Who’s Who?

Pauline Graulle, Mediapart

The French left ahead of presidential elections

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Less than one month ahead of the first round of French presidential elections, who are the left and progressive candidates, and how do their political projects compare? And more pointedly, do any of them stand a chance?

On the left, 6 candidates are running to become president of France. Neither Christiane Taubira, François Hollande’s former justice minister, nor the Trotskyist Annasse Kazib, nor Hélène Thouy, of the Animalist Party, managed to obtain the 500 signatures from elected representatives, the key for admission to the presidential race.

Now, three blocs are taking shape: on the one hand, the supporters of a “breakthrough” left, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the communist Fabien Roussel; on the other, two candidates, environmentalist Yannick Jadot and socialist Anne Hidalgo, who are targeting an electorate with a more social-democratic profile; and finally, a revolutionary and Trotskyist bloc, represented by Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud.

Supporters of a breakthrough left

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, La France insoumise (LFI)

Like his mentor François Mitterrand, this is the third time that the La France insoumise candidate has participated in a presidential election. In 2012, under the banner of the Left Front, then in 2017, for LFI, he had led a coalition with the French Communist Party (PCF), which, this time, liberated itself from the supervision of the former socialist.

In 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon had deployed his strategy of “left-wing populism”. As head of La France insoumise (his movement, conceived in 2016 as an electoral war machine), he made himself the charismatic leader of his faction, aiming to represent the “people” against “the oligarchy”. Swapping political flags for French tricolours, he had tried to represent a clear break from the five-year Hollande presidency, but also tried to attract those who were “furious not fascist”.

In the end, the electorate tempted by the far-right vote did not massively support his candidacy, the success of which (19% in the 1st round, the highest score for the “radical” left of the Fifth Republic) was in fact attributable to the dynamics of “tactical voting”, which he is trying to revive today, which succeeded in convincing 16% of voters who had voted for François Hollande in 2012. La France insoumise nevertheless failed to reach the second round “by 600,000 votes”, according to the set expression of those close to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who believe that the reserve of votes necessary to access the second round can be found within the working classes.

Targeting non-voters is now the priority of Insoumise, brought together in the new political and strategic framework of the Popular Union. For five years, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was elected as MP for Marseille in 2017, has consistently focused on this electoral segment. At the end of 2018, he unashamedly attached himself to the “yellow vests” movement, then set about engaging with immigrant working class communities – including participating in a protest against Islamophobia in November 2019.

He again threw himself fully into mobilising against pension reform in early 2020, stating his desire for a return to retirement at age 60 on full benefits (subject to 40 years of contributions), one of the cornerstones of his programme. Finally, during the Covid period, at the beginning of which he publicly expressed his reservations about the messenger RNA-based vaccines, he showed full support for the anti-health pass movement, then for the short-lived “freedom convoys”.

This stance has sometimes been considered “confusing” by the rest of the left and the environmentalists, while, paradoxically, Insoumise has taken on the habits of a more traditional left, largely purged of its former populist trappings. Although reusing almost all of his 2017 programme, Avenir en commun (Future in Common), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was accused in 2017 of being a Eurosceptic, has since abandoned any prospect of leaving the European Union, preferring, instead of the scenario of a Frexit, a simple “disobedience” towards the treaties via the system of “opt outs”.

He has also purged his programme of any points that might have been controversial in 2017, such as joining ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), which tainted the end of his campaign, and has taken care to enhance the “environmental” part of his project in an attempt to impede the rise of the Greens led by Yannick Jadot. The notion of a green “change of direction” has therefore replaced that of a “transition” – which suggests a desire for a clearer break with productivity – an objective that LFI intends to achieve through the “planning” method, organised on several territorial levels. The phasing out of nuclear power is also envisaged by 2045.

But some disputed aspects of his programme remain. Internationally, the former Trotskyist continues to maintain a very Anti-Atlanticist stance, championing a withdrawal from NATO and advocating for “non-alignment”. He also refuses to condemn his potential allies if he wins the race for the Elysée, namely China and Russia. And then there is a certain “leniency” towards the Russian regime that he showed during the war in Syria, or during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, for which he is now strongly criticised as war rages in Ukraine.

Enough to spoil the voting appeal of the candidate? The last five years have not been a bed of roses. After the dawn raids, in October 2018, which were disastrous for his “presidential” image (with the candidate notoriously claiming “I am the Republic” when confronted by authorities), the head of LFI saw, in 2019, the departure of part of his inner circle, who denounced the lack of internal democracy in the “gas-filled” movement of La France insoumise.

The Mélenchonist group has also faced electoral failures in all the intermediate elections: during the 2019 European elections, the movement attracted only 6% of votes. This failure led the movement to play leapfrog with the municipal elections in 2020, then with the regional and departmental elections a year later.

However, the Bouches-du-Rhône MP takes pride in now being able to rely on two dynamic parliamentary groups (17 Insoumise MPs in the National Assembly, 6 MEPs in the European Parliament). He has also surrounded himself with his Parliament of the People’s Union, launched last December, which is home to many civil society figures, as well as environmentalists and communists at odds with their own parties. All new figures that Jean-Luc Mélenchon is keen to highlight in his campaign team, as proof that he is now the only centripetal force on the left. 

Fabien Roussel, French Communist Party (PCF)

Elected in 2019 as the party’s national secretary on the promise to restore the activists’ “communist pride”, Fabien Roussel appears to have already fulfilled the contract. After a fifteen-year absence from the presidential elections – the PCF supported the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2012 and then in 2017 – the communists believe that the time has come for payback.

Starting from scratch (the PCF attracted less than 3% of voters in the 2019 European elections), Fabien Roussel has continued to climb, slowly but surely in the opinion polls, to overtake the socialist candidate. His formula? Embody the “left of pleasure” theorised by the philosopher Michaël Foessel, by promising France “happy days” (his campaign “baseline”, in a nod to the programme of the National Council of Resistance), and… lay into the left of quinoa and wind turbines. An avowed proponent of nuclear energy, the communist, who is very comfortable in the media, has made a name for himself for having championed “good meat, good wine and good cheese”. He has imposed a Rabelaisian style – if not typically French – in contrast to his competitors on the left and especially environmentalists, who insist on the need for temperance in everyday consumption – energy, food, travel, etc.

Although in essence, his project, far left, could be mistaken for that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon –  retirement at 60, desire to withdraw from the EU treaties, massive investment in public services – the communist candidate methodically tries to distance himself from his former ally, with whom relations, after 2017, have been tense. He stood out during Covid as an advocate for compulsory vaccination, or during the war in Ukraine: he showed himself to be uncompromising with the Kremlin and abandoned, in the short term at least, any ambition to withdraw from NATO.

Convinced that the working classes are demanding order, Fabien Roussel has also endeavoured to “triangulate” on topics generally categorised on the right, such as security, the Republic, and secularism. It could be seen on 19 May 2020, at the demonstration organised by the very right-wing police union Alliance, in the company of the far right, but also by Yannick Jadot and the Socialist Party. This participation was criticised by some of his group.

Another fly in the ointment: Mediapart’s revelations about his alleged fictitious job when he was parliamentary assistant to MP Jean-Jacques Candelier in the North. Today, the MP for Saint-Amand-les-Eaux vehemently denies having worked for the party on the accounts of the National Assembly.

Social democratic candidates

Anne Hidalgo, Socialist Party (PS)

Since she officially announced her candidacy in autumn 2021, Anne Hidalgo has been running what seems like a difficult campaign. However, it all started pretty well: supported by a team of young socialist mayors, the Mayor of Paris, who was re-elected by a large margin in 2020, could argue that she had implemented the “social-ecology” she claims to follow in the capital, effectively rivalling Yannick Jadot’s offer.

“I don’t just want ecology, I want a just ecology”, said the person who has won some iconic battles in Paris, such as the pedestrianisation of riverside roads, the ban on diesel vehicles, and the proliferation of cycle lanes.

But her campaign, which enabled her to get close to 10% of intentions to vote last September, has collapsed. She is plateauing below the 5% of voting intentions needed for a refund of the campaign, and a deep concern has spread inside an already worn out PS. In recent weeks, several former ministers of François Hollande, such as François Rebsamen (former Minister of the Economy) or Marisol Touraine (former Minister of Health), have announced that they will support Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy. As for the 2007 Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, she too has dropped her successor, suggesting that the only tactical vote in 2022 is for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

How can such a fiasco be explained, when social democracy has, in recent years, returned to (relative) health in Germany, Spain and Portugal? First, there was the botched entry into the campaign, accompanied by a promise, deemed untenable by the National Education unions themselves, to double the salary of teachers, which damaged the credibility of the candidate. Moreover, she who now talks only about “social democracy” carries like a burden the dour public assessment of François Hollande’s five-year term.

However, substantively, it is not for want of trying to distinguish herself from his mandate, marked by austerity and the “Labour Law”, but also tainted by the loss of citizenship. In her programme, the socialist promises, like all her competitors on the left, an increase in the minimum wage (by 15%), resources to combat discrimination or the restoration of four criteria of hardship for the calculation of pensions (of which the main reforms are nevertheless retained). For 18-25 year olds, she proposes establishing a “minimum youth income” and the payment of an allowance of €5,000.

But in early 2022, the candidate was joined by the “Hollandais” still active in the PS, starting with former interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who chairs her campaign committee. It is not clear whether this return to the roots – some will call it a step backwards – of the “government left” is likely to reassure sceptics.

Yannick Jadot, the environmentalists

After his (relative) success in the European elections, where he led the Europe Ecology-Greens (EELV) list, which topped the left with 13.5% of the vote, MEP Yannick Jadot was named, last autumn, as the environmentalists’ candidate for the presidential election.

This success is the culmination of two years of intense work both inside and outside his party. On the partisan side, in 2019, the environmentalist worked to form the “Environmental Pole”, which is supposed to bring together environmentalists of all stripes – including François Hollande’s former deputy minister, Delphine Batho – even though the animalist party declined the proposal to join the coalition. On the media side, Yannick Jadot has applied himself to creating a “presidential” stature for himself, increasing his appearances on breakfast and other political shows.

Facing a Jean-Luc Mélenchon with a tainted image, the representative of the environmental camp, which cleaned up in some dozen major cities in the last municipal elections, started as the favourite on the left in the presidential election. In his programme: massive investment in renewable energy (commissioning of 3,000 onshore wind turbines and 340 km2 of additional solar panels by 2027), nationalisation of EDF, plan for 10 billion per year for the energy renovation of housing, elimination of airline routes when distance can be travelled by train in less than four hours, but also the phasing out of industrial farming by 2025, a ban on neonicotinoids, glyphosate and pesticides… On the social side, he promises the creation of a climate wealth tax, a 10% increase in the minimum wage, and the recruitment of 65,000 teachers.

An environmental and leftist programme, then, that might have won over voters in 2017. But his campaign has not lived up to expectations. The environmentalists’ primary, in which he narrowly defeated upstart challenger Sandrine Rousseau, was not the launch pad he had hoped for. Yannick Jadot must also work with a party that is substantively highly critical of “presidentialism” and procedurally not very experienced with presidential elections – the EELV rallied behind Benoît Hamon in 2017.

Now, the environmentalist, who has tried to make heard his opening lines about welcoming migrants, or his anti-hunting determination, finds himself barely audible in a media field where the right and far right are imposing their agenda. On the other hand, he is being challenged on his favourite themes by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has made issues of climate change or animal welfare the main lines of force of his doctrine.

Finally, the candidate has to deal with the revival of pro-nuclear discourse, including from part of the left, as a response to the need to move away from fossil fuels. Even as the IPCC’s worrying reports pile up, perhaps another sign that French environmentalists are far from having won the cultural battle?

For the time being, the “green wave” that brought the environmentalists to power in the last municipal elections seems to have subsided. And while the Greens are betting on a “logo effect” to increase their voting intentions in the final stretch of the campaign, it is clear that Yannick Jadot’s candidacy has failed to impose environmentalism as an obvious political prospect at national level.

Far-left revolutionaries

Philippe Poutou, NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party) / Nathalie Arthaud, Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle)

As in every presidential election since 2002, the Trotskyist family will have two candidates running. Nathalie Arthaud will wear the colours of Lutte Ouvrière for the second time. The same goes for Philippe Poutou, from the NPA (formerly LCR), who managed to collect in extremis the 500 signatures required for his candidacy.

Thanks to his directness and relaxed attitude, this extraordinary candidate brought fresh air to the 2017 campaign. One recalls in particular his famous punchline, “We, when summoned by the police, have no working-class immunity”, thrown during a televised debate at Marine Le Pen who, summoned by the courts in the parliamentary assistants case, had claimed “parliamentary immunity” to avoid attending the meeting.

Despite a few splashes, the French revolutionary left still seems to be hanging by a thread. Unable to reinvent itself, Lutte Ouvrière has struggled to capitalise on the scale of social movements (“yellow vests”, anti-racist demonstrations, etc.) of recent years. Even though it enjoys a strong foothold in the battlefield, the NPA has suffered from internal divisions to the extent that a rival candidate emerged in the person of Annasse Kazib, bridgehead for Révolution Permanente (Permanent Revolution), a small party that emerged from a split with the NPA in 2017. Brought to a halt in the presidential race due to a lack of signatures, the candidacy of this media-savvy, “racialised” and well-liked railway worker, who presents himself as more in tune with the current working world, nevertheless sounds as a warning.

In other words, there remains much to do

In the midst of the Ukrainian conflict, while the “rally-round-the-flag effect” is playing fully in the favour of Emmanuel Macron, who gained 8 points in the polls in a week, what are the chances of the left reaching the Elysée?

At the beginning of March, Jean-Luc Mélenchon overtook Valérie Pécresse in the polls, the Insoumise candidate thus establishing himself as the only candidate with a chance of being able to qualify for the second round. While the possibility of a runoff between Macron and Le Pen in the second round has held sway for months, the question of “tactical voting” on the left could now play out in full as the campaign nears an end: “There is another second round possible”, Jean-Luc Mélenchon told a press conference on 9 March, stressing that this scenario re-establishing a “traditional” left/right divide would serve “the country’s interest” since the debates would revolve around “fundamental topics”, such as schools, pensions or public services, whereas a debate between Macron and the far right would lead to one-upmanship on security or immigration issues.

To do this, “we have one month left to gain 3 to 4 points”, emphasises Manuel Bompard, campaign manager for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who believes that he can attract, in the final stretch, the votes of part of the communist electorate and the green electorate.

In other words, there remains much to do.


About the author

After studying art and sociology, Pauline Graulle worked as a journalist for ten years at the weekly magazine Politis. She covered the “social” section, then the “political” section. She has been working at Mediapart since 2018, where she covers news about the French left.

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