Jeff Apter quantifies a major breakthrough for the French left – but also the extreme right
A political tsunami is changing the face of French politics with the strong emergence of a united anti-austerity left. This is apparent just weeks after the re-election as President of Emmanuel Macron, backed by his extreme centre LaREM party over Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Rally (RN). The RN was founded in 1972 as the Front National by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen until he handed over the family firm to his daughter in 2011.
In a repeat of the 2017 duel, the five-year Presidential election resulted in a record low turnout (47.5%). This was the latest in a long string of election avoidance in France and remains a major problem. Macron, claiming to represent ‘both left and right’ was elected against far right leader Marine Le Pen who achieved a worrying 41.5% of the vote, the highest ever percentage vote for a far right candidate. Macron lost two million votes, while Le Pen picked up 2.5m. As in 2017, the Socialist Party (PS) and the right-wing Les Républicains (LR), the two longstanding parties of government again failed to qualify for the run-off.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI, France Unbowed) gained votes and came third with 22% of the vote and run-off support from other first round left and green presidential candidates, including the French Communist Party (PCF), the EE-LV green alliance and the PS. This set the stage for the legislative elections with the formation of NUPES, the New Ecological and Social Popular Union, to fight the legislative elections in 500 of the 577 constituencies.
The four NUPES parties together agreed to present single candidates in the first round on its anti-austerity manifesto for “fundamental changes in society” and to tackle the cost of living crisis. This notably included raising the minimum wage to 1, 500 euros, returning the age of retirement to 60, freezing prices on basic necessities, ecological planning with job creation and an updated French constitution to fight inequality. Also included in the NUPES basic plan is reforms of the health and education systems, a ban on further tax breaks for the richest and boosting public services.
However, while the PS voted 62% to join NUPES, in a special conference, several national and local barons, including former French President François Hollande and two of his former prime ministers, strongly rejected the NUPES programme as “unworkable”. In 2017 the PS government and its green allies lost power with Hollande encouraging the then little known Macron, who had never been elected to political office, to stand for election as President. He won while the left-wing PS candidate attracted just 6% of the vote.
Some PS elements are considering convening a conference to prevent what they call the PS’s “liquidation”. There has been much anti-Mélenchon feeling in the PS. As a member for 30 years and a former education minister, he left the party in 2008 believing it had become too “neo-liberal” and “social democratic.” He then founded the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) and in 2014 launched LFI. The PS backed many non-NUPES candidates in the 2022 legislative election, with little success. The PS national committee last week reacted saying it is suspending temporarily 79 “dissident” members for standing against NUPES candidates.
The legislative election largely became a three-horse race between firstly, the four-party NUPES, secondly, Ensemble (Together) – an alliance of Macron’s Renaissance party (formerly LaREM) and its right of centre party ally Modem and Horizons, a new party formed by Edouard Philippe Macron’s former prime minister and ally; and thirdly, Le Pen’s RN.
All four NUPES parties now have enhanced independent groups in Parliament that work together on the main questions. LFI won 75 seats, up from 17 in the outgoing legislature, the PS has 28 seats (no change) and the PCF and allies group 22 seats, up from 16. The ecologists won 23 seats after losing its whole group when PS President François Hollande lost his absolute majority and EE-LV its entire group in the 2017 election.
Macron’s Ensemble coalition won 250 seats, a loss of 102 MPs – 39 seats short of the 289 necessary for an absolute majority in the 577-seat National Assembly. It was the first time since 2002 that a recently elected President failed to secure an absolute majority in Parliament. This is causing a major headache for Macron, who is confronted by the main opposition NUPES with 151 seats and RN with a spectacular 89 seats – a huge gain even for Le Pen from eight representatives in the outgoing Parliament. The traditional right-wing Les Républicains suffered a massive loss of 75 parliamentarians, reducing its tally 59 seats.
While the left becomes the main opposition to Macron’s neo-liberal policies, NUPES must confront the realities that pushed parts of neglected rural France into the growing influence of the RN which has now put down roots in corners of France that have never elected extreme right-wing representatives.
NUPES, as the main parliamentary opposition to Macron, has already begun to shift the centre of gravity of French politics. It is committed to fight against Macron’s anti-social agenda and reject his overtures for a government of national unity while confronting the realities of the rise of the extreme right. Mathilde Panot, president of LFI’s parliamentary group said the National Assembly will now come alive and no longer be a doormat for the President.
Jeff Apter, a Labour Party member in Islington North, is a freelance journalist working as a correspondent in France.
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