol to first deputy secretary, raises questions about whether the once-mighty party’s participation in the NUPES will continue untrammeled.

The results of the Greens’ congress are equally unclear. The newly elected secretary, Marine Tondelier, described the NUPES as a “relative success” and cryptically declared that the Greens would “neither be autarkic nor hegemonic” — they would not isolate themselves or seek a dominant role. In parallel, among the ranks of the Communist Party, the incumbent secretary and only tepid NUPES supporter Fabien Roussel is vying for reelection. Advocate of his party’s autonomy, the Communist leader refused to rally behind La France Insoumise during the 2022 presidential elections, instead advancing his own rival candidacy. Although he accepted participating in the NUPES alliance, he has retained a critical “maverick” approach, even if it has meant upsetting allies. Roussel notably criticized the NUPES’s parliamentary campaign as insufficiently focused on rural areas, denounced “the welfarist left” and — in a move that stunned allies — declared that the Communist Party was open to participating in President Macron’s proposed national unity government, before walking back on his statement. Roussel faces a challenge from party members more sympathetic to the NUPES, yet with 82 percent of Communist members having voted for his platform in late January, his reelection in April seems a foregone conclusion. If reelected, this would mark, in all likelihood, a continuation of an ambiguous backing of the NUPES, limited to a purely electoral dimension.

Although internal in nature, the ramifications of these congresses extend far beyond their respective party structures. The congresses forced party leaders to focus on internal matters, at the expense of the NUPES. Among the collateral damage of these internal party contests is the so-called Parliament of the NUPES. Created ahead of the 2022 elections, this parliament (an unofficial assembly, not elected by the public) gathered not only representatives from the different parties of the coalition but also union representatives, leaders of nonprofits, and prominent figures from the cultural and scientific world. Among its many objectives, it aspired to debate and solve persistent disagreements within the coalition and foster “a common political culture.” After an enthusiastic launch in June 2022, “there has been nothing since the parliamentary elections, except one meeting in October,” regrets a party official familiar with the workings of the Parliament of the NUPES. “In October there was a desire to reboot the parliament,” they explained, “but then the party congresses came in the way, putting the parliament on standby.”

European Contest

Upcoming elections have also constituted a source of acrimony within the NUPES, with the coalition bitterly divided over whether they should join forces in the future. While the various components of the NUPES agreed to rally behind Mélenchon in the parliamentary elections following his strong showing in the presidential contest last spring, France Insoumise’s leading role is more contested when it comes to local and European elections, in which this party has previously performed poorly. As the 2024 European elections approach, talks of creating a common NUPES list have exacerbated tensions within the coalition. Forming such a list gathering candidates from the different components of the NUPES would result in an amalgamation of parties with widely varying views on the European Union — on one side, the more Euroskeptic France Insoumise and Communist Party, and, on the other, Green and Socialist parties enthused by the idea of further EU integration. The parties partly overcame these divergences during the parliamentary elections by agreeing to a joint program that ambiguously declared that some components of the NUPES favored disobedience of EU rules, while others simply wished to desist from them temporarily. While the lack of a detailed and truly common stance on the EU could easily be overlooked during the 2022 contest for France’s National Assembly, the European elections risk thrusting such disagreements into the limelight. Furthermore, unlike French parliamentary elections, which use a majority runoff system — incentivizing parties to join in coalitions — European elections rely on a proportional system, meaning the different components of the NUPES would derive little benefit from joining forces in a common list.

Together, these factors have pushed a key ally of the France Insoumise, the Green Party, to repudiate the idea of a common NUPES list in favor of separate ones. Replying to France Insoumise’s repeated calls to form a common list, the newly elected secretary of the Green Party, Marine Tondelier, firmly and decisively rejected the proposal. “[Greens] can discuss many things whenever [France Insoumise] wants to, but for the European elections, it’s no,” insisted Tondelier, “and this is the last time I’m going to say it.” Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Socialist Party, also voiced opposition to the idea of a common list, in part to pacify tensions with anti-NUPES party members.

The consequences of having different left-wing lists remain unclear. “It would be politically interesting to have a common list,” argued an official from La France Insoumise, “and at the same time, taking into account the voting system, it wouldn’t be that bad [to have separate lists] since the EU is such a divisive topic.” Indeed, from an electoral sense, separate lists may be beneficial to the Left: because a NUPES list implies taking a common stance on the EU, it risks alienating either left-wing Euroskeptics or left-wing Europhiles. “Ultimately, separate lists might allow us to have more political weight than with a common list, which would have a very weak mobilizing effect on the electorate,” summed up the official. “However, [with separate lists] there will likely be attacks between the different left-wing lists in order to differentiate themselves from each other,” they acknowledged. The specter of renewed infighting within the French left looms large, threatening the foundations of an already-weakened NUPES.

Mélenchon’s Role

Once the champion of the NUPES, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, former leader of the France Insoumise, has increasingly become a source of friction for the left-wing coalition. Despite having left elected office, Mélenchon has remained politically active and highly influential within his party. His controversial stances, such as his past leniency toward Vladimir Putin or his recent statement that, in reference to Taiwan, “the Chinese will solve the problem between themselves,” have put France Insoumise’s allies in a bind. Most recent, Mélenchon’s reaction to the revelations that party coordinator Adrien Quatennens had abused his wife drew fierce criticism. In an initial statement, Mélenchon, without any mention of the victim, expressed support for his mentee, lauding his “dignity” and “courage” for stepping down from his role as coordinator — a reaction denounced as minimizing violence against women by several NUPES elected officials.

After Quatennens pleaded guilty and was handed a suspended four-month prison sentence, leaders of the Communist, Green, and Socialist parties, joined by certain officials from La France Insoumise, argued that Quatennens ought to resign. However, France Insoumise merely suspended him, provoking the ire of its NUPES allies. In an op-ed, more than a thousand members of La France Insoumise and of the NUPES decried the decision as incompatible with feminist values and reiterated calls for his resignation and exclusion from the party. Testimonies indicate that many elected officials of France Insoumise, including the head of its parliamentary group, were pressured by Mélenchon not to exclude Quatennens. The recent reorganization of France Insoumise, which rewarded Mélenchon loyalists while pushing aside other key figures, further highlights the flaws of the party’s decision-making process.

At a time when the NUPES seems mired in internal party conflicts, its past accomplishments can easily be overlooked. The presidency of the National Assembly’s powerful committee on finances, traditionally given to the largest opposition group, was conferred on a member of France Insoumise thanks to a coalition of NUPES officials who coordinated to defeat the rival far-right candidate. The NUPES also helped unite efforts to bring the issue of windfall taxes into the public debate. Needless to say, if it had not been for the NUPES and its joint candidates throughout all French constituencies, there would not be as many left-wing members of Parliament.

The magnitude of the recent demonstrations against President Macron’s plan to raise the pension age signals a growing discontent with the political status quo. A united NUPES would be well positioned to capitalize on this discontent to mobilize its electorate and secure future political wins. But a fragmented NUPES would leave a vacuum enabling the far right to position themselves as the main opposition party. At a time when Marine Le Pen rides high in the polls and Macron seeks to further undermine the French welfare model, the NUPES can not only act as a powerful bulwark against neoliberalism and xenophobia — it can also hold the promise of future victories for the Left.