Five years ago president François Hollande stunned France by renouncing a re-election bid — a first in the history of the Fifth Republic and a sign of his Socialist party’s deep unpopularity. Just three months before the next presidential vote, the once mighty French left seems no closer to reaching the Elysée Palace.
Surveys suggests none of the leftwing candidates will qualify for the runoff. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who is the Socialist party candidate, is given only about 4 per cent of first-round voting intentions in recent opinion polls. Yannick Jadot of the Greens, who are in alliance with the Socialists in local governments across France, is at about 7 per cent. The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who abandoned the Socialist party in 2008 and went on to found La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), stands out with 10 per cent of first-round voting intentions.
Long gone are the days when the Socialist François Mitterrand won the presidential election and ended the left’s postwar political drought in 1981. Four decades on, his old party is struggling to make itself heard, its supporters are in despair, and the left has splintered.
“The Socialist party was for a time hegemonic on the French left, and that has come to an end,” said Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice. “The left is in a paradoxical situation. A majority of leftwing voters think more or less the same on most issues — the environment, the fight for equality, the fight against racism, support for Europe — but their leaders are very divided.”
The four candidates between the centre and the far-right dominate the field ahead of the election in April: the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, who was economy minister under Hollande and campaigned as “neither right nor left” to win in 2017 by grabbing support from both the Socialists and the centre-right; Valérie Pécresse, who recently beat her Gaullist rivals in a primary and was nominated by Les Républicains; far-right leader Marine Le Pen; and Éric Zemmour, the anti-immigration polemicist.
This pattern suggests that the left’s problem is not just ideological confusion or a lack of leadership, but a shift to the right by French voters.
“There has been a disintegration of French Socialism,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist at Sciences Po. “But the other factor is the electorate.” On issues such as law and order and immigration, “in the last 10 years, there has been a slide to the right”.
After more than four years in the wilderness since Macron replaced Hollande in the Elysée Palace, leftwingers have been casting around for a path to power.
Hidalgo, realising she had no chance of winning when her support was so low and there were no less than six others from the left and the far left vying for the presidency this year, joined calls for a broad “popular primary” open to all voters agreeing with a set of principles to choose a unity candidate to avert “the death of the left”.
Given the success of Green-left alliances in 2020 local elections — they won control of big cities such as Marseille and Bordeaux as well as holding Paris — it was an obvious solution. But she was swiftly rebuffed by Mélenchon, Jadot and the communist party candidate Fabien Roussel, who is polling at 3 per cent.
In recent weeks would-be saviours of the left have pressed their cases. They include Arnaud Montebourg, a former economy minister in Hollande’s government, who then launched a honey-making business and is running as an independent, and Christiane Taubira, a politician from French Guiana who was justice minister in the same administration and has said she too will stand in the election if she wins the left’s primary and will “put all my efforts into a last chance for unity”.
This parade of candidates “is becoming comic”, according to Virginie Martin, political analyst at Kedge Business School.
Martin said the French left has suffered from a lack of leadership and a reluctance to do the hard work of day-to-day politics in recent years. By contrast, Pécresse from the rightwing LR has been running the Ile-de-France region, which includes the capital, with powers in the areas of public transport and education.
The Socialists complain they have been knocked out by Macron in the 2017 election, “but you can’t be knocked out for five years. There’s something not serious about all this,” Martin said.
Ironically this further decline of the French left coincides with a Covid-19 pandemic that has prompted even conservative governments around the world to adopt the Keynesian solutions long favoured by the left, including massive state spending financed by debt, to sustain businesses and jobs.
Yet the French left is so divided on so many issues — the EU and national sovereignty; the role of business in society; and the conflict between multiculturalism and France’s strictly secular republic — that it has been unable to take advantage of this global ideological shift.
“There’s such a gulf between Mélenchon and the rest,” said Martin, who thinks it unlikely but not impossible for the left to reach an agreement and present a united front in April. “You never know. Presidential elections in France are full of crazy and unpredictable things.”
Others, including Rouban, see no sign that the left will unite behind one person or that the 70-year-old Mélenchon will abandon a campaign that is set to be his last.
In December to the surprise of many commentators in France, the previously divided LR eventually succeeded in overcoming its internal differences to choose Pécresse as its candidate. The left is a long way from achieving the same goal.
“Even if the right was late in creating unity, it was still three or four months before the election,” said Martigny of the University of Nice. “Time is playing against the left.”