Could France’s left take the presidency in 2022?

To stand a chance, the Socialists, Greens, populists and Communists must to come together

(L-R) Possible candidates among France’s left-wing parties include Anne Hidalgo (PS), Jean-Luc Mélenchon (LFI, already declared), Yannick Jadot (EELV), Arnaud Montebourg (PS), Éric Piolle (EELV) and Fabien Roussel (LFI). Photos: Public Domain.

Can France’s fragmented left wing win the 2022 presidential election? Only if its parties sort out their differences and come together.

The French left has found itself on the political side-lines for the past four years. The reputation of the centre-left Parti socialiste (PS) was blemished after former president François Hollande‘s attempts to tackle unemployment and boost economic growth turned out to be limited. And the party’s choice to appoint Benoît Hamon, a politician similar to the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, as its 2017 presidential candidate detrimentally divided the party. PS gained only 4.8 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 election, compared to 28.6 percent in 2012.

This made it easy for President Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist party, La République en Marche (LREM), to occupy France’s centre-left and transcend the left-right divide. Numerous politicians from PS, including Élisabeth Borne, Gérard Collomb and Christophe Castaner, joined Mr Macron’s “catch-all” movement.

“Any candidate will capture the left wing”

Four years on, France’s political landscape may be in for another transformation. A handful of politicians from PS have dipped their toes into presidential waters over the past few weeks. Anne Hidalgo, who is currently Mayor of Paris, and Arnaud Montebourg, who served as Minister for Industrial Renewal under François Hollande, are two politicians who may seek the PS candidacy. Neither has officially declared presidential ambitions, however.

Several recent victories have given PS a boost as it turns its eyes to the Élysée. Mrs Hidalgo secured a second term as mayor of Paris in the 2020 municipal elections, with LREM’s candidate, Agnes Buzyn, coming in third place. PS also gained ground in Rennes, Dijon, Nantes, Rouen and Clermont-Ferrand.

France’s green party, Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV), is also fired up. Possible EELV candidates could be MEP Yannick Jadot or Éric Piolle, currently Mayor of Grenoble. Last year’s municipal elections saw EELV take Lyon and Strasbourg as well as Bordeaux, which had been conservative since 1947. No green politician has officially declared their candidacy, as it stands.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the radical left-wing party La France Insoumise (LFI) is the only well-known politician to have already declared his presidential candidacy. His party took 19.6 percent of the vote in the first round of 2017.

The Parti communiste français (PCF) has been less present in times of late. It won no seats in the European elections in 2019. The decision of the majority of the Front de gauche [Left Front] – of which LFI and the PCF were part until its dissolution in 2018 – to support Mr Mélenchon in recent elections has perhaps led LFI to eclipse the PCF. This may not be the case in 2022, however, given the comments of PCF national secretary Fabien Roussel that the left needs a communist candidate. The PCF campaigns separately from LFI, but it will have to make a big effort to raise its profile if it wishes to be influential in the run up to 2022.

The range of opinion across the French left is incredibly diverse. However, French left-wing parties must be united if they wish to win in 2022.

Candidates only have a chance at winning French presidential elections if they reach the top two in the election’s first round. As things stand, a left-wing candidate needs to close in on President Macron or Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement national (RN).

Uniting the left around one candidate will be essential to doing this. If PS, the Greens, LFI and the PCF remain fragmented, their individual vote shares are likely to be insufficient in rivalling Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen. One MP from the centre-right party Les Républicains (LR) told La Dépêche last week that “Any [left-wing] candidate will capture the left-wing voters who elected Macron in 2017. […] Against Montebourg, Hidalgo would win the match, but if they can’t agree then no one will win the match.” 

The question now is whether France’s left-wing parties will be able to reconcile themselves underneath the same banner.

1. Can the left agree on green issues? 

EELV are particularly influential after the “green wave” of last year’s municipal elections. But can the Greens agree with the rest of the left and vice versa? Yannick Jadot has argued that PS is a “form of comfort” and that the French left needs a more radical movement which is capable of addressing the climate emergency. Yet, at the same time, Mr Jadot appears to be acutely aware of the need for a “unique candidacy for a grouping which goes from Mélenchon to Macron”. 

One EELV member said recently that “until June, dialogue with the Socialists is impossible”. But once EELV has presented its own case, could it converge with a member of PS, such as Mrs Hidalgo? The Mayor of Paris has brought green issues to the fore in recent months, with an extensive plan to pedestrianise larger parts of the city despite significant opposition from lobbyists, install 50km of new bike lanes and reduce pollution.

Or could Mr Montebourg merge PS and the écologistes? Head of a beekeeping business, he has spoken out against insecticides. And whilst Minister for Industrial Renewal, the minister unveiled the “New Industrial France” programme with François Hollande, providing support for multiple green innovations. Yet, as reported in Le Parisien, Mr Montebourg’s “productivist” side, along with a focus upon economic growth, might make him less attractive to the Greens. If a successful presidential candidate, Mr Montebourg may have to reassure the Greens that his economic policy would take a resolutely environmentally friendly approach.

As for Mr Mélenchon, the LFI leader has appeared reluctant to merge with the Greens at times, wishing instead to promote his party’s undiluted policies. But things may soon change. Mr Piolle has signalled an interest in converging with Mr Mélenchon, who has likewise said that the two parties must “savour the things upon which we agree”. And if the PCF does gain ground over the next few months, would it branch out on green issues as well? The PCF‘s Environment Network launched a document several months ago arguing that businesses must be forced to adhere to ecological checks, revealing common ground.

2. Can the left agree on national values, laïcité and national security?

The left must adopt a common narrative in relation to Republican values of libertéégalité and fraternité, and take the same line on laïcité (France’s policy of separating religion from the public domain – see this blog post). Laïcité has been an important topic for Mr Macron regarding radicalisation, terrorism and national security, and the issue will not disappear after 2022.

PS general secretary Olivier Faure told L’Express recently that “PS has lost this battle” over the past few years. By contrast, Mrs Hidalgo has wasted no time laying down her commitment to laïcitéaccusing EELV of having “a problem” with the Republic in November 2020. She cited EELV’s reluctance to dedicate a public square to teacher Samuel Paty, who was murdered by Islamist extremists in October 2020 after showing a satirical cartoon to his pupils.

The event has caused a bit of a rupture between PS and the Greens. In response to Mrs Hidalgo’s comments, EELV’s national secretary, Julien Bayou, posted on Twitter that “We are waiting for an APOLOGY.” Settling any differences between Hidalgo and EELV on laïcité will be crucial if there is to be a strong left alliance in 2022.

There are, however, signs of PSEELV convergence on laïcité. Mr Jadot has spoken out against “groups which try to question secularisation and leave behind the laws of the Republic in the name of an ideology or religious principles”, showing that a compromise may not be far off.

And in 2019, Mr Jadot chose not to turn up to a protest against “liberticidal laws” which some deem to be “Islamophobic” (see this blog post for an explainer), in the name of national security. PS general secretary Olivier Faure said that his party’s decision not to attend the protest either was to “encourage all of the left to ask itself questions”.

Therefore, despite having to make individual sacrifices, there is potential for a compromise on laïcité between EELV and PS. Treading a decisive line state-religion separation will be important for convincing French voters of the left’s credibility in a 2022 election shaped by questions of national security.

As for Mr Montebourg, the socialist politician has so far been relatively quiet on laïcité. His remarks during an interview in 2017 may given an indication as to his possible stance in 2022. Mr Montebourg has emphasised his view that there is a fine line between restricting confessional liberty in the public sphere to reinforce security and accommodating individual liberties:

“I reject the tyranny of the minority. The tyranny of the minority is, if you like, those who would like to impose their individual communitarian law on general law. And I reject the tyranny of the majority, who would like France to end up being a rooted identity which is thought to refuse difference and would like to impose it upon the minority. […] I want neither one nor the other.”

There is strong evidence to support both arguments. Yet, in 2022, Mr Montebourg’s indecision may not sit well with those who are concerned about the impact of religious separatism in France. Over 80 percent of French citizens believe that laïcité is a crucial part of French identity, according to a recent poll.

Uniting the left around a common narrative on laïcité within the context of national security may be more challenging for Mr Mélenchon’s LFI. In November 2020, he argued that there is a “hatred for Muslims disguised by laïcité“. There is a strong argument for denouncing politicised laïcité (see this blog post). Yet, many believe efforts to move religious matters further away from the public domain are justified given recent attacks by radicalised Islamists. On balance, Mr Mélenchon has underlined that he is “against all communitarianism”. PS and EELV may encourage Mr Mélenchon to make his beliefs clearer over the next few months, however, and engineer a common approach. If Mr Jadot wins the green nomination, he may adopt a similar narrative to Mrs Hidalgo, which could in turn push Mr Mélenchon to draw closer.

As for the PCF, the fact that Mr Roussel decided not to join the aforementioned Autumn 2019 protest may give an indication as to how he could proceed regarding laïcité. The party also launched a statement demonstrating a clear desire to uphold state secularism whilst condemning the politicisation of this core Republican value by some as a “tool of exclusion and discrimination”. This just goes to show how sensitive an issue laïcité is, and how important it is for the left to tread carefully and diplomatically.

3. Can the left reach all of its corners? 

A successful left-wing presidential candidate must draw in voters ranging from the radical left to the centre. Appealing to the working class as well as the middle class will be imperative. This is particularly important post-Covid, given that unemployment in France reached nine percent in the third trimester of 2020.

In times of late, Mr Montebourg has spent much time discussing deindustrialisation (see this blog post) and an approach towards managing globalisation. According to Le Parisien, Mr Montebourg promotes “soft populism” by discussing “deglobalisation, Made in France, reindustrialisation and the reconquest of French sovereignty”. 

Promoting these issues, along with his experience as Minister for Industrial Renewal under Hollande, could assist the left in appealing to voters who are caught in the headlights of rapid economic change. The far-right Rassemblement national, led by Marine Le Pen, gained 37 percent of the working-class vote during the first round of the 2017 election. This is ground which the French left ought to regain; balancing the global with the local may be a useful means of doing so.

LFI’s Mélenchon was also popular among working-class voters in 2017, gaining the support of 24 percent of working-class voters and 31 percent of unemployed voters. This popularity may well continue into 2022. Mr Mélenchon remains seen as the left’s most radical candidate; moving into the centre-left will be his greatest challenge.

Additionally, if the PCF does decide to stand against Mr Mélenchon – who, according to Mr Roussel, launched his bid “without asking our opinion” – the LFI‘s support base could be divided. Mr Roussel has been vocal about problems of deindustrialisation. Yet the PCF, which lacks support, may find it hard to distinguish itself from the larger LFI.

Some see Mrs Hidalgo of PS as a candidate for “bourgeois bohemians”. However, being the daughter of Spanish immigrants and the mayor of one of France’s most culturally diverse cities, Mrs Hidalgo could be one of the left’s more suitable candidates when it comes to matters of multiculturalism. Yet Mrs Hidalgo must show herself to be as focused upon the country’s poorer banlieues [suburbs] and the country’s southern areas just as much as Paris.

The Greens must make a similar effort to appeal to all areas of France. In last year’s municipal elections, most of the party’s wins were in urban centres. Yet EELV seems to be aware of the need to open to the left’s multiple dimensions. Mr Piolle mentions a strategy of “concentric circles”. This must be why the candidate travelled recently to the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The region is part of the Hauts-de-France, which has the lowest annual income rate of metropolitan France.

Can the left come together? 

If the left is to stand a good chance of taking the presidency in 2022, it must be united around one candidate. If fragmented, it will fail to knock out President Macron or Ms Le Pen before the second round. Ms Le Pen is a popular populist, and Mr Macron will be relying on support from the centre and centre-right.

Unity on the left may not come for several months, however. Each potential candidate will be keen to outline their own policies. This kind of nuanced discussion is a positive thing for the time being, as it should prevent a situation whereby the left finds itself without strong principles.

But potential left-wing candidates ought to keep in mind their position within a bigger picture. The crucial question for each one is whether they have the balance of principles and reflexivity required to weave the different parts of the left-wing fabric together.

Photos Anne Hidalgo: Jacques Paquier, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Jean-Luc Mélenchon: European Communities, 2016, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Yannick Jadot: Eric Coquelin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Arnaud Montebourg: OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Change made (cropped); Eric Piolle: Enzolesourt, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Fabien Roussel: Zouhair NAKARA, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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