Two years ago, a left-wing alliance denied Emmanuel Macron his majority in parliament. But today the forces of the Left are deeply divided — making Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National almost the sole contender for power.

Members of the far-right Rassemblement National including Jordan Bardella (R) and Marine Le Pen (C) on stage at RN’s campaign launch for upcoming EU elections, in Marseille, France, on March 3, 2024. (Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images)

It seems almost a lifetime ago. France’s elections in spring 2022 saw the rise of a united-left slate, the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), which not only repeatedly topped polls but denied Emmanuel Macron a majority in the National Assembly. Last year, his government seemed to be on the ropes, faced with a mass movement against a rise in the pension age. But as France again heads to the polls for the European elections this June 9, the Left is in a precarious condition.

Firstly, the NUPES experiment — the alliance of all left-wing formations from the Parti Socialiste via the Communists, the Greens, and France Insoumise — seems to be disappearing. These parties are all running separate lists for the EU elections. Worse, this division is taking place at a time when in France, as around Europe, we are seeing rampant inflation, growing social grievances, and — above all — a massive far-right breakthrough. The question of how to form a common front faced with these pressing demands is thus a recurrent concern on the French left.

Surely, the value of left-wing unity and NUPES more specifically can be subject to a number of caveats. NUPES’s limits were already apparent the day after the parliamentary elections (the only election in which these parties actually all ran together). One oft-leveled criticism was the heavy concentration of its electorate in certain social categories — present in large urban areas but far less so among other parts of the working class in towns and rural France. This issue is especially important given that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National has enjoyed real momentum in these areas and among these same groups; it elected eighty-nine MPs in June 2022, an unprecedented level of local representation. This gap was specifically pointed out by several figures such as France Insoumise MP François Ruffin, himself elected in a semirural northern constituency around the city of Amiens.

Still, left-wing unity does have real virtues, two of which especially stand out. The first, quite obviously, is the possibility of pulling together an electoral bloc, which, whatever its differences, has the chance of genuinely rivaling the Rassemblement National and the Macron camp in a three-horse race. Secondly, while hardly obliterating the (entirely legitimate, and indeed necessary) debates between the different left-wing formations, the NUPES project forced them to adopt a certain attitude faced with both Macron’s agenda and the far right. This didn’t mean an identical stance, but at least a “cohesive” one. The forces of the Left avoided unnecessary conflicts among themselves, instead focusing their efforts against the far right and the dangers that Macron’s government poses to the French social model.

Finally, NUPES — which was not, after all, meant to remain unchangeable forever — made it possible to lay a foundation, a shared programmatic bedrock of rupture with neoliberalism, which would allow for further developments in future. Yet today the mood is rather different. The different left-wing formations now openly voice their hostility to each other — providing a sometimes little-edifying spectacle.

McCarthyite Accusations

This new period of recriminations has been visible in several recent clashes. For many players on the Left (if hardly all of them), these disputes really took on full force after the Hamas-led attacks on October 7 and Israel’s war in Gaza in the months since then.

In essence, there are opposed sides. One, represented in the Parti Socialiste and the Greens, speaks in almost complete support for Israel’s response to October 7, even as it condemns Benjamin Netanyahu’s own crimes. In contrast, the France Insoumise line focuses on the ultimate causes of this conflict, in Israeli colonization. France Insoumise also offers its own distinct reading of the latest events. For instance, it refers to the October 7 attacks as “war crimes” rather than “terrorism,” to remind its audience that these events are part of a long colonial conflict, which provided the context in which Hamas unfortunately emerged. Clearly, such approaches are open to debate: but what followed was not debate, but invective about France Insoumise’s “ambiguities” and even its supposed “antisemitism.”

At the center of these debates, France Insoumise and its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have been accused of all sorts of evils by various other formations, starting with the Parti Socialiste. Amidst a broader McCarthyism around this issue — fueled by Macron and his political-media outriders — attacks flew thick and fast, including ubiquitous accusations of antisemitism.

Rima Hassan, an activist for the Palestinian cause and candidate on the France Insoumise list for the European Parliament, has been one of the more prominent faces of recent months. She has faced numerous attacks from all sides, including parts of the Left. The most emblematic, but also worrying, was a police summons for supposed “glorification of terrorism,” also directed at Mathilde Panot, who is president of the France Insoumise group in the National Assembly. These attacks are part of a demonization campaign that tries to tar France Insoumise with the brush of antisemitism.

Macron’s camp has succeeded in setting up a poisonous debate that has erased the substantive debates that could have taken place on the events in the Gaza Strip, and indeed has hardly helped to encourage popular interest in the European election itself.

Bases of Division

The violence of the current exchanges among the left-wing parties are a recent development. But it should be remembered that divisions have always existed, even during the negotiations that gave rise to NUPES. While the bulk of the left-wing electorate (around 25 percent of French voters) did unite ahead of the parliamentary elections, it’s worth remembering that this base is itself riven by contradictions.

The parliamentary elections are at the heart of France’s party funding system, which distributes some €66 million a year to its political parties. This forces smaller outfits to talk to each other in order to have any chance of winning seats, given that the election is based on single-member constituencies. Still, once this hurdle has been surmounted, the deep-seated antagonisms among these parties, and even within the electorate, seem to take over. The proportional system used for the EU elections offers each of the left-wing parties the possibility of winning seats without uniting and, indeed, sets them in direct competition.

Still, perhaps best illustrating the shift in the broad-left space is the rise of the Parti Socialiste list headed by Raphaël Glucksmann. He has been a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since the 2019 elections, when he also led the party’s list. He made a name for himself in that contest with an unexpected score of 6 percent (surely a low tally, but better than anticipated given the party’s deep unpopularity after François Hollande’s term as president in 2012–17). Since then, Glucksmann has been in the forefront on international issues such as military aid to Ukraine and the treatment of Uyghurs in China.

Glucksmann represents a soft-left, even centrist, line, combining both a hawkish Atlanticism on international issues, and a tepid “social” discourse. Glucksmann’s current centrality in EU election debates makes him one of the main instruments with which the right wing of the Parti Socialiste — led by former president Hollande, ex–prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, and Occitanie regional president Carole Delga — is reshaping the Left. In particular, the aim is to break the leading position that France Insoumise was able to exert over NUPES, and instead reclaim a center-left space that Macron has at least part-occupied since 2017. According to polls, Glucksmann’s list is now vying with the one led by Macron’s own candidate, Valérie Hayer.

Ahead of the 2027 presidential election, in which Macron cannot stand again, the reassertion of the right wing of the Parti Socialiste as a contender in the centrist political space also relies on it taking a tough line against other, further-left forces. We thus see a revived discourse of “irreconcilable” differences with Mélenchon’s project — raised already by opponents of NUPES such as Hollande — and the building of a more moderate, if not avowedly neoliberal left. This was encapsulated by a dispute on May 1, when Glucksmann was booed at a rally in Saint-Étienne celebrating International Workers’ Day and the struggle by workers at supermarket chain Casino. Glucksmann chose to blame France Insoumise for such unwelcome behavior, even though it was entirely uninvolved.

These polemics moreover raise the question of whether all this was inevitable, after the brief idyll of unity that the Left saw during the 2022 election cycle. We might indeed wonder whether these debates are not in fact irreconcilable, especially seeing how readily the different left-wing forces attack each other even faced with the imposing rise of the far right.

Far-Right Advance

Indeed, Le Pen’s party is the force that seems to be benefiting most from the current climate of discontent and division. The Rassemblement National list headed by MEP Jordan Bardella is currently far ahead in the polls for the June 9 vote. After an impressive breakthrough during the 2022 parliamentary elections, poll after poll shows this party on the rise.

The Rassemblement National electorate is commonly said to be based in the working classes, with significant blue-collar support in small-town France in particular. Still, its latest sociological shift seems to be refining its strategy for winning power. Indeed, the 2022 election and various opinion polls show an opening-up of certain more middle-class categories to Le Pen’s charms. This is surely worrying at a time when the far right is seeking to de-demonize its image at all costs.

This cleansing of its image is based on several factors. One is the broad polarization of French political debate around the far right’s chosen talking points in recent years, also thanks to the government itself. Since the start of Macron’s second term in office in 2022, and even before that, the debates relayed by the media have largely focused on issues of immigration and identity. This has allowed Rassemblement National rhetoric to be echoed far and wide — and created a space conducive to an ever more right-wing realignment of French politics.

The emergence of further-right candidate Éric Zemmour in the presidential election has also favored this cultural battle. An unsuccessful competitor of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Zemmour has brought the idea of the “Great Replacement” into the political mainstream. If denounced by academics as a hoax, this claim of a grand conspiracy to replace whites with Muslims and Africans has had a broad impact on the battle for public opinion. Le Pen’s “normalization” strategy has thus been disconcertingly easy to pursue, with its slogans broadcast almost effortlessly.

Faced with Le Pen’s rise, several recent works have proposed to analyze her base. This includes a major 2023 study by economists Thomas Piketty and Julia Cagé, theorizing the idea that “sociospatial class” division (hence the large far-right vote in low-income small towns) is more decisive than simple racism. The work of Thibault Lhonneur and Axel Bruneau reminds us of the importance of social issues in the areas where the Rassemblement National scores best. Still, other studies — notably the ones stemming from the thesis of Félicien Faury, who highlights the centrality of immigration to the Le Pen electorate — points to the cultural battle that needs waging.

Left-wing unity may not be an end in itself. Yet, the current climate of intense recriminations and polemics aimed at demonizing other left-wingers is surely not helping. As the far right continues its march toward power, everyone on the Left agrees that curtailing its rise is urgently necessary. What they’re not doing is finding ways to make that happen fast.

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