The French Left at the Eve of the Presidential Election

Almost five years of ‘Hollandism’ has left progressive political forces in disarray and poisoned up to the very idea of the Left.

With – most notably – the implementation of a neoliberal Labour Law challenging the essence of collective bargaining and the quasi permanent state of emergency, the Socialist Party-led French government gave up on most of which the Left has ever stood for, destroying the credibility of all its diverse components to the eyes of a growing number of citizens.
Despite the biggest trade union-led mobilisation in over a decade and the emergence of the Nuit Debout movement calling for a different politics, polls unanimously and constantly show that all parties claiming membership to the Left do not exceed 30% of voting intentions [1], therefore leaving the presidential election’s to the conservative right and the far right. This hazardous situation led some progressive parties’ top figures to start meeting up in early 2016 and try to come together to prevent a disaster.

Attempts for the setting up of a broad Left primary election

PCF leader Pierre Laurent responded positively to the call for a Left primary election launched in January 2016 by the economist Thomas Piketty, while referring to the seriousness of the situation to justify his move towards such an alien electoral mechanism to the party’s culture. Public and private meetings were held with politicians from Europe Ecologie – Les Verts (EE-LV, Green Party), left-wingers of the Socialist Party and representatives of Ensemble (component of the Front de Gauche) to try determining a common set of values and proposals in order to lay the ground for the setting up of a broad Left primary election.
There was at first a confusion with regard to whom was allowed to take part in it. Should the spectrum be as wide as to welcome President Holland to compete, or should rather the opposition to the Labour Law be the criterion for participation? Jean-Luc Mélenchon used the space opened up by this strategic debate to refuse the very idea of a Left primary election and launched instead his own campaign. By doing so, he considerably undermined the possibility of such a competition to occur on the one hand and changed the traditional political landscape on the other.
He decided not to run as the candidate of his party, Parti de Gauche, but rather as the representative of a new political movement called France Insoumise (Unsubdued France) willing to go beyond party politics. This type of organisation is new to the French political landscape. It clearly finds inspiration in Podemos, especially regarding the structural cleavage it puts forward (people versus oligarchy). As for its programme, it contains major parts of that of the Front de Gauche, as well as a clear orientation towards the ecological transformation of the country’s productive fabric – with an ambitious goal of achieving 100% of renewable energy by 2050, making of the energy transition a tool to reduce social inequalities at the same time.

Unitary candidacy out of reach

The efforts to build a unitary Left candidacy, even with the opposition to the Labour Law as a compass, did not succeed. The Greens decided to have a primary election of their own, and to run alone in an attempts to overcome the existential crisis they are confronted with; the Socialists were divided on the issue, with a party’s direction playing an ambiguous game to delay as much as possible their commitment – if not to make it impossible –, while the party’s left-wingers were at first willing to play along. It turned out that the PS will have a primary election for itself in January, together with the so-called frondeurs (those who more or less firmly oppose the government’s social and economic policies).
Under such circumstances, a unitary candidacy was out of reach. This is the reason why Pierre Laurent eventually called the PCF high delegates to vote for an autonomous support of Mélenchon – that is, outside of the framework of France Insoumise – at the November 5th national conference. The vote was only of indicative nature, paving the way for the actual one where all PCF activists whose membership fees were duly paid could take part in and which would engage the strategy of the party with regard to the presidential election.
The high delegates voted against Pierre Laurent’s recommendation and in favour of a communist candidacy with a comfortable majority of 55%. But a couple of weeks later on November 25th, in an unpredictable turn of events, the party members finally chose to make Jean-Luc Mélenchon their candidate with a majority of 53,6%, however without joining his political movement. It is too early to tell what it means in terms of concrete organisation for the campaign. Ensemble members voted the same way a little earlier.

Dividing lines are clear

What we are witnessing now is a coming together of the Front de Gauche political forces in a much looser manner than five years ago. The dividing lines are clear and might make the campaign a little complicated – to name but a few: nuclear plants, the European Union, the vision of laïcité, the competition over constituencies between PCF and FI for the legislative election. One can only hope that good sense will prevail, in a context of a strong and radicalised conservative right and a well-anchored social-chauvinist far right.
The question of how the Left will proceed to its necessary reconfiguration after the presidential election is as open as blurry. The Socialist Party has entered a phase of pasokisation and will therefore not play the leading role it has since the 1980s onwards. No one can tell for sure the shape it will take, but a lot of it will depend on the degree of France Insoumise success.


  1. After resigning from its position in the French government, Emmanuel Macron has launched his campaign and stated at many occasions that his programme was “neither left nor right”. We therefore decided not to include him as part of the French Left. Both his programme and strategy could very well be compared with those of Ciudadanos in Spain.