Op-Ed: French Failures: A Warning to the Left Worldwide

Photo credit: Pierre-Selim Huard 

By Matthew Risley
Staff Writer

On Sunday, April 24th, French voters re-elected Emmanuel Macron for another five-year presidential term. For the second straight election, he defeated his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, becoming the first president re-elected in France since Jacques Chirac in 2002. Running on a platform of centrist rhetoric, Macron won by a significant margin, even though the gap between him and Le Pen closed to 15.2%, demonstrating the waning appeal of the status quo in France. The French left missed out on a brilliant opportunity to publicize its positions and potentially take power, squandering the chance due to its inability to cooperate—a lesson for left-wing parties around the world. 

Extremist candidates—Eric Zemmour and Le Pen of the Far Right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Far Left—received a majority of the vote during the first round of the election, taking 52.3%. Valérie Pécresse, who represented the center-right party of Les Republicains (The Republicans), received only 4.8% of the vote, despite polling at 12% percent in early March. This stands in stark contrast to the first round vote in 2017, where François Fillon, the representative for Les Republicains, received 20% of the vote, only missing out on the second round of voting by 1.3%.  

Mélenchon failed to reach the second round by a mere 1.2%, which could have certainly materialized if the other left-wing parties had dropped out and endorsed his campaign. Anne Hidalgo of the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) received only 1.8% of the vote, the lowest ever for a candidate for the Socialist Party and an abysmal performance compared to the 28.6% won in 2012. Yannick Jadot received 4.6% of the vote for the Europe Écologie Les Verts (The Green Party). Meanwhile, three other parties—Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party), Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-Capitalists), Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle)—combined for only 3.7% of the vote. 

Taken individually these numbers are meager, yet when combined, the candidates on the left earned a significant 32.1% of the vote. In fact, it is surprisingly higher than Macron’s 27.8%. If only half of the voters from these five left-wing parties had voted for Mélenchon, he would have moved onto the second round of voting in place of Le Pen. Yet, in lieu of uniting to endorse Mélenchon—or even simply withdrawing and letting the voters decide—the left ran four separate campaigns with 0% chance of advancing to the second round.

Of course, not all the voters from these parties would have voted for Mélenchon if the field had been vacated, but he only needed an additional 1.3 percentage points in order to qualify for the second round of voting. This also would not have guaranteed Mélenchon a second round run-off victory—in fact, he would have most likely lost—yet, simply forcing Macron to face a left-wing candidate, rather than a far-right candidate, would be a victory for the French left. The strength of the left would have proved more pressing than that of the right, and this certainly would have shifted Macron’s policy pursuits. 

Nonetheless, this election demonstrates the eroding appeal of the status quo for French voters. The massive rise in support for radical political parties unequivocally points towards discontent with France’s neoliberal, pro-EU stance. Even in defeat, Le Pen has won her own battle: her right-wing platform has been established as a serious threat to the political center. It is clear that many of Macron’s votes come from unhappy voters who would have strategically picked any candidate other than Le Pen, although far from their first choice.

To an extent, the left has realized its error since the election. A new coalition—the Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et sociale (New People’s Ecologic and Social Union)—is forming, attempting to deny Macron a Parliamentary majority. Macron has rebranded his party the Renaissance, hoping to ally with the center-right to combat this newfound threat. The union under Mélenchon is commendable; the combined force of the left in France is significant, and Macron’s maneuvers demonstrate his fear and betray the confidence he publicly projects. Fracturing Macron’s power with a win in Parliament would mark an incredible accomplishment for a coalition that seemed unlikely to materialize only a few weeks ago. Though it remains to be seen if it will do so, this coalition is the perfect vehicle for the left to win. 

Although comparisons to the United States’ contemporary political battle are loose, the American left can learn from this election. The inability of French left-wing elements to cooperate during the presidential election remains a warning for the American left as well as other left-wing parties around the world. However, their speedy commitment to a coalition and seeming ability to unite for the purposes of a Parliamentary majority should give their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere good reason to think that they too can reconcile differences to avoid electoral defeat at the hands of their ideological opponents.

Despite the limiting nature of the U.S. political system and culture, one rule transcends borders in truth: you must take power in order to enact the change you wish to see. Ideological concessions are an unfortunate necessity in politics. The New People’s Ecologic and Social Union is an excellent response to the situation, and an exemplary display of leftist unity that will hopefully set an example for leftist parties worldwide going forward. 

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