Emmanuel Macron’s Precarious Hold on France

Emmanuel Macron’s Precarious Hold on France

Ahead of this month’s parliamentary elections, the French left has reemerged as the primary opposition to the president.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon at the inaugural convention for NUPES (JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

This February, La Disparition?, a documentary about the rise and fall of France’s Parti Socialiste, was released to little acclaim. Those looking for a serious reckoning with the state of the French left will have to look elsewhere, but its failures are revealing. The film rushes through the pressures that led the party to abandon its winning (and quite radical) 1981 program and ignores the causes of its recent collapse. Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s break from the party is a sideshow, as are the deep rifts over Islam and the European Union that have haunted the left in recent decades. Featuring Julien Dray, a party veteran, and Matthieu Sapin, a cartoonist with the center-left daily Libération, the documentary offers wry anecdotes about François Mitterrand and dime-a-dozen insights about combining realism with idealism. In one strange moment, Dray, who unlike Mélenchon would linger on in the party, repeatedly tells Sapin that the PS’s defeat in the 2007 presidential election was nonetheless a “great campaign,” as if he were trying to convince himself. Before Sapin could take to the stage for a Q&A after a screening in Paris, a pair of moviegoers made a break for the door, fists clenched and shouting, “Vote Jean-Luc Mélenchon on April 10!”

Mélenchon would finish a close third in the first round of the presidential elections, which seemed to relegate the left to the status of spectator of France’s political realignment. In the April 24 runoff, Emmanuel Macron beat far-right opponent Marine Le Pen to considerably less fanfare than in 2017, when the two last faced each other at the polls. Back then, Macron was hailed as the savior of Atlantic centrism. Five years later, he’s a tired second-term president, weathered by years of tactical concessions and maneuvers. The first incumbent reelected to the country’s highest office since 2002, he heads a battered coalition under pressure from a restive left and right.

On the right, Le Pen made significant gains that will be difficult to reverse in the years ahead. “The ideas that we stand for are reaching new heights,” Le Pen gloated in her concession speech. “Coming out of these elections, a grand political realignment has taken place in this country, erasing the formerly dominant parties, and affirming that the national bloc is the real opposition to self-appointed elites like Macron.”

To a certain degree, she’s right. The Macron years have not only seen France’s shift to the right—they have accelerated it. The president’s dominant governing and communications strategy, orchestrated mainly by his most powerful ministers, has been to welcome Le Pen and the far right’s ideas into the center of the political debate. The country is now reaping the fruits of this triangulation. The vote totals earned by Le Pen’s Rassemblement National—she lost to Macron by the margin of 58.55 to 41.45 percent—approach that of a significant competitor in a two-party system.

The results of the first round, which usually gives voters the chance to line up behind a candidate closer to their convictions, revealed a more dramatic realignment—and some better news for the left. On April 10, Macron finished in first place with 27.85 percent, closely followed by Le Pen at 23.15 percent and Mélenchon at 21.95 percent, a few hundred thousand votes from qualification. A second tier of candidates, including the far-right pundit Éric Zemmour and the Greens, lingered far behind the leading trio, all with vote totals under 10 percent. The center-right Républicains and the PS, formerly the gatekeepers of national power, earned 4.78 and 1.75 percent of the vote respectively, pushing both parties to the brink of financial ruin and raising questions about their continued existence.

Compare this election with the twilight of France’s old political order in 2012. That year, what the French like to call the “parties of government”—the PS, the Républicains (then known as the UMP), and the centrist MoDem (now a junior partner in Macron’s coalition)—split between them nearly 65 percent of the first-round vote. Since then, the floor has fallen out. From roughly a third of the vote in 2012, the radical left and right have swollen to over 55 percent of the first-round electorate.

It’s a simplification to put these two groups into one basket—the “extremes” in the plural, as Macron likes to call them. The nationalist restoration dreamed of by Le Pen and Zemmour has nothing in common with the new left’s calls for a “citizens’ revolution,” ecological planning, wealth redistribution, and a liberal (and originalist) interpretation of secularism, prioritizing the protection of an individual’s right to practice their faith.

But it’s true that what was long an anti-systemic temperament in French politics has by now fully exploded the traditional party system, leaving in its place a tripolar field. On the right, Zemmour’s dream of an alliance of conservative forces has largely taken place, but behind Le Pen, as the old distinction between the extremists and the center right becomes increasingly obsolete. Whether Le Pen leads it in the future or not is a moot point: the right is unifying around the defense of a supposedly besieged French identity and the virtues of national capitalism over decadent globalism. Mélenchon has, for his part, eclipsed the center-left’s hold on progressivism with a convincing and radical program. In early May, after months of stalling, the Greens, the Communists, and the PS joined forces with Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI). All four parties will run under the banner of the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Social (NUPES) in this month’s parliamentary elections.

Eulogizing the disappearance of the PS misses this crucial fact: it’s been decades since the conditions for a broad left-wing force have been as promising as they are now. Mélenchon’s flaws are many, but his dominant position among progressives has succeeded in bridging the gap between the center left and the far left. On Sunday, June 12, France will vote in the first round of the parliamentary election to determine the make-up of the 577-seat National Assembly. Although Macron may still win a majority off the momentum of his reelection, the race has only tightened since the creation of the left-wing alliance, with recent polling suggesting that the NUPES could even emerge from the June 12 round in first place. After an electoral season that seemed to crystalize the far right’s unceasing advance in France, the NUPES alliance might indicate the outlines of a shift. From marginalized third pole in French politics, the left is conceivably on the cusp of dominating the opposition to Macron.

In April’s presidential election, Macron’s trump card was opposition to the far right. Even voters on the left who had been disgusted by the president’s massaging of conservative sympathies, his pre-pandemic assaults on welfare benefits, or his expansion of police powers chose to support him to keep out Le Pen. 

“Many of our compatriots voted for me not out of support for the ideas that I stand for, but to block those of the far right, and I carry that like an obligation,” he acknowledged in his victory speech, before changing sides: “Our compatriots who today chose the extreme right, their anger and disagreements also deserve a response. That is a responsibility for me and those alongside me.”

Since 2017, Macron has positioned himself astride France’s traditional political class, carving out a coalition of voters formerly divided between the old center right and center left. In fact, this strategy originated in the right wing of the PS, where policy wonks pored over analyses of the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party. One highly influential Terra Nova Foundation report published in 2011—something of a bible of Macronism, according to the sociologists Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini—prophesied the collapse of the traditional electoral alliances undergirding the French party system, and specifically the PS.

What this shift seemed to augur was the rise of a dominant middle-class bloc, socially progressive but eager to turn the page on lip service to the working class and the welfare state. “Beyond left and right,” “liberating” entrepreneurial prowess, and “protecting” everyone else have long been Macronist talking points. They have been joined in recent months by claims to harmonize “rights” with “duties,” preparing the ground for second-term austerity battles over raising the retirement age or substituting social aid with workfare.

In some ways, Macron has outdone the New Democrats by peeling away not only a significant wing of conservative voters but also leading politicians. The heavyweights of the last five years have been converts from the right: Finance and Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, formerly of the Républicains; the tough-on-crime ex-Sarkozyist Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin; and, running National Education, the culture warrior Jean-Michel Blanquer. Macron’s first prime minister and self-appointed heir apparent Édouard Philippe leads the micro-party Horizons, which has sought to institutionalize a right-wing pole in alliance with Macron’s En Marche, rebranded as Renaissance. In the final years of Macron’s first term, Darmanin and Blanquer led the government’s efforts to avert popular opposition to austerity through staunch security rhetoric and witch hunts against “Islamo-Leftists,” a right-wing conspiracy theory according to which progressive activists and intellectuals are in league with Muslim terrorism. (With the center and the far right converging on the narrative of a French clash of civilization with Islam, as many as 69 percent of voting French Muslims supported Mélenchon in April.)

In recent weeks, Macron has made some gestures to the progressive side of his base. On May 16, he designated Élisabeth Borne, who was formerly close to the PS, as his next prime minister. Blanquer didn’t survive the cabinet shuffle, and the biggest surprise was his replacement by the respected historian of black America Pap Ndiaye. This transfer of power—from the former business school president turned scourge of “wokisme” to the author of La Condition Noire— has sent the right-wing mediasphere into overdrive, lambasting the government’s supposed flattering of “indigénisme,” the French conservative equivalent of critical race theory.

This outpouring is a symptom of the right’s relative marginalization since the emergence of the NUPES coalition, with Le Pen and the Républicains setting minimal ambitions for June’s elections. It is also a result of the political climate since 2017. Navigating France’s shattered political field, Macron and the wing of the political class he has rallied together have so far opted to court voters tempted by the right, a strategic choice that will probably outlive the president’s recent overtures to progressives. If he holds on to his parliamentary majority through the legislative elections, there’s little reason to think that this hardening reflex will cease being the defining factor in French politics.

In the span of a few short weeks, the left has reemerged as the primary threat to the reelected president. This is the silver lining of April’s defeat. Despite Macron’s efforts since 2017 to triangulate with Le Pen, and the nonstop media megaphone granted to culture-war provocateurs, the presidential election was nearly the stage for a shocking upset: Mélenchon fell merely 400,000 votes short of qualifying for the runoff, a margin easily gained from the voters divided between the other progressive candidates. The results attest to the vibrancy of a significant sphere of French society that rejects both the far right and Macronism.

“For the left, [the presidential election] was a major missed opportunity,” said Sandrine Rousseau, a leading figure in the Greens and MP candidate in Paris, in April. “It’s the voters that chose unity. That’s what leaves me with a sense of anger. The parties skirted an alliance that voters clearly wanted.”

Rousseau is part of a new generation of activists and politicians that wants to take France’s Green Party toward a more radical political ecology. In the party’s primary last October, she came a close second to centrist candidate Yannick Jadot, finishing just a few hundred votes shy of representing the party. She was also one of the party’s most vocal advocates for a pre-presidential election left alliance; her outspokenness ultimately led to her expulsion from Jadot’s campaign committee in March.

“I think the Greens convinced themselves that we were going to become the next Parti Socialiste on the left,” Rousseau said. “And people told themselves that in order to take its place, we needed to soften our message. For me, it’s the exact opposite. If the PS is as weak as it is, that’s because there no longer is a desire for a moderate left.”

In April, the PS, the Communists, and the Greens sought just as much to position themselves as anti-Mélenchon as in opposition to the incumbent Macron. For Jadot and Anne Hidalgo, leader of the PS, this meant highlighting Mélenchon’s prior equivocations on Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders, including Mélenchon’s hesitation to condemn the 2014 annexation of Crimea. While the PS and the Greens endorsed military aid to Ukraine, Mélenchon voiced opposition to military support and favored limited sanctions that closely target just the top of Russian society.

The response to Ukraine is just one of a number of sincere differences between Mélenchon and the other parties. Nuclear energy—defended by the right, Macron, and the Communists—has become the flashpoint in an important ecological debate between advocates of a de-fossilized sustainable development and a more radical degrowth environmentalism supported by Mélenchon. The European Union has been a major source of disagreement since at least 2005, when Mélenchon was one of the key spokesmen for a “no” vote in the European Constitution referendum. Mélenchon’s personality and leadership style—dogmatic and trained toward doctrinal discipline—have long raised objections from other parts of the left. The left-wing leader has also made anti-Semitic statements. In an October 2021 television interview, Mélenchon absurdly argued that Zemmour (a Vichy apologist) could not be an anti-Semite because his reactionary politics were emanations of the “cultural scenarios” of his Jewish heritage.

The majority of voters on the left have paid little attention to these debates and have rallied behind Mélenchon’s program. While he no doubt attracted voters eager to see a progressive candidate confront Macron in the presidential runoff, Mélenchon’s strong showing in April is the culmination of a long strategy that has seen the ex-PS left-winger create a large autonomous force that is free from the historical and ideological baggage of the center left. Helped by a centrifugal partisan and electoral system, Mélenchon has avoided the fate suffered by his left-populist peers like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, who had to contend directly with the conservative apparatuses of the Democratic and Labour Parties. His broad-based radicalism also harks back to the initial promises of Mitterrand’s 1981 PS, abandoned in the face of international economic pressure much to the approval of the party’s right-wing current. LFI’s big-ticket proposals—a drop in the retirement age to sixty, a universal income for students and young adults, increases in minimum wage, and ecological planning—are echoes of that earlier era.

The NUPES alliance ratifies those aspects of Mélenchon’s program. One must credit the current leaders of the Greens and the PS who have had the grit to resist pressure from within their own parties to reject the alliance. In coalition, Mélenchon has also moderated some of his positions. Unlike in 2017, when he suggested a “French exit” from the EU, Mélenchon’s Europe program, embraced by the NUPES, now prioritizes the need for “disobedience” from EU austerity rules.

The key question in the months and years to come will be whether this new alliance can lead to new gains for the left. France’s tripolar political field has remained surprisingly stable since it started to take shape in 2017 with the left as the underdog. In this time, France has seen major protests over wealth inequality, a global pandemic, a feminist revival, an outbreak of war in Europe, and an increasing public mobilization over climate change. Through it all, Macron has continued to hollow out the old parties of government, especially on the center right, where Le Pen’s dominance has diminished the room to operate. In part because of the crises driving France’s political realignment, Mélenchon is now more credible to voters who five or ten years ago would have not taken him seriously. But the centrist bloc still has French politics in a tactical hold.

According to Rousseau, there’s still a “cultural battle” to be won, pushing the left’s aspirations and solutions to the forefront of the political debate. A stark contrast to the old patchwork of parties, or the old opposition between protest vote and serious governing proposition, the NUPES umbrella could provide the terrain to make this possible. June’s elections are a test of the left’s ability to pick off support from just about everywhere in French society: abstentionists, working-class Le Pen supporters, and even some professional and middle-class voters tempted by Macron. If it can succeed, the NUPES can be the political big bang needed to shake France’s stasis and start reversing the country’s drift toward the far right.

Harrison Stetler is an independent journalist and teacher based in Paris. He has written for the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, Jacobin, and the New Republic, among other French and American publications.