By Alex Yates – Contributor
For the first time in 20 years, the French left stands united prior to the upcoming legislative elections in June. Announced last week, the New People’s Ecologist and Social Union (NUPS) brings together Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist La France Insoumise, after his strong 3rd place finish in last month’s presidential elections, with the once dominant Socialist Party as well as the Greens and Communists. Such an unprecedented alliance has coalesced around key demands of increasing France’s minimum wage, lowering the retirement age, and repealing historic liberalisation of the labour market. Whilst the probability of Mélenchon becoming prime minister is still marginal, the support of the entirety of France’s broad left has certainly made it a much more tangible possibility than was thought when he announced his intention to ascend to the position after his presidential election loss. No doubt, within France’s semi-presidential system, such an outcome could severely undermine Macron’s agenda for his second term, and allow for major legislative gains for the left.
Whilst the potential electoral success of the alliance remains an open question, the fact that such an agreement, thought to be unthinkable in years gone by, has emerged, brings to light the enduring salience of the left-right distinction. Much has been made of the so called ‘global rise of populism’ in the 2010s, with many challenger parties emerging, such as Spain’s Unidas Podemos, Italy’s 5 Star Movement, and France’s own National Rally, which blur the lines between the left and right in favour of a politics which contrasts the people against the elite, moving political conflict from horizontal to vertical. In some respects Mélenchon represents such a trend. Although his politics is clearly anchored within the French radical left tradition, Mélenchon’s rhetoric certainly operates within a populist register, positioning his movement against the nation’s oligarchy as the key political cleavage. This stands in contrast to the more conventional worker against boss antagonism of the Marxist inspired 20th century left.
The ‘rise’ of populism amongst both the radical left and the radical right has led some commentators to conflate these historically distinct traditions, in a contemporary expression of, so called, ‘horseshoe theory’, which asserts that the extreme ends of the political spectrum join together in a common commitment to authoritarianism and ideological puritanism. Populists of a variety of ideological stripes are accused of having disregard for minority rights, with some fearing that in government, the likes of Marine Le Pen or Mélenchon would push through their agenda in the name of the people with little regard for those who dissent. Although these claims are dubious, with many scholars pointing to examples of inclusive and egalitarian examples of populism in South American and southern Europe, tarring the likes of Mélenchon and Le Pen’s radically divergent projects with the same brush is a recurring theme within French politics. The Socialist Party’s 2022 presidential election candidate Anne Hidalgo endorsed the claim that there ‘is no space for populism in the new era of sustainable and inclusive cities’ during her tenure as mayor of Paris. Former socialist François Hollande has voiced similar concerns Yet here their party stands in a historic alliance with the very populists mainstream parties claim to be poisonous to liberal democracy.
What this electoral pact reveals, is that ideology still matters. Regardless of the divergent discourses of the participants on where the ‘true’ conflict in politics lies, a common policy platform has brought together the French left, populists and non-populists alike. If one insists populism should be understood as an ideology itself, one must also remember that it is a thin one, attaching itself to ‘thicker’ traditions, such as socialism or conservatism, which are the true drivers of policy. Together, the socialists, populists, greens, and communists have come together against Le Pen’s forces of reaction and Macron’s neoliberalism. Whether one favours the conflictual rhetoric of left-populism, or the conciliatory discourses of social democracy, this historic electoral alliance demonstrates that the left’s common commitment to ecology and social justice allows even the sharpest distinctions in style and presentation to be overcome.
Such a pact, not dissimilar to the coalition forged between populist Unidas Podemos and social-democratic PSOE in Spain, gives hope to those on the left who feel trapped in seemingly endless internal struggles. The opportunity has presented itself to the French left to overcome their differences, and effect real political change. The participants of this alliance have grasped it with both hands. Such events should remind us all, in times of climate breakdown, growing inequality, and the continued march of the far-right, the unification of the left is more imperative than ever.
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