How Popular, How New, the New Popular Front?

26 June 2024

It’s hard to escape the impression that the New Popular Front coalesced around a name more than anything else. This was François Ruffin’s stroke of genius: to substitute a phantasmagorical historical analogy for a contemporary political embarrassment. “They shall not pass” is more rassembleur than the question of what we will do should we come to power.

Of course, the original Popular Front did do a great deal, such as introducing vacations to the working class, for which it is remembered, and which, I think, is largely responsible for its mythical status. What it did not do is stop the advance of fascism. They did pass. Indeed, Pétain was granted les pleins pouvoirs with the votes of some deputies who had been part of the Popular Front. And the Popular Front should not be confused with the Resistance, which included elements that were among its fiercest opponents.

It was said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” If I wanted to be provocative, I might say that the NPF is neither new, nor populaire, nor a front. It’s not new because it’s a retread of the Nupes, even if it is new with respect to the original Popular Front–and even then it is reminiscent of its predecessor in the way it has divided intellectuals and politicians of the left. It’s not populaire, in the French sense of the term, because (nationalist) populism has swallowed up les classes populaires. One curious feature of the NPF is that it makes almost no mention of le patronat. Its enemy is the government, and in particular Macron. The workers no longer want to occupy the factories; they want the police to occupy les banlieues.

As political scientist Bruno Palier notes, what workers resent is that they have been deprived of voice in the workplace. The strike weapon, which loomed so large in the time of the old PF, no longer occupies the same place in the mentality of those who work for a wage. What they resent is not so much the boss as the management consultant, who advises the boss that his capital is more profitably employed elsewhere and who, unlike the bosses of old, has no local roots and is merely un déraciné educated in une grande école, taught the language of the global business class, and parachuted into the industrial backwaters. What is more, the people who currently run the government are cut from the same cloth and speak the same dialect as the management consultant. The resulting ressentiment is therefore directed not at the boss, not at le patronat, not at the MEDEF, not even at capitalism but at Emmanuel Macron, who is the perfect symbol of this transmogrification of l’ennemi numéro 1 des classes populaires. No one has better captured this transformation of l’esprit populaire than Nicolas Mathieu in his novels Leurs enfants après eux and especially Connemara.

In this sense, to the degree it depends on this new popular state of mind, the New Popular Front is new, but so is the Rassemblement National, which draws on the same ressentiment. The name New Popular Front is thus an historical amalgam, which obscures as much as it reveals. What is more, the word “front” remains misleading, because it suggests a clash of armies arrayed on either side of a discernible line. This made sense at a time when workers could occupy factories, forcing owners to enlist the military to regain control of what they regarded as their property: the means of production. Or when capitalists could lock out their workers, who might mass outside the gates demanding to be allowed to earn their bread and butter.

Today’s skirmishes more closely resemble guerrilla war, in which there is no front. In yesterday’s 3-way debate, the candidates argued about who would more effectively restore authority in the schools; whether people with dual nationality should be denied access to certain public jobs; or how much to tax the production of electricity. None of this has much to do with the rhetoric of the old PF. There are many “fronts” in today’s battle, or, more accurately, no front at all, only targets of opportunity.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the most serious deficiency of the idea of a New Popular Front is that it conceives of its enemy in terms of an historical caricature that distorts its true nature. Nationalist populism is different from the fascism of the 1930s. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is different from her father’s Front National, for all the continuities between the two, so ably documented by Cécile Alduy. This difference is precisely the reason for its success.

The NFP was cobbled together in haste to confront the current emergency. Macron’s decision to precipitate a crisis left political actors with no possibility other than to improvise with the unsatisfactory props and costumes bequeathed to them by history. But going forward, whether the RN takes power on July 7 or not, the best way to confront the frighteningly rapid rise of the radical right is to conceptualize how it differs from the fascism of the 1930 rather than engage in yet another reenactment of yesterday’s supposed lutte finale, which unfortunately proved not to be final at all.



  • Mary Lewis says:

    The original Popular Front *did* stave off fascism from within for a couple of years. To my mind, the most glaring difference between the PF and NPF is that the former included the centrist Radicals. To be a real “new Popular Front,” Macron’s centrists would have needed to decide that fighting fascism was more important than opposing the far left. That this was a bridge too far is very telling. The Radicals were anti-communist yet they allied with the communists to try to defeat fascism . Their opposition to communists would play a large part in what finally tore the coalition apart.

  • éloi laurent says:

    As always, a very insightful take on French politics, I would nevertheless argue that what’s fundamentally new with the NFP – but it was, you are right, “already new” with the NUPES – is the articulation of the social and ecological emergency (not sure many people realize how central environmental policy is in the NFP platform, a clear distinction with the governmental and far-right programs and an element of consistency with EU policies).

  • Arthur L Goldhammer says:

    I don’t usually reply to comments, but I do want to reply to my colleague Mary Lewis that I agree entirely with her points regarding the old PF, and to my colleague Eloi Laurent that I also agree with his point about the importance of ecological issues in the program of the NPF. It’s unfortunate but understandable that we have learned so little about the latter. Among the many deplorable consequences of the accelerated campaign precipitated by Macron’s rash decision is that the recomposition of the political landscape has dominated the news, forcing the parties to make hasty adjustments to their positions and thus obscuring the deeper commitments that motivate them.

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