A new Popular Front?

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.

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* 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%.

7 thoughts on “A new Popular Front?

  1. This alignment may not hold together, but if it does hold together it may contribute to creating the climate for a left united behind a single candidate in the 2027 presidential election. I would be surprised if that has not been considered by at least some of the participants. Given the results of the 2022 election, it would not be unreasonable to calculate that a left united behind a single candidate would have reasonable prospects in 2027.

    Going a little beyond that, it would not surprise me if Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his supporters think that his personal name recognition and support base would give him a good chance of being that single candidate (with Socialist and other support at least notionally committed to that candidature), while many Socialists calculate that their continuing substantial organisational base would give them a good chance of getting a Socialist in as that single candidate (with other leftists then at least notionally committed to that candidature).

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    1. Yes, I think everyone is already looking ahead to 2027 with no Macron on the ballot paper. And as with many political agreements, each side probably expects that it can get the upper hand in the subsequent manoeuvring.

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  2. As I’ve noted before, there’s a fair bit of both-sidesism in your discussion of French politics. I don’t like Melenchon all that much, because of his nostalgic nationalism, but there’s nothing to justify treating him as a “far left” mirror of the far right, as represented by Le Pen. And the terms of the agreement have modified his most objectionable positions eg wrt the EU. (Admittedly, Le Pen has also given ground on this point. Brexit has been a great lesson for Eurosceptics).

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    1. Well, it’d be both-sidesism if I was suggesting that there’s morally (in a broad sense) nothing to choose between National Rally & LFI. But that’s not my position – if Mélenchon had made the runoff against Le Pen I would have supported him without hesitation. Nonetheless, there’s clearly at least a rough symmetry there; you have a well-established and now becalmed centre-right and centre-left, representing a broad liberal-democratic consensus, with apparently more dynamic forces now strong on their more extreme flanks. And Mélenchon & Le Pen obviously share large elements of their outlook: they’re both “populist” in the academic sense, with a narrative of authenticity & conspiratorial thinking, and they’re both basically dirigiste & Eurosceptic.

      For historical reasons there’s much more connection between far left & centre-left than there is between far right & centre-right, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that centre-left & centre-right face basically the same sort of choices. That doesn’t commit you to making the same moral evaluation on both sides (as I don’t), but I don’t think you can deny the descriptive similarity.

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  3. Also, your view that the electorate doesn’t want interventionism could do with some justification. As far as I can tell, market liberalism has never been more than a minority view in France. Macron didn’t say much about it before winning the first time, and provoked the Gilets Jaunes (who had, if not general support, at least widespread sympathy) when he pushed it in office.

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    1. I didn’t actually say the electorate doesn’t want interventionism (clearly it does in some areas), just that there was little evidence that it was behind Mélenchon’s program. You’re quite right that liberalism has generally been a minority view, but its opponents have been (and are) divided between left & right; the yellow shirts mostly seemed to come (at least initially) from the far right, and they won’t support Mélenchon because he doesn’t want to deport all the dark-skinned folks.

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