A Cynical Unity

3 May 2022

L’unité fait la force, as the saying goes. Has Jean-Luc Mélenchon achieved the impossible, unifying the fractious French left as never before? Has he single-handedly revived the hope of a left alternative to Macron? In politics, a lot can be done with smoke and mirrors. Macron’s meteoric rise is an example. He started with very little and ended with everything. I don’t think Mélenchon can match this feat, but for the moment he has the attention of the media and the benefit of novelty, which invites writers to speculate and creates uncertainty in the absence of polling precedents.

To be sure, the unification of the parties is not complete. The Greens have kissed the Mélenchon ring, the Communists are on the verge of doing so, and the Socialists, as is their wont, are tergiversating. Even the NPA is considering a jump onto the bandwagon.

The meaning of “unity” remains tenuous, however. Does it extend beyond a certain divvying up of circumscriptions? Does “the left” now really stand for “maximal Mélenchonism,” meaning the right to disobey EU directives at will, retirement at age 60, universal income support for young people, distance from “the West,” and a radical stance on laïcité? Contrary statements abound. Listening this morning to Pierre Jouvet, who is leading the Socialist team negotiating with LFI, I had to wonder if he even cared whether what he said made any sense.

Coalitions by definition consist of factions that do not agree on every point, but it was hard to discern whether today’s Socialists agree with anything that LFI stands for other than opposition to Macron, with whom they would seem on the face of it to have much more in common. But a party facing extinction is unlikely to think clearly, especially when it has spent the past five years avoiding thinking at all.

Assuming that the longed-for unity of the left is achieved, what then? Does Mélenchon stand a chance of being “elected” prime minister? Can he really hope for a majority strong enough to oblige Macron to choose a politician who loathes him and who opposes him tooth and nail on nearly every issue? I don’t think so, but the present configuration is really unprecedented.

My guess at this point–and it’s a very wild guess–is that the Union Populaire will get no more than 100 seats, if that many. Readers of this column will know that I believe Mélenchon’s first-round score seriously exaggerated his actual appeal. An agreement of party apparatuses engages only its signatories; voters are not guaranteed to follow, and my gut feeling is that many voters who identify as “left” will nevertheless be repelled by Mélenchon’s bid for utter hegemony and will prefer to bolster the president rather than further embolden his challenger.

Nevertheless, I am aware that my analysis ignores the fact that a substantial majority of the French say that they would prefer cohabitation to another unchecked Macron presidency. Yes, but more than half of that majority consists of voters who identify as “right” or “far right,” and surely they will be more frightened of a left completely dominated by Mélenchon than of another LREM quinquennat. I really don’t see it, but no doubt my lack of sympathy with the LFI version of the left is not helping me to see clearly.

The most hopeful analysis I can manage is that the unification of the left under the LFI aegis will be a prelude to a top-to-bottom reconstruction on new foundations. The disintegration is not yet complete, and the papering-over of deep differences will not be enough to halt the decline. Unity in this case will yield not force but cynicism.

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  • bernard says:

    What I really wonder is what will happen in districts where MLP did well: most front national candidates are notoriously less than impressive in legislative elections and I have seen nothing so far to suggest the gene pool has improved… This is actually where Union Populaire could be somewhat surprising I suspect.
    I tend to agree with your general hunch. L’Union Populaire will likely not elect a parliamentary majority. I argued a few weeks ago that Mélenchon had reconstituted the Communist Party of the 1970s and of course in the early 1970s that party was very much dominant on the left side of things. However, then, no one and certainly not the leaders of the French CP expected to win elections. In spite of his statements, I would suspect that Mélenchon who is a very smart man does not think very differently from G. Marchais.

  • Bernard says:

    What I mean in my previous comment about the front national gene pool: I can’t resist this hilarious moment… https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/entry/le-naufrage-de-cette-candidate-rn-aux-legislatives-nest-pas-passe-inapercu_fr_62791329e4b0b7c8f0871419

  • Polls are looking good for NUPES. I think, in terms of kissing rings, that MODEM, the rightwing Socialists, and Juppe’s wing of the Republicans have definitely been osculating the Macron ring for five years; ring kissing is just what politicians do. I don’t see anything cynical about it. Anyway, as of May 17, the latest poll ” de l’institut Cluster17, publié vendredi 13 mai, place l’alliance des gauche, la Nupes, en tête des intentions du 1e tour des législatives. Selon ce sondage, 31% des Français interrogés souhaitent soutenir un candidat de la Nupes au 1e tour des législatives, 27% un candidat investi par la majorité présidentielle (“Ensemble”), 19% un candidat soutenu par le RN, 9,5% un candidat investi par les Républicains,” Although you obviously dislike Melanchon – who I voted for enthusiastically – your dislike shouldn’t get in the way of your analysis.

    • Arthur Goldhammer says:

      With all due respect, your enthusiasm for NUPES shouldn’t get in the way of your analysis either. The survey you cite is at the national level, but votes for NUPES are highly concentrated in certain cities and suburbs, so this lead in the national vote will likely not translate into seats in the Assembly. Furthermore, the expected low turnout in the legislative elections is likely to be especially significant among young and working-class voters, precisely the categories in which enthusiasm for Mélenchon was highest in the presidential election. We will see how this plays out in the legislatives. Notwithstanding my negative opinion of Mélenchon, I stand by my analysis, which is that NUPES will win at most 100 seats in the next AN. I do not say that this is a “fair” or “representative” outcome. I don’t think it is, and I don’t think that the substantial majority for Ensemble that I expect to see reflects the actual state of the country. The current system is unrepresentative and should be changed, perhaps by adding a dose of proportional voting. But in that case, RN would also be strengthened.

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