In the mid-1930s, as fascist regimes dragged Europe towards war and genocide, the Soviet Union changed course. Instead of focusing their attacks mainly on rival left-wing parties, Stalin directed the Communist parties of the west to co-operate with other anti-fascist parties, both socialist and liberal, in defence of democracy.
Communist parties obediently followed the new line, and in both France and Spain they succeeded in building “Popular Fronts” that combined liberal, socialist and Communist parties in a single electoral alliance. They went on to win the elections of February 1936 in Spain and April/May 1936 in France.
Neither was a very happy experience. The Spanish Popular Front fell victim to a fascist putsch and ultimate defeat in civil war; its French counterpart fell apart after a year. But both showed that people from very different philosophical traditions could work together in a crisis, and they have served as an inspiration for a number of such movements since.
And now the French left is building a broad alliance ahead of next month’s legislative election. The four main left-of-centre parties, all of whom ran separate candidates in last month’s presidential election, have agreed to run as a single alliance, sharing the available seats between them: Socialists, Greens, Communists and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, Unsubmissive France (La France Insoumise, or LFI). The alliance is known as the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union, giving the slightly awkward French acronym NUPES.
LFI has been the prime mover in forming the alliance, and since Mélenchon did by far the best of the four in the presidential election, winning 22.0% (when the other three were all below 5%), it’s not surprising that LFI is getting to contest the lion’s share of the seats: 325, as against 100 for the Greens, 70 for the Socialists and 50 for the Communists. There are different views about what that means in terms of winnable seats, but it seems as if the proportions are roughly similar.
There’s nothing new about co-operation among the parties of the left, although this is the broadest formal alliance since the 1990s. But there’s a vital difference: on previous occasions the Socialists were the strongest force, and it was a matter of them co-opting the forces to their left (primarily the Communists). This time, the far-left LFI is in the driver’s seat, and the Socialists are the ones having to give up some of their separate identity.
Predictably, some of them are not happy. The alliance was opposed by Socialist presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo and by the most recent Socialist president and prime minister, François Hollande and Bernard Cazeneuve. But it was approved last week by the Socialists’ national council by a vote of 167 to 101, with 23 abstentions.
Given the strength of Emmanuel Macron’s party going into the legislative elections, and the danger that, with the collapse of both centre-left and centre-right, the far right might emerge as his main opposition, it’s easy to see why the Socialists and others on the left might agree to sink their considerable ideological differences with LFI. But there are also good reasons why the Socialists might object to being treated so much as the junior partner.
To see why, look at the last electoral test prior to the presidential election, namely last year’s regional elections. In half of the 12 mainland regions, Socialists, Greens and LFI all ran on separate tickets (the different voting system means that it’s not as damaging for parties to do this as it would be in the legislative election). By my calculation, the Socialist-led tickets won 21.6% of the first round vote; those headed by the Greens won 12.4% and the LFI ones just 6.6%. In two regions the Greens beat the Socialists, but in every one they both beat LFI.*
So you can understand the Socialists thinking that their underlying strength in the electorate is much greater than Hidalgo’s 1.7% score might suggest. And it’s not just about their meagre allocation of seats; joining NUPES also means going back on some of the party’s own key policy achievements and signing up instead to Mélenchon’s much more nationalist and interventionist program – with little evidence that that’s what the electorate wants.
Nonetheless, perception shapes reality. For the Socialists to stay aloof would mean being seen to torpedo left unity, and they would face the risk of being all but wiped out. This way, they may live to fight another day, and the combined left strength in the legislature may be enough to have a serious impact on Macron’s second-term agenda (although its hopes of being able to make Mélenchon prime minister would seem to be mostly fantasy).
The original Popular Fronts brought the far left within the fold of a broadly liberal and democratic alliance. Their newest incarnation is attempting to do the reverse: to force the centre-left to give up its liberal and democratic orientation and accept far-left leadership. The threat of dictatorship was enough to impel some unity in the 1930s; the threat of Macronism – and remember Macron himself started out in the Socialist Party – seems unlikely to be so powerful.
For the real problem the Socialists (and also the centre-right) face is that Macron has so much of the centre ground already sewn up. Consider the fate of the Radicals, the liberal third component of the French Popular Front of 1936. Declining rapidly after the Second World War, they eventually split, with one half (still called the Radical Party) now a junior partner in Macron’s coalition. The other half, the Left Radical Party (PRG), has for many years been a close ally of the Socialists but has refused to sign up to NUPES; it too will almost certainly end up in Macron’s camp, together with many of the dissident Socialists.
* What about the other six regions? In two of them the Socialists and Greens ran together, getting 16.2% of the vote as against 9.1% for LFI. In another two Greens and LFI ran together, getting 15.5% as against 19.8% for the Socialists. In the final two there was a united left ticket, averaging 18.0%.