From a fragmented French left to a fragile coalition: Is the newly united French left ready to take on Macron?

On the heels of the presidential elections and just about two months after Emmanuel Macron won a second five-year term as France’s president, French voters are asked to head back to the polls and cast their ballots once more. The élections législatives are of great importance, as the parliamentary vote will settle the make-up of the government and could also coerce the president into a coalition with a prime minister from the opposition. This power-sharing scenario is called cohabitation and could mean political paralysis for Macron by curtailing his ability to push through his agenda. 

Whereas two months ago, the French left found itself gridlocked in internal squabbles and sniping, the once fractious left decided to join forces with the aim of blocking Macron from getting a majority in parliament. Previous attempts to unite the French left had fallen short, but with criticism mounting, the formerly disarrayed left has recently sprung into action by throwing its hat into the ring under the banner of the five-party coalition “Nouvelle union populaire écologique et sociale” (NUPES) in a last-ditch attempt to bridge the gap between France’s socialists, greens, and communists. The coalition consists of Mélenchon’s party La France Insoumise (LFI), the Parti Socialiste (PS), the Parti communiste français (PCF), Europe Écologie – Les Verts (EELV), Ensemble!, and Génération.s, as well as their respective partners.

But how do the elections even work? And is the united French left ready to challenge Macron? 

Facts and figures about the élections législatives

The election will see 577 députés or MPs elected to the Assemblée Nationale for a five-year term. The legislative elections are held in each constituency, using a two-round majority voting system. After the first round of voting last Sunday (June 12), the run-off vote will happen this Sunday, on June 19. A candidate needs over half the vote as well as a minimum of 25% of registered voters in a constituency to be elected in the first round. Alternatively, the top two candidates in a constituency, as well as any other candidate who got at least 12.5% of votes, go through to face off in the second round, where the candidate who gets the most votes wins. With a record abstention rate of 52.3% during the first round last Sunday (the lowest voter turnout in the parliamentary elections since 1958), the legislative elections are marked by dwindling participation and a disillusionment of French people with political institutions even though the elections are of great importance. As Macron stated in a speech on June 9: “Si l’élection du Président de la République est cruciale, l’élection des députés est décisive.”

While the second round of the presidential elections two months ago was a two-horse race between Macron and Le Pen, the parliamentary elections will be a toss-up between the centrist movement Ensemble citoyens and the left-wing coalition NUPES. The centrist Ensemble alliance consists of three main parties: Macron’s La République En Marche!, the Mouvement Démocrate, the party Horizons and four smaller ones. Since many voters were only backing Macron during the last election to rein in the rise of the far-right rather than because of enthusiasm for Macron’s political agenda, France’s president now had to enter the fray and take it up with other parties vying for seats in the Assemblée Nationale to maintain the majority in parliament that he enjoyed during his last term.

From a divided French left to a united one? Disagreements and policy differences within the freshly-formed NUPES coalition

After a rocky ride in the presidential elections two months ago, the French left has now decided to showcase unity in order to make its voice heard in the public sphere. While the unification of left parties was a necessary first step to increase the French left’s chances in parliamentary elections, one shouldn’t trivialise the fact that NUPES is a fragile coalition with significant differences of opinion on some focal points: Disagreements with regard to the use of nuclear power and the relationship with the EU and NATO seem to have been papered over rather than tackled and resolved:

There are major policy differences on Europe, where the NUPES coalition is determined to “redirect the course of European integration towards more social justice, better environmental policies, and to defending public services”. However, the party’s respective stances on Europe considerably deviate from each other. La France insoumise presents itself as a movement that might “disobey” EU law, should the EU hinder the alliance from carrying out its programme. The EELV claims to “support a federal Europe” and the PS is “strongly committed to pursuing European integration”. Regarding NATO, one can also find staggering differences of opinion when comparing the different party’s stances: La France insoumise remains sceptic of NATO, whereas the Parti socialiste is commited to France’s NATO membership.

Even though the coalition managed to agree on an impressive number of objectives, e.g the ecology and solidarity programme, criticism of the coalition and Mélenchon in particular also emanates from within the left, namely from some of his former Socialist party members (despite the fact that the Parti Socialiste is also part of the NUPES coalition). Mélenchon bowed out of the PS in 2008 to form his own movement, and ever since then, his rise on the far-left has been frowned upon by some in his former party. 

With regard to foreign policy, the coalition’s election programme claims that NUPES is determined to “defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity”. Even though this aspiration is commendable, it is also a claim that remains rather opaque. The election programme dodges concrete strategies the NUPES coalition would implement to defend Ukraine and takes an evasive approach on this matter.

Despite these facts, however, the resurgence of the formerly marginalised French left and the freshly-formed alliance sparked elated reactions in significant parts of its electorate. The wish for a new political dynamic and a breath of fresh air especially in working-class areas and among young people and the determination of the left’s electorate could thus lay the foundations for an impressive return to the political stage. Whether Mélenchon’s aim to become France’s next prime minister was just a pipe dream or could soon develop into an attainable goal, remains to be seen. But after coming out neck and neck with Macron’s Ensemble coalition during the first round last Sunday, it has become clear that the French left has undoubtedly fought its way back into the political limelight and is back on the political stage – regardless of how the situation unfolds on June 19.

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