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.

The Moria Catastrophe and the collective failure of the European Union

COVID-19 and the US presidential election: If you’ve turned on the news anytime in the past few weeks, you will probably have realised that these topics have been dominating the headlines incessantly. Magazines are cluttered with news about the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world and were littered with coverage of a particularly heated election campaign and a very unusual and rocky transfer of power in the US. 

The current situation on the Greek island of Lesbos, however, scarcely attracts coverage in the news cycle, even though hundreds of people have died and are still dying in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe: More than 1,000 migrants in 2019, 554 in 2020 and already 42 migrants in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya this January. These appalling figures showcase a social crisis and call for a total rethink of both policy and attitude towards immigration. The issue is by no means confined to Greece only, but rather is the most obvious and significant symptom of an asylum policy based on fortifying borders.

Solidarity, tolerance, justice: Europe’s noble but hypocritical values

The conditions under which EU states are housing refugees on Greek islands are nothing new, the final catastrophe had already been brewing for months – if not years. The devastating fire in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020 only highlighted the political deadlock and human cost of the status quo, and laid bare the failure of EU member states. The humanitarian fallout caused fury among journalists and activists, directed sharply towards the EU. Empty words on the part of the European Commission and a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, as well as a sheer lack of political willpower were met with widespread anger and seemed to typify the EU’s ambivalence towards the issue.

Two weeks after the Moria camp burnt down, the “Kara Tepe” camp was built and the people, who had just escaped intolerable conditions in Moria, found themselves in a refugee tent camp almost worse than the one before: Over 7,500 people are now living in a tent camp originally intended for 1000 people – among the dust and debris of a former military shooting range. Europe’s noble values – solidarity, tolerance, justice – probably sound like cynical mockery to those who are crammed into overcrowded tents and makeshift shelters with little to no access to water, food, sanitation and healthcare. 

But it’s not just Moria. The French port of Calais for example, has become a bottleneck for hundreds of migrants hoping to reach the United Kingdom – a journey now aggravated by Brexit. And since EU states like Hungary have put up border fences, the situation outside the EU has also become rather tense as migrants are looking for new routes: Many now try to enter the European Union via Bosnia. In December 2020, calls for help grew louder as thousands of migrants lost shelter after a blaze broke out at the so-called Lipa camp in Bosnia and had to live outside amid plummeting winter temperatures. Since early 2018, the EU has provided €89 million to Bosnia and continues to criticise the dire circumstances, as well as Bosnia’s dysfunctional migration management system to this day. 

And yet it is still hypocritical for the EU Commission to point a finger at Bosnia – after all, the EU member states themselves have also been unable to agree on a common asylum and migration policy. Especially now, as the EU border agency Frontex is accused of being involved in several illegal pushbacks on the part of Greek coast guards, it’s just duplicitous to call solidarity, tolerance and justice Europe’s values and at the same time tolerate that people are forcibly being prevented from seeking asylum in a country of the European Union – a right to which everyone arriving at the border of the EU is entitled. Passing the entire responsibility on to Bosnia and thinking that money alone will solve the problem will not be of any help. The EU should work with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to find systemic and long term solutions, since the crisis in Bosnia is simply a consequence of the EU fortifying its borders.

Worse than the lacklustre response to the refugee crisis per se, however, was the EU’s continued refusal to completely overhaul its dysfunctional asylum policy. The two main flaws of the EU’s short-sighted, inhumane, and ineffective asylum policy have been known for years: asylum applications always take too long to process and some European member states simply don’t want to cooperate and still wish to seal off their country completely. 

The EU’s solution strategies: unrealistic, bureaucratic and too late

On the 23rd of September 2020, the European Commission launched the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in an attempt to streamline the EU’s policies in this area. 

Immediately after the pact was announced, it came under fire for allowing EU member states to opt out from participating in the relocation of asylum seekers by offering financial aid. Meaning that member states, which had previously flouted laws and agreements, suddenly had the legal permission to stand idly by. Critics have also expressed their concerns about the fact that border security had been prioritised over access to asylum and that the pact introduced measures that seemed to hamper the process of obtaining protection in the EU. Support, albeit half-heartedly, only came from a few countries – along with a lukewarm remark that the pact was at least a good starting point. 

Until September 2021, the EU wants to have established a new camp on Lesbos together with Greek authorities. For this, a memorandum of understanding between the EU, Greece and the European migration authorities was signed at the beginning of December last year. Once again, the solution comes far too late and is of no help whatsoever to those who are currently suffering. There’s a glaring irony to the fact that the European Union, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2012, continuously contradicts the values that the award represents, doesn’t manage to own up to its responsibility and doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets for others.

The EU must revert back to its values, and it must do so as quickly as possible. Because immigration is not something that will die down soon: The crisis is currently on a disastrous trajectory, because for years and years, it’s been categorically deprioritised, normalised and banalised. If the EU is not eager to deal with the grim reality in a human-centred way, this crisis will serve to further divide an already divided Europe, plunge Lesbos into even more turmoil and risk many more lives. 

Mali – is foreign involvement truly for the greater good?

Since the 19th of August 2020, when a military coup forced the democratically elected but unpopular president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign, Mali has been struggling to return to stability. The coup was the culmination of weeks of mass protests against the president who was accused of corruption and mishandling a spiralling security situation in the northern and central regions of the country. However, it was but one of the many symptoms of a crisis rooted far deeper. 

Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely aligned terrorist groups seized the northern two-thirds of the country after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, leading France, the former colonial power in the region, to intervene to set them back. In 2013 the UN MINUSMA[1] mission was established to help stabilize the situation. As the government and international actors sought to restore peace in the north, a power vacuum was created in the central region, which soon became a launchpad for jihadist attacks on neighbouring countries. The international intervention helped lead to a peace agreement in 2015, but very little progress has been made since then in disarming rebel groups. An attempt by the government to give the north more autonomy in exchange for disarmament has also proven ineffective, and extremist groups continue to be active in various parts of the country. 

Now, despite a transitional government having been put in place to oversee an eighteen-month period before elections are held, the situation remains highly unstable. Furthermore, an increased number of voices is calling for a dialogue with certain armed groups, in an attempt to reach an agreement. This move has strongly been criticized by external international actors, first and foremost France, and has been seen by many as proof of the growing gap between Mali and the former colonial power. France believes in fact that it is highly unlikely these groups will abandon their ideology and objectives, such as the imposition of shari’a on the state.

A multidimensional crisis 

Due to its geographical position, Mali has become the centre of external efforts to secure the region and counter terrorism, which has inevitably led to increased and consistent international involvement in the area. The fact that the new government is prepared to negotiate with armed jihadist groups, however, should make us question the nature of French and international involvement and whether it is in the country’s best interests. In this context, it is important to keep Mali’s colonial past in mind. 

Falling under French colonial role in 1892, Mali quickly became a country of marginalized subjects ruled by a controlling colonial administration that feared Muslim jihads. The French, in contrast to other colonizers, chose to implement their customs in all occupied territories, a strategy that proved to be particularly difficult in Mali, which was characterized by a diverse multitude of ethnic communities. This resulted in cooperative groups being favoured by the French over others and intensified ethnic divisions. By the time Mali became independent in 1960, the new country was deeply divided. This fragmentation made it particularly difficult for the new Malian political elites to assert their authority over the whole country, which would eventually lead to the marginalization of the north. 

There is no doubt that other factors have contributed to the current situation as well, yet this is another reminder, of how strongly colonialism has affected the state of many contemporary African countries. Of course, there is no changing the past, but perhaps things could be different when looking at the future. 

Rethinking foreign intervention 

It is undeniable that violence in this area has been steadily increasing and that Islamic extremism poses a big threat not only to this region but to surrounding countries as well, with regional as well as international implications. However, the continued presence of international actors has not been as successful as imagined. These powers may have the institutional framework and resources to face particular threats, but does this justify their involvement? At a certain point we need to ask ourselves: is this engagement really for the greater good of the country or is it just a modern form of imperialism?

In light of what we know about Mali’s colonial past, continued foreign intervention could be doing more damage than good. It could in fact lead to the following scenario: an alliance of national forces, including militant groups, with the goal of requesting the withdrawal of international actors. This would inevitably lead to Islamic militias gaining a foothold in the Sahel area[2] for the first time, something international actors are trying to avoid in the first place. It may be time for a change in strategy in view of the long-term goals that could bring stability to the area. 

[1] To date it remains the largest peacekeeping force in the world. 

[2] This term refers to the semi-arid stretch of land just south of the Sahara desert which includes Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

Why federalism hinders effective policies against Covid-19

Our world is facing the same problem, but different governments have reacted with different measures and strategies – and with different levels of success. Hong Kong and South Korea seem to have been the most successful countries in the fight against Covid-19. Both reacted quickly and implemented strict measures such as surveilling the movement of their citizens, quarantine, and consequent social-distancing measures. Additionally, mask-wearing is not new for citizens of Asian countries, mainly due to polluted air.

In Europe, Italy was the first country that was faced with the virus and reacted strictly with a first nationwide lockdown on the 11th of March. Germany and France followed with similar reactions, while Great Britain apparently needed its Prime Minister to experience the virus himself before taking it seriously. Sweden followed a unique strategy and the president of the United States is still highly incapable of dealing with any demanding situation at all.

Less political resistance in centralized systems

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only reveal which leaders are capable of managing a global health crisis. More than nine months since the outbreak and its spread over the whole world, it also showed which political system is the most effective and practical when dealing with a global pandemic:

The more centralized a system, the easier it is to implement (drastic) measures. It was not challenging for the Communist Party in Beijing to control 1.393 billion people in China and regulate their behavior. However, if the autocratic Chinese government were more transparent and liberal, the virus would have been contained much earlier. South Korea, a unitary presidential republic, successfully controlled the coronavirus by surveilling the movements of its citizens and implementing a national mandatory obligation to wear a mask.  Additionally, the government in Seoul supported the economy with grants from the very beginning.

The federal state of Switzerland, on the other hand, was still arguing in mid-October whether customers in a store should wear a mask or not. Of course, there are many more Covid-19 cases in urban Geneva than in rural Appenzell, but a virus does not stop at a border – and especially not within a country. After strict and centralized measures at the beginning of the pandemic, the Swiss government has lost control over the handling because the different cantons felt disempowered in the proud federal country. In Germany, a federal nation as well, the federal lands are pursuing different strategies that have caused uncertainty and political chaos in facing a second wave. In Germany’s neighbor-state, however, the French president Emmanuel Macron decided in October to reimplement a strict curfew and acted single-handedly without any form of political resistance.

Federalism – an imperfect system

While federalism is a fair system for heterogeneous countries in general, it hinders effective policies and force in times of crisis – such as the handling of a global pandemic. Centralized or even autocratic nations can implement a national strategy much faster and much more effectively than federal states due to fewer players and, therefore, less political resistance in the decision-making process. Whether this is democratic or not must be put on hold. Democracy means the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously stated in 1858. This must be accepted, and policymakers must be trusted. Most importantly, in times of crisis!