The French Left’s Delicate Unity

The French Left’s Delicate Unity

Voters understand that a left unity pact provides the only path to victory on the national level.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon gives a speech at a La France Insoumise event in August 25, 2023. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images)

In many respects, the French left is one of the strongest in Europe. Its loose coalition of parties—the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES)—makes up the biggest opposition bloc in the National Assembly, counting dozens more seats than the far-right National Rally.

These parties aren’t just competing for influence or local power; they’re in a position to seriously contend for the presidency in 2027 and take home a plurality of votes in the next legislative elections, whenever those are held. Much of that is due to the work of the coalition’s anchor party, La France Insoumise, and its emblematic founder Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the three-time presidential candidate who, in the 2022 campaign, complemented his core message of economic populism with bold calls to confront the climate crisis and tackle the long-neglected ills of racism and police violence. Mélenchon’s near-qualification for the run-off all but forced the other left-wing parties to rally around La France Insoumise ahead of the parliamentary elections. Division would’ve translated into fewer seats for each party.

But the mood has soured since NUPES was founded a year and a half ago. The coalition is teetering on the brink of collapse, with events in Israel and Gaza exposing weak spots and amplifying disagreements that are both ideological and strategic. Mélenchon’s refusal to call Hamas a “terrorist” organization (he preferred to condemn the group’s “war crimes”) sparked predictable outcry—but it also served as a reminder that La France Insoumise has yet to identify a successor to its seventy-two-year-old leader. His public utterances still serve as de facto party positions, with loyalists sidelining internal critics and eschewing longstanding calls to democratize the organization. All of it alienates would-be sympathizers. 

It’s unclear how much longer the current iteration of NUPES can last, even once the horrific war in Gaza fades from the news cycle. Haunted by a loud minority hostile to unity from day one, Socialist Party leaders have moved to suspend participation in the coalition’s regular meetings. The Greens are inconsistent and hard to read on a wide range of issues. And the Communists have Fabien Roussel, an attention-obsessed national secretary whose endless forays into right-wing culture wars are adored by the left’s adversaries and accepted by party high brass because they generate visibility in the national press. The parties in NUPES are set to run separate lists in the 2024 elections for European Parliament, opting for a chance to reset the coalition’s internal power dynamics over the possibility of a first-place finish.

Meanwhile, the far right continues to gain strength. With President Emmanuel Macron and his allies focusing so much of their ire on the left over the last year—feeling the heat after revolts over pension reform and police violence—Marine Le Pen and her party, the National Rally, have gained in respectability. 

What’s it going to take for progressives to outmaneuver their rivals? 

For one, the parties will need to rediscover their delicate unity; the stakes are too high to continue infighting. Party leaders would do well to listen to their own voters, many of whom favor such a pact because they understand it provides the only path to victory on the national level. Unfortunately, many officials seem more interested in the health of their individual organizations than the body politic. 

But to win, the left is also going to need to reach new voters. It needs higher turnout in both white working-class rural regions and more racially diverse working-class urban areas. At the same time, it can’t afford to scare off middle-class voters who have historically proven pivotal in national elections. As MP François Ruffin of La France Insoumise often points out, the success of the French left has long hinged on the strength of this cross-class alliance, from the Revolution of 1789 to the election of Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981.

Now one of the party’s most recognizable figures, Ruffin is often floated as a potential successor to Mélenchon. The former journalist represents a largely working-class district in the north of France—the type of district that increasingly votes for Le Pen, but which Ruffin has nevertheless managed to win for the last two elections cycles. When I spoke with him at his party’s annual summer school near Valence in August 2023, he emphasized the importance of tone. At a time of crisis and instability, he argued the left needs to reassure the French public. 

“The program of the radical left has become the program of the left as a whole, and it’s ready to be adopted by a majority of the French people,” Ruffin told me, listing off popular measures like indexing wages to inflation and hiking taxes on the wealthy. “But we’ve maintained our way of being from before, and we still feel obligated to insist on radicality, radicality, radicality. If you go talk to normal people, they don’t want radicality, they want pragmatism. I worry we have a tone that doesn’t match the state of the country.”

That doesn’t mean compromising on the underlying program, but it does mean rethinking how ideas are presented. As Ruffin put it: “Do we need to divide more, or do we need to bring people together? Do we need to make people more tense, or do we need to calm them? We’ve embodied anger; we need to offer hope.”

It’s a difficult tightrope act to maintain a bold program that can inspire different groups within a diverse and multiracial country, all while conserving political unity. And yet there’s no other choice if the left wants to govern France.

Cole Stangler is a journalist based in France. He is the author of Paris Is Not Dead: Surviving Hypergentrification in the City of Light (New Press, 2023). 

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