French Legislative Elections and the Next Left Hope

Harrison Stetler

June legislative elections, which closely follow the presidential election, typically serve to rubber stamp an incoming president’s mandate. This year is different, with second-term President Macron facing a stiff challenge from a united left making a credible push to win a parliamentary majority and select Jean-Luc Mélenchon as the country’s prime minister. How did the famously fractious French left come together, and what does their alliance mean for the present and future of politics in the country?

“Aurélien, you have come back to the light,” an introductory speaker teases, “and I never doubted it at all.” On Saturday May 21, French Member of Parliament Aurélien Taché launched his reelection campaign outside a café in Cergy, a suburb northwest of Paris that he has represented since 2017. Five years ago, Taché was part of the crop of young deputies elected to parliament on the coattails of centrist president Emmanuel Macron. He would jump ship from the presidential majority in May 2020, however, founding a small parliamentary formation made up primarily of ex-Macronists like himself. In 2022, the now 38-year-old deputy’s reelection poster features him alongside Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s leading left-wing hopeful who finished a close third in April’s presidential elections.

This is one of the many political convergences the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES, in the French acronym) has made possible. An alliance of France’s progressive forces, the NUPES was formed in early May after a flurry of negotiations between Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI) and the other left-wing parties, namely the Greens, the French Communist Party, and the Socialists.

Thanks to this agreement, the parties are running a united front of candidates on shared policy planks across hundreds of legislative districts in this month’s parliamentary elections. Programmatically grounded in the broad-based radicalism that Mélenchon has stood for since splitting from the Socialists in 2008, the NUPES points towards what many see as the basis for a durable culture of collaboration and unity on the left.

“I’m very hopeful about the new sequence that is opening up,” Taché tells me. “Finally, the Left is unifying, which is something that we haven’t had going into the legislative elections in over twenty-five years. That people who had stopped talking to each other, who at times had even come to hate each other, are now able to come together is historic.”

Does “cohabitation” mean learning to live with each other?

The NUPES’ short-term goal is to derail Macron’s second term agenda by forcing the reelected president into a so-called “cohabitation,” or co-governance, securing enough seats through the June 12 and 19 votes to form an opposition government in parliament. The NUPES candidates hope to turn June’s elections into what they call a “third round,” giving left-wing voters the chance to reaffirm their presence in national politics after being narrowly cornered out of the presidential runoff on April 24, when the incumbent Macron again defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen. “Another world is still possible,” the NUPES slogan pleads, as the over 500 candidates grouped under the cartel make the direct appeal that French voters can elect Mélenchon as prime minister.

“We think that we can be in the majority and govern,” says Aurélie Trouvé, a NUPES candidate running to represent the 9th district in Seine-Saint-Denis. “There is a real anger in this county: what we need to do is channel this frustration in a democratic and ecological direction. What’s driving us today is: what are we going to do if we are in the majority?”

With his unexpectedly strong showing in the first round of the April elections, Mélenchon confirmed his position as the uncontested powerbroker on the French left, a status which weighed heavily in the negotiations that resulted in the new alliance. Leveraging this position, Mélenchonists secured a commitment to “disobey” certain European Union dictates on fiscal policy – an inevitability, if the NUPES were to govern, given the new platform’s disavowal of EU budget rules. For the Socialist Party, the agreement also represents a de facto renunciation of François Hollande, France’s president between 2012 and 2017. Formerly the chief power broker on the left, the Socialist Party was allotted a modest 70 candidacies under the NUPES banner, ahead of the 50 districts given to the Communists, but trailing the 100 spots allocated to the Greens and their allies and the over 300 districts reserved for candidates in the LFI orbit.

Largely indebted to LFI’s platform, The Future Together, the NUPES is running on 650 concrete proposals. These include “ecological planning” along the lines of a French Green New Deal, a minimum wage hike to 1500 euros per month, price freezes on essential goods, the repeal of labor code reforms passed during the Hollande and Macron presidencies, and a constituent assembly to draft the constitution for a Sixth Republic. In stark contrast to the reelected president, who is preparing for a second-term fight over reforming the retirement system, having pledged in his campaign to raise the pension eligibility age to 65 years, the alliance proposes a 60-year retirement age.

Winning a majority to enact this platform will be a tall order, however. Like in the country’s presidential elections, France’s legislative cycle takes place over two rounds: in districts where a candidate does not win an absolute majority of support on June 12, the top two candidates will compete in a run-off vote on June 19. Many polls suggest that the NUPES will emerge from the first-round vote on June 12 in the lead, but it is expected that Macron’s coalition will again secure the National Assembly, albeit with a smaller share of seats than in 2017.

NUPES candidates maintain that the election is still in a highly volatile and fluid state, a diagnosis supported by the fact that Mélenchon outperformed expectations in April, drawing in voters in a late surge in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. Macron’s contenders on the right, meanwhile, having largely cast aside hopes for this cycle, restricting campaign ambitions to preserving a parliamentary “group” requiring at least 15 deputies, in the case of the center-right Republicans, or gaining one, in the case of the far-right National Rally. The presidential election seemed to indicate that French politics was settling around three broad poles: a Macronist center, caught between the nationalist far right and the new left. But with the relative silence of the right in the legislative campaign, NUPES candidates think there is an opening to dominate anti-Macron sentiment and make inroads even among some Le Pen voters.

France has not seen a period of governing cohabitation since a constitutional reform at the beginning of the century synchronized the presidential and parliamentary elections. This change only exacerbated the Fifth Republic’s imbalance between the executive and the legislature, turning parliamentary elections into after-the-fact votes that deliver rubberstamp parliaments to confirm the president’s mandate. Macron is the first president reelected since this crucial reform, however. The circumstances of his April 24 victory, contingent on momentary support from a wide swath of progressive voters who chose the president to block the far right from power, have likewise given this legislative cycle a newfound significance.

There is a need to “re-parlementarize” French politics, argues Sophia Chikirou, candidate in Paris’s 11th electoral district, who sees this election as an “acceleration of the end of the 5th Republic.” We may still be far from seeing the Mélenchonists’ long held goal of instituting a new constitution, but the alliance has importantly succeeded in at least partially re-politicizing the legislative elections. With NUPES candidates potentially present in upwards of 360 run-off contests on June 19, Chikirou continues: “to say that [the results of] the second round are already set in stone is something that nobody can honestly affirm right now.”

Beyond the vitriol hurled at the new left-wing alliance from much of the political class, the clearest signs of the threat posed by the NUPES are the president’s attempts to appeal to progressive voters since winning reelection. Having nominated Elisabeth Borne as prime minister, a veteran of Macron’s first-term cabinet and like him a transfuge from the Socialist Party, the president has been peddling an impending legislative package on cost-of-living and a newfound commitment to “ecological planning.” The nomination of the respected black historian Pap Ndiaye as minister of education was meant to send the signal that the president is turning the page, at least partially, on the culture war antics of Ndiaye’s predecessor, Jean-Michel Blanquer.

But for left-wing French voters still fresh off the bitter humiliations of Macron’s first term, moves like these are probably too little too late. The president’s political identity has long ceased to be a mystery, drilled in by Macron’s first-term attacks on the country’s social welfare system, and his dangerous willingness to domesticate right-wing cultural anxieties.

The crucial question is whether distrust in Macron will be enough to overcome low-voter participation in the June vote. France’s legislative elections have been caught in a downward trend of voter participation for years – a vicious cycle that has accelerated since the 2002 reform. For NUPES candidates, moreover, abstentionists are the crucial “fourth pole” that needs to be tapped into to win, a reservoir of support that, if mobilized, could allow the Left to consequentially outdistance the Macronists and the far right. “Can we raise participation by 1 percent?” asks Chikirou, “or will participation go up by 10 percent, especially in districts where we have a chance of winning?”

Trouvé’s district in Seine-Saint-Denis is one of the working-class and multicultural areas that voted overwhelmingly for the Left in the presidential election: Over 49 percent of voters in the April 10th first round voted for Mélenchon, a figure which rises to nearly 60 percent if you add the totals won by the other left-wing formations. “Our first objective,” Trouvé claims, “is to bring out to the voting booths everyone who already voted in the presidential elections.’

But the hope is that the logic of alliance can extend left-wing strengths beyond these strongholds. A divided field of candidates is a damper on political enthusiasm, the argument goes, but when the reality of a unified front sets in, perspectives that seemed out of reach just a few weeks ago can start to seem possible. “There can be no illusions about it: in lower-class districts, it’s the figure of Jean-Luc Mélenchon that speaks to people,” says Trouvé, “In better-off districts, it’s the effect of the alliance that can bring people over to our side.”

For the elections… and beyond them

Whatever the result of June’s elections, the NUPES is a breakthrough towards the consolidation of a big-tent progressive force in France. The path towards an actual NUPES government in 2022 may be difficult, but with French conservatives either divided or absorbed by Macron, the Left has captured a degree of political momentum that it has not enjoyed for years.

If it outlasts the upcoming electoral cycle and anchors itself in the political landscape, the NUPES would represent a crucial departure from what has been the status quo on the Left. For years, a host of debates on everything from France’s treatment of its Muslim minority to the European Union and the politics of austerity has riddled the Left with seemingly intractable divisions. These divisions were again felt in the lead-up to the April vote, when the major left-wing formations ran separate presidential candidacies. But partisan jockeying like this was massively rejected by progressive voters, who largely rallied around Mélenchon’s candidacy, which finished just over 400,000 votes short of the second-round runoff.

While some ousted party leaders from the PS and the Greens hurl invectives from the sidelines, or sponsor dissident candidacies in some districts, the NUPES has revealed a refreshing changing-of-the-guard in the leadership of the French Left. A new generation of activists and political figures are eager to move beyond the divisions of recent decades, and the political and ideological tripping stones that opened the door to Macron and the rise of the far-right.

For ex-Macronist Taché, reversing the far right’s sway in France will require the Left to work along two main principles: “We need to say very clearly, ‘stop suggesting that certain people are a threat to the Republic because of their religion.’ And then, of course, we need to improve the social and economic conditions of all French people.”

Meanwhile, for Trouvé, who comes out of the alter-globalization movement and was for several years co-president and then spokesperson of the iconic alter-globalization organization ATTAC: “I always thought that there are two key paths to transforming society. There are social movements, and then there’s the question of conquering institutions.”

Although it’s an electoral alliance for now, Chikirou argues that seeing the NUPES as a simple matter of tactical “necessity” would be reductive. “It’s most of all a programmatic alliance!”, she rejoices. “We were able to agree on 650 propositions. That’s not nothing. We didn’t come out of the talks with a sheet with 15 vague principles. There are 650 precise propositions, and on the points where we don’t agree – of which there were 30 or so that came up – we agreed that it would be the National Assembly that would decide, through parliamentary debates.”

Trouvé will be at the frontlines of preserving this unity. During the presidential campaign, she was tapped as the president of the “parliament” of the Popular Union, Mélenchon’s campaign structure that is now evolving into the meeting ground for the NUPES. The goal for this body in its next stages will be to bring together parliamentary groups, but also associations, unions, cultural figures and intellectuals. “As I see it, it will be a space for connection with society,” Trouvé stipulates, claiming that there is a genuine desire for pluralism among these forces.

For Taché, the last few years have been galvanizing, and at times radicalizing. “Seeing the degree to which people are suffering right now from racism and poverty,” he noted, “I’m ready to support economic and social solutions that are much more radical.”

What’s next for the NUPES is the cultivation of what Chikirou calls a “common culture” of governing and politics. “June 19 will be the beginning of something,” she predicts. “Will that something be us in power, in which case we’ll have to learn how to govern together, to put in to action our program? Or will we be preparing for future electoral cycles, and learning how to be build an opposition together? Whatever happens, this is not going to stop on June 19. That’s certain.”