The Unexpected Chance of a Union of the Left
Edwy Plenel, author of For the Muslims, on the opportunity for an alliance of the main left-wing parties in the 2022 French legislative election.
After a fragmented presidential campaign, left and ecologists will go to the legislative elections united under the flag of the New Popular Ecological and Social Union. This unhoped-for dynamic offers the chance of a change through parliamentary means against presidential absolutism.
‘But where the danger lies, also grows the saving power.’ A good while ago, Edgar Morin popularised this maxim of the poet Hölderlin. Its dialectical inspiration was by no means accidental; Hölderlin was a friend of the philosopher Hegel, having been a fellow student at the University of Tübingen. In other words, awareness of danger can give rise to a salutary awakening.
This is precisely what is happening today in France, with the unexpected and unhoped-for dynamic of a union of left and ecologists with the aim of imposing on the re-elected president a change of parliamentary majority and consequent cohabitation.
The merit is due above all to La France Insoumise, which has assumed the historic responsibility conferred by the presidential score of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (21.95% of votes cast), now consecrated for the second time as the de facto leader of the alternative camp to the reactionary and conservative right in their various guises.
The candidate and his movement learned from their mistake in 2017, when this opportunity was not seized, with the result of transforming the performance of their party into a collective defeat of the left. At that time, Jean-Luc Mélenchon obtained 19.58% of the votes cast, while his Socialist challenger, Benoît Hamon, behind whom the Ecologists had lined up, obtained 6.36%, precisely the sum of the scores obtained in 2022 by Anne Hidalgo and Yannick Jadot (6.38% of the votes cast).
The choice of La France Insoumise to wage its 2022 presidential campaign under the label of a Union Populaire, bringing together figures from social movements like Aurélie Trouvé, already bore the promise of an opening to the diversity and plurality of the democratic, social and environmentalist lefts.
Without being naïve about the political calculations that accompany the quest for power, we have to admit that the inclusive negotiations opened the day after the re-election of the outgoing president have confirmed this commitment.
It is commensurate with the danger that this presidential election has furthered and increased: not only the threat of a far right that is more powerful than ever (its three candidates totalled 32.28% of the votes cast in the first round, compared to 27.85% for Emmanuel Macron), but above all the advancing gangrene of public, media and political – even intellectual – debate with its identitarian and inegalitarian obsessions, its nationalism and racism.
Prevent the far right from entering the Élysée in 2027
However, from real-life experience, widely documented on Mediapart for the past five years, we know that the re-elected president will be unable to make these forces back down, let alone fight them. Playing constantly with the fire that he then claims to douse, he has not only ceded ideological ground to the far right, his law on ‘separatism’ being the symbol of this retreat; he has also offered it the resentment and anger that his policy arouses, both in form and substance, a haughty and pretentious arrogance that is added to his social and police violence.
As the same causes produce the same effects, there is little doubt that, in the wake of successive renunciations and disavowals by both right and left over the last twenty years, since the first warning shot of the 2002 presidential election, a new undivided five-year term of Emmanuel Macron would bring the far right even closer to the threshold of the Élysée in 2027. The only way to avoid this is not to leave the re-elected president with this sole power, by having a new parliamentary majority that can champion a different policy.
In addition to this anti-fascist necessity, there is a democratic imperative. This presidential election has made the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic’s institutional system still more obvious, to the point that constitutional experts themselves recognise that it no longer fulfils its mission of representing the electorate. An increasing number of citizens feel excluded – neither recognised nor concerned.
Poorly re-elected, because opposed only by the far right, the outgoing president finds himself, as Lionel Jospin summed it up in a well-chosen formula, facing ‘a frustrated, divided and troubled country at the dawn of an uncertain second five-year term’. Yet, despite only minority support (27.85% of the votes cast in the first round, or 20.07% of those registered), he is prepared to go for broke, like a gambler, as was the case in 2017, when Macron arrogantly ignored the diversity of votes he had benefited from against Marine Le Pen.
If this scenario is repeated in 2022, giving him a majority in the National Assembly that is both overwhelming and submissive, with no contradiction or checks and balances, a large part of the electorate will again have the bitter feeling of democratic dispossession. In short, of being scorned, ignored and despised. The recent signs of a certain panic at the Élysée, the demagogic words uttered or the opportunistic openings attempted will not change anything: the people have been fooled too much to be taken in by this.
A majority of voters want an alliance of left-wing parties
The Ipsos field survey for France TV and Radio France (a sample of 4,000 registered voters) confirms this weak presidential legitimacy: 42% of second-round voters for Emmanuel Macron said that their only motivation was to block the far right. If we add to this the size of abstentions (28.01% of those registered), plus the blank and invalid votes (6.23%), we can see that the majority of voters did not support the project of the re-elected president and in no way wished to sign a blank cheque.
This is amply confirmed by the other results of the Ipsos survey: 46% (against 34%) of respondents expressed ‘negative feelings’ about the re-election of Emmanuel Macron; 56% wanted him ‘to lose the legislative elections and to cohabit with an opposition government that prevents him from implementing his programme’; finally, 57% called for an alliance of the main left-wing parties, with ‘common candidates’ in the legislative elections.
Whether they come from the presidential camp or the Hollandist left, not to mention their numerous media relays, the cries of horror raised by the prospect of a union of the left and ecologists in time for the legislative elections are all the more staggering. The same people who, just a few days ago, were lecturing the left-wing electorate to block the far right by voting for Macron despite his record, now see no greater danger than a union of the left and ecologists behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
To listen to them, the danger of the far right has suddenly disappeared in favour of an even more serious threat, that of an alignment of the left with the far left. Giving the traditional horrified refrain of the dominant classes in the face of popular mobilisation – ‘Rather Hitler than the Popular Front’ –, this bedtime story makes light of the whole history of democratic and social conquests, which have never been granted from above but always won from below, by a dynamic of mobilisation of the people concerned, going beyond bickering and party divisions, while inspiring and radicalising electoral programmes.
As painted by so-called Socialists, who claim this title without having its heritage, such as François Hollande, Bernard Cazeneuve, Stéphane Le Foll, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis or Julien Dray, not forgetting the ineffable Manuel Valls, the improbable portrait of Jean-Luc Mélenchon as a far-left scarecrow only expresses their panic fear of radical change, so much so that they have been converted to the dominant social order.
It goes without saying that their record, marked by failure and opportunism, hardly makes them moral authorities. Perhaps it is the fear of being confronted with this that has transformed them into intimate enemies of the camp they claim to belong to, to the point of maintaining the fantasy of ‘irreconcilable lefts’, that machine for dividing the whole of the left, after its voters in the first round had demonstrated its inanity and harmfulness.
As for coherence, this is to be sought in the open programmatic agreements signed by the partners of the New Popular Union rather than in the baroque couplings of Macronism where, from Jean-Pierre Chevènement to Manuel Valls, via Elisabeth Guigou or François Rebsamen, a cohort of strays from the left cohabit without any qualms with the whole range of conservative and reactionary right-wingers – corrupt as well, since Sarkozy is in a prominent position, almost as a figurehead.
This violent campaign to discredit the only good and happy news for the side of emancipation, the side that refuses resignation and impotence, is nonsense, and it is understandable that it should worry that little group that has hunkered down on its class interests. The truth is that, far from having become an extremist, the leader of La France Insoumise has actually learned from the movement of society itself, from its resistances and struggles, to the point of evolving on a number of questions – the ecological emergency, his view of secularism, institutional questions, cultural plurality, etc.
It is important to be clear about the tactical part of this evolution, as it remains to be deepened, especially on international issues (the relationship with Putin’s Russia) and democratic practices (judicial independence and press pluralism), but this does not prevent us from noting and recognising its concrete progress: an increased electoral commitment of young people from the banlieues, a renewed representation of the working classes, the emergence of new personalities, in the image of a multicultural France.
From this point of view, the Socialist that Jean-Luc Mélenchon was for a long time, to the point of having been a minister in Lionel Jospin’s government under the previous cohabitation (1997-2002), is in fact deeply Mitterrandian in his current strategy of gathering people together. For, at a time – the 1970s – when disagreements, especially on international issues, were even more acute among the left than they are today, François Mitterrand not only maintained the course of a union of left-wing parties. He also, if not above all, anchored this electoral dynamic, finally victorious in 1981, in participation in the struggles and movements that constituted its social base, which challenged his own political reference points and his own governmental past. Thus, taking stock of a party that had been lost for too long in the management of state power to the point of turning its back on its social base, the current Socialist first secretary Olivier Faure was simply being faithful to the 1971 founder of the Parti Socialiste by his choice to join the unitary dynamic.
‘To rebuild a great socialist party,’ wrote Mitterrand at the time in La Rose au poing, ‘requires that several conditions be fulfilled, and first of all that it recovers the confidence of those it has the mission of defending by joining them in the field of struggle. Authenticity cannot be invented, it has to be proven through use. Gone are the days when you could be elected on the left and govern on the right.’
It’s all very well to emphasise – as we’ve often done at Mediapart – how little Mitterrand’s fourteen years as president were faithful to this requirement. But this gap between the electoral dynamic and the exercise of power is today an additional argument for seizing the chance of the Popular Union: it offers us the happy opportunity of a parliamentary alternation, thus avoiding the risks inherent in French Caesarism, where the will of all is confiscated by the power of one.
This is perhaps our last chance; so many previous opportunities have been missed, due to the fault of those in positions of responsibility. Do we need to remind François Hollande how much we are paying for his choice as first secretary of the Socialist Party to accept the inversion of the calendar proposed by Lionel Jospin for the 2002 presidential election, giving primacy to presidentialism to the detriment of the National Assembly? Or to remember that the day after his election ten years later, as with Emmanuel Macron’s in 2017, the hope of a renaissance of parliamentarianism was immediately betrayed by presidential omnipotence and the permanent abuse of power?
Time is running out. Nothing less is at stake than to put the Republic back on its foundations in order to prevent it from sinking. Bound together by a challenge to presidential monarchy and the defence of a parliamentary regime, a new majority that is indissolubly democratic, social and ecological will have no other choice than to make use of its plurality, the richness of its exchanges and the inventiveness of its collective.
François Hollande’s invocation of the European red line that Europe Écologie-Les Verts have supposedly crossed by allying themselves with La France Insoumise raises a smile if we remember how he reneged in 2012 on his commitment to ‘renegotiate’ the European Treaty signed by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. And if we remember above all that it was his own Ecologist ministers, of sincerely European conviction, who were the first to reproach him for this at the time.
The presidential system stifles pluralism, not only dissent but also nuance. It dragoons, standardises and devitalises, replacing critical reflection by automatic discipline, under the pretext of a ‘presidential majority’ which, by depriving the nation’s deputies of their free will, transforms elected representatives into servile courtiers.
A parliamentary system that regains its legitimacy and credibility will protect against the temptations of a personalisation of power and the various abuses that result from it – favouritism, clientelism and other conflicts of interest. These will of course persist, as shown by La France Insoumise’s propagandistic reduction of the issue of the legislative elections to the ‘election’ of Jean-Luc Mélenchon as prime minister, reducing the ‘we’ of the Popular Union to the ‘I’ of its leader.
But the commitments made on the primacy of parliamentary power, on its ethical rules and its legislative procedures, both in the agreements concluded this week and in the chapter on democracy and institutions in the programme L’Avenir en commun, are all antidotes to possible excesses against which, conversely, a victory for the presidential party would in no way have protected us.
The new Popular Union was finalised almost on the anniversary of the Popular Front’s legislative victory of 3 May 1936. That electoral success was followed by a workers’ uprising which wrested from the new majority the decisive social conquests of June 1936. But it’s another date that comes to mind here, the inaugural moment of that upsurge at a time when the shadows were spreading across Europe.
On 5 March 1934, three intellectual representatives of the diverse left, the philosopher Alain for the Radicals, the ethnologist Paul Rivet for the Socialists and the physicist Paul Langevin for the Communists, joined forces to launch a common appeal ‘to the workers’ in the face of the threat of the far right. This was the birth of the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes.
They said that they were ‘united above all differences’ in the face of this danger, determined to ‘save what the people have conquered in terms of civil rights and freedoms’, determined to fight ‘against corruption [and] also against imposture’.
‘We will not let the corrupt and corrupters invoke virtue,’ they proclaimed. ‘We will not allow the anger aroused by financial scandals to be diverted by the banks, the trusts, the arms merchants, against the Republic which is the people working, suffering, thinking and acting for their emancipation. We will not allow the financial oligarchy to exploit, as in Germany, the discontent of the hordes it has distressed or ruined.’
Those who, today, lecture the unitary left after themselves failing to prevent the return of this mortal danger to our era, or even assisting it by their cowardice and supporting it by their denials, seem like pygmies compared to the good will shown at that time.
Seizing the unhoped-for opportunity of a union of the left is simply acting in the continuity of the barrage against neo-fascism that meant voting for the best-placed left candidate in the first round of the presidential election and for the incumbent president in the second round – in both cases to avoid Marine Le Pen either reaching the second round or being elected afterwards out of weariness and misfortune.
Conversely, not to seize this opportunity, let alone caricaturing it to the point of insult, amounts to being an accomplice of the menacing shadows.
First published at Mediapart, 4 May 2022
Translated by David Fernbach