The Guardian’s look at the newly united French left: beyond the fragments | Editorial
In 1936, during the first heady months of the new government of the French Popular Front, a Parisian teacher forged the expression that symbolized the hopes invested in him. ” Everything is possible ! » (Anything is possible) wrote Marceau Pivert in an editorial in the newspaper of the Socialist Party at the time. As fascism overwhelmed the continent, this proved to be a tragically overly optimistic assessment. Divided over how to respond to the threat, by 1938 the left-wing coalition of socialists and communists governing the country had collapsed.
The challenges facing contemporary French people pale in comparison. But they also have to do with issues of unity – or lack thereof – and the growing popularity of the modern far right. The absence of a united front in the recent presidential race led once again to a disheartening defeat and, in the case of Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo, to outright humiliation. Representative of the traditional center-left party, Ms. Hidalgo obtained only 1.75%. The Greens did slightly better (4.6%), but only the most radical candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, made a fight of it. Campaigning on a far-left and distinctly Eurosceptic platform, Mr Mélenchon nearly matched Marine Le Pen in the first round. Some more moderate supporters voted for him as the only leftist candidate with a realistic chance of success.
Something had to be done after the latest disappointment – and was done surprisingly quickly. Ahead of the legislative elections next month, a new “popular union” was agreed, which will present a joint list of left-wing candidates. The lion’s share of the seats will be contested by Mr Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise party, with Green and Socialist candidates fighting most of the others. Current polls suggest that the New People’s Ecological and Social Union (Nupes) has a good chance to become the main opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist bloc in the National Assembly.
In a political landscape divided almost equally between left, center and right, the consolidation of the progressive vote is long overdue. But this fragile coalition was formed almost entirely on Mr. Mélenchon’s terms. In Paris, for example, which has remained a Socialist stronghold, Ms. Hidalgo’s colleagues will only be allowed to run for two of the 20 seats. Socialist figures, such as former French President François Hollande, have expressed consternation to a common agenda that pledges to ignore Brussels rules on debt and deficits. Other Policies include reintroduction of the wealth tax abolished under Mr Macron’s first term, lowering the retirement age to 60 and freezing prices to deal with the cost of living crisis.
It is a radical program, some of which contradicts what the centre-left campaigned for only a few weeks ago. With his rivals having performed so poorly, Mr Mélenchon has the Socialists and Greens over a barrel as they seek to salvage something from the wreckage. But it will take impressive diplomatic skills to hold the new group together, and it is not sure that the leader of La France Insoumise has them. Mr. Mélenchon is a charismatic but polarizing figure, whose euroscepticism and hostility to French NATO membership may be hard for his new allies to swallow.
Divisions may therefore be concealed rather than resolved, but popular unity is a positive development nonetheless. The campaign for the presidential election has been characterized by a strong drift to the right, particularly with regard to race and immigration. While the double economic and environmental crisis is confronted, French democracy needs a left that can make its progressive voice heard in the public square. It may be a tough journey ahead, but a necessary first step has been taken to get there.