Dispatch

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The French Left Can’t Find the Right Path

With elections looming, France’s historically strong leftists are in utter disarray—again.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech.
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech.
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the General Electric Steam Power system main production site for its nuclear turbine systems in Belfort, France, on Feb. 10. JEAN-FRANCOIS BADIAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS—With presidential elections fast approaching, France’s left is again in tatters. Half a dozen competing candidates—totaling little more than one-quarter of the vote, according to the latest surveys—are currently vying for the same, shrinking electorate. With none of the left-wing candidates polling at more than 10 percent, their chances of reaching the two-person runoff in April’s presidential vote are dismal. 

French progressive voices are being drowned out in a campaign that’s been dominated by incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who hasn’t even officially declared his candidacy yet but is widely expected to seek reelection, and various right-wing contenders. The slide into irrelevance is a dramatic shift for a country that has long been accustomed to Social Democrats and conservatives alternating the top job, with two Socialist presidents elected since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The left’s seeming inability to find a way back into government in France, one of the European Union’s biggest and most important countries, also raises questions about the consequences for Europe at a time of fierce internal debates over the bloc’s fiscal soul, the balance between EU and national laws, and how to deal with immigration. 

PARIS—With presidential elections fast approaching, France’s left is again in tatters. Half a dozen competing candidates—totaling little more than one-quarter of the vote, according to the latest surveysare currently vying for the same, shrinking electorate. With none of the left-wing candidates polling at more than 10 percent, their chances of reaching the two-person runoff in April’s presidential vote are dismal. 

French progressive voices are being drowned out in a campaign that’s been dominated by incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who hasn’t even officially declared his candidacy yet but is widely expected to seek reelection, and various right-wing contenders. The slide into irrelevance is a dramatic shift for a country that has long been accustomed to Social Democrats and conservatives alternating the top job, with two Socialist presidents elected since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The left’s seeming inability to find a way back into government in France, one of the European Union’s biggest and most important countries, also raises questions about the consequences for Europe at a time of fierce internal debates over the bloc’s fiscal soul, the balance between EU and national laws, and how to deal with immigration. 

The French left never recovered from the blow it received in 2017 when Macron, whose centrist pitch attracted scores of moderate left-wingers, hurt the Socialist Party and left the progressive camp weakened and divided. 

“Macron’s ‘social liberalism’ sucked the blood out of the left,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist from Sciences Po university in Paris. 

Much like the shipwrecked survivors painted by Théodore Géricault, the disaster left French progressive leaders adrift and trapped in their internal fighting. “For five years, the left has been trying to settle its internal scores over the reasons for Emmanuel Macron’s election,” said Guillaume Lacroix, president of the Radical Party of the Left. “For five years, we have been prisoners of a debate about what happened, a debate about the past.”

The list of left-wing presidential hopefuls includes radical firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Greens’ Yannick Jadot, French Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel, former justice minister Christiane Taubira, and Socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo. In late January, the “people’s primary,” an online vote organized by militants in a bid to select a common candidate, failed to bring much needed unity. Losing contenders refused to rally behind Taubira—a left-wing icon who easily secured the highest ranking from the nearly 400,000 participants in the poll.

To the people of the left, “these divisions appear as totally petty given the serious problems the French society is facing,” said Samuel Grzybowski, a spokesperson of the people’s primary who now backs Taubira. But candidates “prefer preserving a strong role for themselves, with everyone losing the presidential election separately, to having a less central role as part of a coalition capable of winning,” he said. According to a survey published last month, more than one-third of left-wing respondents said they won’t turn up on election day, against only 8 percent of Macron supporters.

The French left’s deep crisis is bucking a generally positive trend for progressives in Europe. Over the past months, Social Democratic parties won national elections in Germany and Portugal. Socialists have been in power in Spain since 2018; and in Italy, despite the rise of right-wing populists, such as Lega Nord and Brothers of Italy, the center-left Democratic Party is currently topping the polls.

But France has become barren soil for leftist parties. “By and large, the public opinion’s center of gravity at the moment is on the right,” Rouban said. Although hostility toward migrants remains lower than in the 1980s and 1990s, a 2021 Sciences Po study found that the French electorate was notably more conservative on immigration and capital punishment than a decade ago.

The French left has lost large chunks of the working class to the far right or abstentionism, as has other Western countries in recent decades. But Macron has also siphoned off many of the highly educated voters that elsewhere are the left’s core. Squeezed between Macron and the far right, which entices the working class with a mix of nativism and social spending measures, the French left is struggling to find its footing. Another left-wing presidential candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, saw his bid flame out after he proposed to block private money transfers to countries that do not take back their undocumented immigrants. The announcement, which echoed the platforms of far-right populists such as Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, backfired spectacularly. Montebourg withdrew from the campaign in January, after plateauing at 1 percent in the polls.

In contrast, the other candidates are trying to showcase their left-wing pedigrees by proposing flashy—and costly—handouts to win back the hearts and minds of the disadvantaged. Taubira has pledged up to 20,000 euros to help qualifying young people start new businesses; Jadot proposes a yearly “energy check” for some 6 million households. All agree on hiking taxes on big fortunes and raising the minimum wage.

But in 2017, Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon’s proposal of a “universal income” didn’t save him from an electoral debacle—he obtained a dismal 6 percent, the worst score ever for the Socialist party in its current form. Almost half of those who had voted Socialist in the previous election switched to pro-business newcomer Macron. 

One big shift that’s become apparent over the last decade: Swing voters who don’t identify as left- or right-wing have grown more liberal on the economy amid general skepticism about the very recipes that laid the foundations for the country’s post-war boom. The redistributive politics that tamed economic inequality after World War II are now framed as radical and unrealistic.

“It’s an ideological battle that we have partly lost,” said Jean-François Debat, the Socialist mayor of Bourg-en-Bresse in eastern France and an ally of Hidalgo. “Growing economic liberalism has made the tools of social democracy more necessary but sometimes harder to implement.”

As in other Western countries, the French electorate is grappling with a crisis of confidence. French voters’ trust in political parties in France has sunk since the late 1990s, becoming one of the lowest in Europe. This is making life particularly hard for parties whose pitch revolves around big government and generous public spending. At the same time, broadcasters give more space to Macron and far-right candidates, said Amory Gethin, a researcher at the Paris School of Economics. “The TV and the media are offering a boulevard to the far right,” he said. 

France can boast a solid left-wing tradition. In 1871, in the wake of a disastrous war against Prussia, the Paris Commune sought to implement direct democracy in the French capital before being crushed in a bloodbath by counterrevolutionary forces. In the mid-1930s, the Popular Front coalition improved the lives of millions of workers with measures such as paid vacations and a 40-hour work week. In the 1980s, in stark contrast with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s ultra-liberalism, the French put socialist François Mitterrand in the Élysée Palace—twice.

Even today, French left-wing attitudes are anything but dead. The French Revolution ingrained an enduring hostility toward social privilege that can still be felt in the country’s cities, with Old Regime palaces and gardens turned into public museums and parks. Despite some mood swings detected by polls, “the French remain very attached to public services and safety nets,” Rouban said.

Yet the tides of history aren’t lifting any boats for today’s French left. Some cling to a comeback, noting that almost half of the people haven’t made up their minds on how they will vote in April. Left-wing hopefuls may yet join forces; talks took place recently between Taubira and Jadot, but the campaigns are reportedly far from any deal. 

But left-wing candidates’ reluctance to recreate a united front suggests they prefer to squabble on the raft rather than right it.

“The ship has sunk,” Rouban said, and the various left-wing leaders “are holding onto their separate lifeboats.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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