OPINION: Why the Left in France has declined into electoral irrelevance

Current opinion polls for the 2022 French presidential election suggest defeat and humiliation lie ahead for the Left in France. John Lichfield examines just what's gone wrong for the Left.

Paris mayor and candidate for the presidential election Anne Hidalgo
Paris mayor and candidate for the presidential election Anne Hidalgo attends a debate gathering European socialist leaders on the "Great Shift" at the Maison de la Mutualite venue in Paris on November 12, 2021. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

In the 2012 presidential election, almost half of French voters –  43.75 percent – voted for left and green candidates in the first round. Two weeks later France elected a Socialist President, François Hollande.

A decade later, the French Left has imploded. No left or green candidate is attracting more than 10% of the vote in polling before the first round of next April’s election. None of them seems likely to make the top four, let alone reach the top two places and reach Round Two.

The French Left still has lots of tribes and lots of candidates – seven, including two different flavours of Trotskyist. What the Left lacks is voters. If you believe the most recent opinion polls, only around 25 percent of French adults plan to vote for a left-wing or green candidate on April 10th.

And yet and yet…

If even two-thirds of those voters united behind one candidate, the Left would be challenging for a place in the run-off on 24 April. A unified campaign of the Left could, in theory, transform an election which appears doomed at present to be fought only on the right and centre of the battlefield.

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The Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has belatedly found the calculator app on her mobile phone. From her commanding position with 3 percent of the first round vote, she has appealed for a primary election to choose a single candidate of the Left (having previously evaded a primary of her own party).

Her suggestion has been welcomed by the dissident Eurosceptic Socialist and former industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg (who had originally mocked the idea of a Big Left primary). He came around to the idea a few weeks ago when his own potential score settled at roughly 1 percent.

Most of the other left-wing candidates have dismissed the idea. (No one asked the two Trotskyists, who have a combined vote of 2.5 percent).

The radical Left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon  (roughly 10 percent support at present), the Green candidate Yves Jadot (6 percent) and the Communist candidate Fabien Roussel (2 percent) all said broadly the same thing. “There is no need for a primary and a unified candidate of the Left. All we need is for everyone to swing behind me.”

Here is the first clue to the demise of the Left. All candidates speak passionately of the desperate need for a change from the wicked, Macronist Centre and the existential threat from the Far Right. Finally, all of them care more about promoting their personal ambitions or protecting their ideological or party brands.

Put another way, there is no such thing as The Left in France anymore. There is a collection of incompatible ideologies. With the decline of the Parti Socialiste, there is no longer a powerful and pragmatic  centre-left party to channel a left-of centre programme for government.

In Germany, the Social Democrats and Greens have just taken power as part of a three-way coalition in Germany. In Britain,  Labour is topping the polls.

Why has the Left declined into electoral irrelevance in a France, where the state still plays a bigger part in the economy  than most other EU or developed nations?

I would offer three explanations.

Partly it is Emmanuel Macron’s doing.

At the last election, Macron took a big chunk of the moderate centre-left vote. Almost half the voters who had gone with Hollande in the first round in 2012 voted for Macron in 2017. Many have since changed their mind about him. Many have not.

Macron currently has 23 to 25% of the first round vote next year. Reading the small print of the polls, I would say that 10 of those percentage points are centrist, pro-Europeans who previously voted for the centre-left and mostly for the Parti Socialiste.

Secondly, current opinion polls are based on the views of the just over half of electorate who are willing to express an opinion (something that pollsters usually advertise only in the small print). I suspect that the shy or disgruntled vote is heavily concentrated on the Left.

That suggests, however, that none of a wide range of left and green candidates available has captured the imagination of even their own target audience. The Socialists and Greens did well enough in the municipal and regional elections this year and last. They have failed to produce a convincing national programme or a charismatic national candidate.

Thirdly, the broad Left (including the Greens) is now largely an educated, middle class and urban phenomenon (which explains their success in big cities, like Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux). In the first round of the last presidential election, 42% of blue-collar voters cast ballots for Marine Le Pen and other far-right candidates. The total left-wing share of the first round blue-collar vote was 33%.

Something similar can be seen in Britain but there the working class have migrated to the Tories. In both countries, it has become harder for a middle-class, urban and quarrelsome Left to have a dominant, pragmatic ideology or a respected, single leader.

In France that is unlikely to change soon.

There is already a Popular Primary of the Left planned next month – an independent initiative by left-leaning academics and activists who foresaw the present problem.

All the candidates listed above will be included in an on-line vote on January  – whether they agree or not. Over 250,000 people have signed up to take part, double the number involved in the centre-right primary this month.

Hidalgo says that she is ready to go along with this idea, rather than try to create a new primary structure.

Other candidates, as yet undeclared, may join in. Christiane Taubira, the former Socialist justice minister, is said to be considering her options.

I once spent a day travelling with Ms Taubira when she was a minister. She is an admirable woman and an inspiring public speaker. But she is a dreamer, rather than a thinker. In any case, the last thing the French Left needs is yet another candidate.

Here are three easy predictions. Whatever the result of the Popular Primary next month, there will be no single champion of the Left on April 10th and there will be no left-wing candidate in Round Two on April 27th.

All the same, whether they like it or not, the 30% or so of residual left-wing voters will get to pick the next President. They will hold the casting votes between a candidate that they hate and one that they merely detest.

Member comments

  1. Over several years the problem for our French neighbours is Mélenchon. (Who reminds me of McCluskey every time I see him or hear him speak, for me, not a good thing.)
    And, as John says, ‘ Finally, all of them care more about promoting their personal ambitions or protecting their ideological or party brands.’ Much like our own UK Magic Grandpa. A mix of purity and non-electability. The intellectual left went years ago. Together with the associated cow-catcher moustaches of the hardcore left. (Although there will be many still sporting these relics – oh Brassens how you are missed).
    If I had a vote in France, I would be hard-pressed. It will be interesting in both UK and France to see who lends votes to whom.

  2. The article is totally flawed:

    The socialists are not left – they are converted to neoliberalism.
    The greens are not left – they have always been neoliberal.
    Melenchon is not really even true left – he was a socialist minister .

    That leaves only the real left – and how much space to you see given to their ideas in the mainstream media? Not much. Lol, what has the Local ever given them but tons of merde upon their rare mention, such as this one. The article even admits the centre-left vote is getting 25% of intentions, but what discussion is made of them? Not much, but tons of “xenophobia as problem, or solution” coverage, certainly.

    Of course this article talks about “dreamers” on the left, when it is the neoliberals who are “dreamers” – their policies keep failing to produce economic growth for anyone but the upper class. Don’t read that too often, except in the economic data, of course.

  3. “All the same, whether they like it or not, the 30% or so of residual left-wing voters will get to pick the next President.” And this “residual left-wing voter” will definitely not come to Macron’s rescue whoever his opponent might be in the second round. I quite enthusiastically cast my vote for him in both ballots in 2017, thinking to be voting for a Rocard 2.0… and we got 1970s Pompidou. Classic, crypto-thatcherite, 20th Century supply-side economics and right-wing rhetoric aimed at his core electorate, provincial well-off retirees: unemployed people are lazy, companies and big agriculture and the nuclear industry are our heroes and should have all the rights, the police are never wrong, cannabis is bad and should be banned forever, whilst wine is not alcohol (actual quote by the Agriculture minister!). Macron is making a big mistake by spitting on his former left-wing voters and what remains of the left: these 10-15 % of the electorate that might have voted for him will hang him out to dry in front of Le Pen or Pécresse. And then, as my mother puts it, il n’aura que ses yeux pour pleurer. Come what may, the real power shift will take place in the legislative elections in June 2022.

  4. I don’t understand why these commentaries never manage to mention the extreme anti-Muslim, Islamophobic politics of the Center and Right, nor the ineffective responses of the Left? Where are the people in France who care about racism? Is anybody bothered by the loss of free speech embodied in the closing down of organizations without any process?

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OPINION: Macron’s speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In the wake of Emmanuel Macron's (unusually brief) speech to the nation and an orgy of blame and speculation, John Lichfield takes a look at how the turbulent months ahead are likely to play out in France.

OPINION: Macron's speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In eight minutes on Wednesday evening, we saw the best of Emmanuel Macron and the worst of Emmanuel Macron. In his TV address to the nation, he was confident; he was solemn; above all he was brief.

He accepted that the hung parliament elected last Sunday reflected “deep divisions” in the country. He said that France  must “learn to govern differently…We must build new compromises…based on dialogue, open-mindedness and respect”.

But he failed to admit any share of responsibility in the impasse which voters have created. He said that he still had a “clear mandate” from his Presidential victory in April. He called for compromise but said that some of his own promises – no new taxes, no increased debt – were untouchable.

Hear more analysis from John and The Local team in our Talking France podcast.

In April, Macron acknowledged that he had won partly through the votes of people who disliked him but feared Marine Le Pen more. He promised to govern with them in mind. He hasn’t.

His alliance drifted through the parliamentary campaign without strongly defending Macron’s presidential programme, let alone coming up with new ideas to appease the voters, of Right or Left, who supported him on April 24th by default.

That is not the only reason for the mess that France is now in. Other factors played a part: voter fatigue; inflation; the perpetual French instinct to demand “change” but resist all changes; a campaign which largely ignored the gathering threats in the world outside.

France now finds itself, by accident, in a world which the present generation of French politicians have never known – a German, Italian, Spanish or Belgian world of coalitions, compromise and shifting alliances.

This was the world – a world of revolving-door governments –  which Charles de Gaulle devised the Presidency-dominated Fifth Republic to replace. Some argue that the return of parliamentary power will be A Good Thing.

It will generate more profound political debate and a culture of constructive compromise. I doubt it. The new National Assembly – with nine political groups, including large blocs from the Hard Left and Far Right – will be more bear-pit than Periclean Athens.

There has been a witch-hunt going on in the French media about who is “responsible” for the fact that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National leaped from 8 seats to 89 in the new Assembly.

READ ALSO Is there really a ‘voter surge’ to the far-right in France?

The Left, both in France and abroad, has blamed President Macron’s Ensemble! alliance for failing to give clear advice to its supporters last Sunday to vote for the Left in two-way, second round contests with Lepennist candidates. As a result, they say Le Pen won at least 30 seats which might have gone to the Left-Green alliance, Nupes.

They fail to point out – and the French media has only belatedly started to point out – that exactly the same thing happened, only more so, with those Left voters who faced second round races between Macron and Le Pen candidates. Almost 60 percent of the Far Right victories – 53 – came in two-way contests  between the Rassemblement National and Macron’s Ensemble! alliance.

Exit polls vary but all of them suggest that voters of the Left  abstained, or even voted for Le Pen candidates, to “screw Macron” more than Macron voters abstained or voted Le Pen to “screw” the Left.

In effect, the Macron alliance and the Left-Green alliance shot themselves collectively in the feet by abandoning the so-called Republican Front against Le Pen. Each might have won at least 30 extra seats if both had voted for one another. The Macron alliance might even have just scraped a majority – which is presumably what Left-Green voters wanted to prevent.

A similar hue and cry is in progress against the Macron camp for its alleged willingness to work with Le Pen and her deputies in the new parliament. There has been some loose talk by some Macron allies. Most senior Macron lieutenants have ruled out deals or alliances with the Far Right bloc.

But what of Macron himself, who asked Marine Le Pen when they met on Tuesday whether she would contemplate joining a government of national unity? He asked the same of most of the party-leaders he met.

All refused and as Macron said in his eight-minute address, the idea is impractical and unjustified.

Why raise it at all then? Especially with Le Pen?

Partly, I think, because Macron believes that as President of the Republic he cannot pretend that the 89 Far Right deputies do not exist. Partly, I believe that Macron is playing a would-be clever waiting game.

He sees no real prospect of a long-term alliance with the 64 centre-right deputies. He expects in the short term to conduct  urgent business – including a new anti-inflation package  -through ad hoc alliances with the centre-right and moderate Left.

In the longer term, he believes (and maybe hopes) that such cooperation is doomed to fail. He wants to be seen to have given all combinations of parliamentary peace a chance before he “declares war” and calls a new legislative election next year.

Hence last night’s message. What are all the groups in parliament – including the three Macron-supporting ones – prepared to concede to allow the vital business of government to continue?

It might have been smarter politics if Macron had said, more clearly, that he also is ready to make concessions and listen to other people’s ideas.