The start of a French-style ‘For the Many, Not the Few’?

Jeff Apter reports from Paris on the French presidential election

On Sunday, France votes in the first round of its five-yearly presidential elections, by far the country’s most important national contest, amidst continuing major concerns regarding a further low turnout in recent French elections. This has been particularly acute since Emmanuel Macron, claiming to be ‘both left and right,’ won the presidency in the run-off against extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017.  More recently, turnout in the regional election in June 2021 reached an historic rock-bottom with only 33.3% of registered voters goinsg to the polls.

In 2017 for the first time, the candidates of both traditional parties of government, the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) party and the social democratic Socialist Party (PS), failed to reach the run-off. The PS got a dismal 6% after President François Hollande decided he would not seek re-election. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (LFI), also representing the French Communist Party (PCF), won 19.6% of the vote, huge for a non-PS left presidential candidate. Mélenchon’s vote increased from 11.1% in his first presidential election in 2012 when he was also supported by the PCF.

The ensuing parliamentary elections six weeks later resulted in an absolute majority for Macron’s recently formed La République En Marche (LaREM)party with 52% of its newly-elected MPs new to politics. It formed a government with MoDem (Democratic Movement), the traditional centre party. The right-wing LR party and allies formed four groups in opposition. Le Pen’s Front National, (now RN – National Rally) elected 11 MPs, four short of forming a parliamentary group. The PS collapsed to 29 MPs while EELV, its green allies, lost all its MPs and consequently its first-ever group. Meanwhile, LFI formed its first parliamentary group with 17 MPs and the PCF retained its 16 MPs. The three party groups co-operate in Parliament.

Since 2017, gradual left and green gains have continued in municipal, departmental (county), regional and European parliamentary elections with victories for agreed joint lists of LFI, PCF, PS, smaller socialist groups and the EELV coalition of green parties standing together. United lists in municipal elections won historic victories, snatching several large cities from the right wing, some for the first time ever, and increasing the number of elected left councillors and mayors of all the parties concerned.

Forward to April 2022. Four of the 12 presidential candidates are on the left: Jean-Luc Mélenchon (LFI) who also stood in 2012 and 2017; Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (PS), former MEP Yannick Jadot for the greens of EELV; and Fabien Roussel , leader of the French Communist Party, standing as the first PCF presidential candidate since 2007. Two Trotskyist candidates are also standing. The left and green parties’ dynamic campaigns, aimed at combatting Macron’s failure as president to level up, seek to inspire the French electorate to go out and vote against Macron’s austerity policies and stem any progress of the right and extreme right.

The left and greens are putting forward anti-austerity policies to try and reverse years of lack of public interest in the election process in the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and the worsening Ukraine/Russia situation. The French public is deeply concerned with the appearance of new Coronovirus variants and the rising number of cases continuing to put hospitals and public health workers under ever greater pressure.

Unions are conducting strikes and raising questions over Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age to 65, the massive rise in Big Pharma profits and under-investment in health, education and other sectors.

Higher food and fuel prices are affecting living standards with 15% of the population officially below the poverty line. The fight for wage rises and decent jobs is accompanied by opposition to privatisation of national rail and local buses.

Whatever happens in the first round, left parties and greens – and all those seeking progressive changes in government – would sink their differences and ask their electors to support the left/green candidate in the second round, if indeed one qualifies, on 24th April. An assessment of opinion poll results this week puts Mélenchon, who is fighting his third presidential contest, plus on paper the other left/green votes, at a level just below Macron and Le Pen but ahead of the right-wing LR’s Valérie Pecresse and the independent extreme right-wing Eric Zemmour.

A good accumulated left/green vote in the presidential election (Mélenchon garnered almost 20% in 2017) will encourage national and local negotiations to forge alliances for the June legislative elections. These will involve discussions between the various national and local left and green parties to retain all current PS, LFI and PCF seats in Parliament and choose candidates to fight LaREM, right-wing and extreme right candidates as a kind of ‘third round’ to the presidentials. Could a swing to the left in these circumstances be the start of a French-style ‘For the Many, Not the Few’?

Since a 1992 amendment to the French constitution that put the presidential elections before the legislatives six weeks later, for 30 years the elected president’s party has won a majority in Parliament. Whatever the result in the run-off this month, the left and greens are also fighting to elect a National Assembly that at last could be a genuine counter-balance to the newly elected president.

Jeff Apter, a Labour Party member in Islington North, is a freelance journalist working as a correspondent in France.

Image:  The French president Emmanuel Macron, Source: http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54617/photos,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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