The New Popular Front Can Win in France

According to polls for France’s snap election, the far right’s main opponent isn’t Emmanuel Macron but the left-wing New Popular Front. It has to rally working-class voters and show that the social damage of Macron’s rule can be undone.

More than 25,000 protesters are marching in Toulouse, France, on June 15, 2024 to protest against the far-right Rassemblement National ahead of upcoming elections to the French parliament. (Alain Pitton / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“The Rassemblement National reaching power is no longer inevitable” concludes the June 13 statement by the Nouveau Front Populaire, the left-wing alliance formed for the snap elections called by French president Emmanuel Macron. In the two-round contest this June 30 and July 7, it will confront two main rivals, namely the center-right bloc, led by Macron, and the far right. Thanks to the unity built in record time, the Left can win.

The call for early parliamentary elections, decided by Macron after Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National swept the European elections on June 9, has surely caused an earthquake in French politics. The unpopular president — whose candidates (on 14.5 percent) received under half the votes of Le Pen’s party (31.5 percent) in last Sunday’s vote — hoped that divisions on the Left would once again make him the only alternative to the far right. But he was wrong.

Faced with the risk of a far-right parliamentary majority and prime minister, the various left-wing and green forces reacted with unusual speed. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, the Parti Socialiste, the Greens, and the Communist Party had already run together in the 2022 parliamentary elections, obtaining second place overall and breaking Macron’s absolute majority. But since then, the Left had returned to its traditional fratricidal dynamics.

Pressured by street mobilizations calling for unity, these parties decided to “throw their resentment into the river,” as Mélenchon put it in his usual lyrical tones. Just a few days later, the Nouveau Front Populaire was born, with a common program and an agreement to distribute the constituencies among the different parties. In the election, 229 of the 577 seats will have candidates from France Insoumise, while there will be 175 runners from the Parti Socialiste, 92 from the Greens, and 50 from the Communist Party. Compared with the left-wing coalition formed for the 2022 parliamentary election, Mélenchon’s party lost some 131 candidacies. This rebalancing takes into account not only the current weight of each party in the National Assembly (where France Insoumise is the largest left-wing force) but also the results of the EU election, where the Parti Socialiste obtained 14.6 percent of the vote, and La France Insoumise slightly less than 10 percent.

The pact’s name refers to the historic left-wing alliance that governed France from 1936 while fascism was arriving in power in other European countries. The Popular Front, which achieved social conquests such as paid vacations, is a historical reference for the French left as important as the Commune or the 1789 Revolution.

Dreams of Victory

Opinion polls still put the Rassemblement National in first place, on around 31 percent, about three points ahead of the Nouveau Front Populaire. Ensemble (Macron’s party) is a further ten points behind, in what could be a truly catastrophic third place. The French electoral system is majoritarian, which means that in the July 7 runoff votes, in most constituencies a left-wing candidate will face a Rassemblement National candidate — leaving out the “Macronists.”

The Nouveau Front Populaire counts on the enthusiasm of the progressive voters, who finally see reasons for hope in the middle of an increasingly right-leaning political landscape. It also has the support of major unions, which have called for mobilizations against the far right and in support of the Nouveau Front Populaire, following the historical inspiration of 1936. Still fresh in the memory are the demonstrations and strikes that paralyzed France last year in protest against Macron’s pension reform, the biggest mobilizations in decades. One of the coalition’s flagship promises is abrogating Macron’s reform, immediately returning to retirement at age sixty-two, while also asserting “the aim of the right to a pension at age sixty.” By contrast, the Rassemblement National’s candidate for prime minister, Jordan Bardella, has backpedaled on his previous promise to repeal Macron’s unpopular reform, a move addressed to content business circles.

For once, it is the Right that is divided. Éric Ciotti, leader of Les Républicains — the traditional conservative force — has been expelled from his own party for attempting an alliance with the Rassemblement National. Reconquête, an even more radical far-right party than Le Pen’s, led by pundit Éric Zemmour, has also seen its candidate for the European elections jump ship and call the electors to vote for Rassemblement National.

All these factors have filled the Left with hope, but the result is uncertain. The rightward shift of Macron, who has just pushed through an immigration law copied from the far right, has for years aided the Rassemblement National’s “de-demonization” strategy. Part of the traditional right will now directly join Bardella’s camp, while others are at least ready to vote for him. Such is the case of François-Xavier Bellamy, Les Républicains’ top candidate for the European elections, who has stated that he would rather vote Rassemblement National than for the Left in the second-round contests on July 7. He illustrates how the Popular Front cannot expect the “anti-fascist” support of center-right parties in two-sided runoff votes. After years of French politics and society moving to the Right, many traditional conservative cadres and voters fear more a social democratic coalition that includes France Insoumise than Le Pen’s racist party.

The Left has achieved unity in record time, but there are still some obstacles, such as who would take up the government leadership in case of victory. Mélenchon, who will have the largest number of parliamentarians within the Popular Front, provokes strong rejection among the more centrist electorate, thus a consensus candidate is likely to be sought.

But even this debate seems secondary. The leaders of the Left seem focused on mobilizing the electorate to repeat the feat of 1936 and turn the foretold disaster of a far-right government into hope for a social and green shift in French politics. It’s a much-needed glimmer of hope in a Europe traumatized by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the far right.