Victory for the left in France

8 July 2024
D. Taylor
Supporters of far-left party France Unbowed celebrate as results are announced in Paris, 7 July PHOTO: LAURENCE GEAI / LE MONDE

Who’s it going to be: me or the fascists? That’s the question Emmanuel Macron asked the French electorate a few weeks ago when he dissolved the parliament and called a snap election. On 7 July, he got his answer: neither.

It was the most important electoral defeat for the French far right in decades. The National Rally (RN) has lost national elections before—indeed, every single one. But, since 2002, the party has steadily advanced in what began to look like an inevitable progression towards power. It has come to be seen as the government in waiting, prepared for office by the fiascos of the Macron presidency.

Vincent Bolloré, France’s Rupert Murdoch, cultivated the RN, promoted it and finally helped negotiate a breakthrough electoral deal with a faction of the centre-right Republicans. The party even rented an apartment in Paris to conduct negotiations with bosses and prepare for government. The RN seemed to have it all: the blessing of important parts of the French ruling class and the aura of an authentic outsider party representing a clean break with rotten traditions.

“We’ve never tried them” became a cliché supposedly expressing the national mood of openness to an RN government. This was meant to be the far right’s turn.

The disappointment has inflicted a psychological blow on the fascists, who think power is their birthright. You could see it in the face of Jordan Bardella, the party’s prime ministerial hopeful, who spoke to supporters using the same tone and expressions with which he might explain his internet browser history to his mother.

It was even more apparent in the reaction from the RN election night party, which was undoubtedly the worst social event of the season. Watch the young woman who, knowing the cameras are rolling, uses every ounce of her Will to Power to maintain a smile and not down her glass of white wine in one gulp. The activists were crying. “What a joke”, one of them told France Info, suddenly contemptuous of French voters. “They’ve behaved like sheep. A historic choice was offered to them, and they’ve done this nonsense.”

The people let down the party. What will happen now?

The apparently inexorable rise of RN developed its own momentum. It was like a steam train smashing through its right-wing rivals—from the ultra-right Reconquete to the “respectable” Republicans—and causing splits everywhere as more and more ambitious conservative politicians jumped on board the RN express. Let us hope that this setback creates demoralisation, confusion, internal blame and paralysis.

The supporters of France Unbowed—the most left-wing and dominant force in the broad left coalition that claimed victory in the elections—gathered, appropriately, in Place Stalingrad in northern Paris. They cried too—in relief, and also with justifiable pride. They had been bracing for an electoral result that would express a triumphant wave of reactionary hatred, especially against migrants, and most especially against Arabs and Muslims, but generally directed at anyone who believed in social equality and progress. Instead of having to console each other and prepare to fight a fascist government, they celebrated a victory over both the fascists and Macron’s authoritarian liberals.

They campaigned against racism, for solidarity with Palestine, for taxing the rich and for increasing wages. They forced the cringing establishment left—the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens—into the position of resentful junior partners in their coalition. They were relentlessly slandered as antisemites and terrorist sympathisers, in practically every media interview, by the fascists and even by some of their own coalition partners. But, as party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon crowed in his election-night speech, their program had mobilised the youth and the quartiers populaires, the poor and working-class neighbourhoods, to beat back the right wing and provide a victory to the left on a historically high turnout.

American voters might be wishing they lived in France right now. Every institution in US politics is designed to prevent such a thing from happening. “Progressive” politics is trapped inside the capitalist Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party itself is structured to make its capitalist leadership unassailable—even more tightly so since the two failed candidacies of Bernie Sanders. The top minds in the US political establishment are currently trying to push out a candidate who has all of Macron’s flaws and none of his virtues: a babbling, genocide-enabling pillar of the neoliberal establishment. How desperately the United States needs an independent, socialist political alternative that renounces the moral blackmail of the Democrats and fights the far right on a working-class, socialist program.

Important lessons should be drawn from the French victory. When far-right politics becomes a mass phenomenon, it can be blocked without capitulating to its racism. Sticking to leftist principles—whether on economics, immigration or Palestine—will attract scorn and slander from powerful institutions. But this can be challenged and overcome. A powerful political coalition of the oppressed—young progressives, migrants and workers—can be constructed.

But the victory is not total, and it is not permanent. It is a reprieve.

France Unbowed is a reformist party, which means it is pro-state and pro-capitalist, with all the limits that entails. Mélenchon has demanded the right to form a left government and insisted that they will not trade away their coalition's program: they will take power only to implement “the program, the whole program, and nothing but the program”.

We have heard that before. It sounds great compared to the prevailing standards of the centre-left, in which compromises are upheld as virtuous. The history of social democracy is full of such stirring declarations. They often come on the eve of a catastrophic sell-out. Manuel Bompard, a senior official in France Unbowed, called for the activists to continue protesting and organising, to defend and pressure a left-wing government.

Both pressure and defence may be necessary, but Bompard’s call still operates within a framework that reduces the masses to supporting and cheering on a set of politicians rather than reshaping society themselves. The fundamental rules of capitalist politics remain unchallenged: power remains in the hands of big business; the people exist to support politicians.

While that is the case, even the most radical left government will find its program circumscribed in practice. The Socialist Party and the Communist Party have been discredited over the course of a century, not only because they sold people out, but because they did so despite having such lovely programs. Even if France Unbowed could form government independently, it would still be beholden to the system that produced the present political crisis.

But, of course, it cannot form government independently. Its electoral coalition with the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens has been a lifeline for those parties, particularly the shrivelled Socialists, who have more than doubled their parliamentary representation. France Unbowed makes up less than half of the overall left bloc, and that bloc makes up less than half of the new parliament.

The right-wing socialists and Greens have rebelled against the notion that the combative followers of Mélenchon could lead an emerging left-wing government. Many view France Unbowed as their biggest threat, and will repeat the red-baiting slurs that fuel the growth of the far right if they think they can improve their bargaining position by doing so. They are being tempted by the prospect of a “rainbow coalition” with Macron’s group. To form a bloc with the followers of Macron would be a propaganda gift to the fascists. They would declare that the whole project was ultimately nothing but a trick to keep the old order in power. They would claim that the fascists are, as they have repeated over and over, the “real opposition”.

The RN is already rehearsing this argument. In the 1980s, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen denounced the domination of the “gang of four”: the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and the two-right wing parties of the day. Now, the RN talks about Macron constructing a parti unique, a one-party state made up of fraudulent front parties ranging from left to right, to which only the fascists represent an authentic alternative.

The National Rally is the smallest bloc in the new parliament, but it got the most votes of any party. Its people may be demoralised, but they have not disappeared. They will await betrayals and failures by any emerging coalition. “The tide is coming in”, Marine Le Pen said. “It didn’t swell enough this time, but it keeps growing, and thus our victory has only been delayed.”

The left’s victory shows that France’s most important political actors—urban workers and young people—want to fight against both fascism and neoliberalism, and for a left-wing program based on the principles of solidarity and equality. But it is plain to see that more battles are ahead. To use their energy solely as a basis for parliamentary manoeuvres will be to disperse it and aid future fascist breakthroughs. The enormous latent power of this left-wing resistance must be converted into class struggles outside the parliament—into a force that can drive the fascist influence out of politics and change the world for the better regardless of who forms government.

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