The French Left’s “Historic” Unity

5 May 2022


The French Left’s “Historic” Unity

The deal has been made.

Days after Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Olivier Faure embraced one another at the May Day march in Paris, their parties have reached an accord. In next month’s legislative elections, France’s four main left-wing outfits – Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the historic Parti Communiste Français, Europe Écologie Les Verts, and the once-dominant Parti Socialiste – will present a single slate of candidates standing on a common platform. Going by the unwieldly name of “NUPES” (Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale), this new alliance has been feted by the respective party leaderships as an “historic” moment of opportunity – to win a majority, to thwart Macron’s planned reforms, and to make Mélenchon prime minister.

But for the Parti Socialiste in particular, the pact has not been without controversy: party dignitaries including former president Francois Hollande, former party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, and former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve have joined media commentators and Macronist politicians in lining up to denounce it. Smarting both at their party’s acceptance of a second-tier status, and at its new policy alignment with Mélenchon’s populist radicalism, they accuse Faure and the current PS leadership of selling out the party’s principles.

This is, of course, darkly ironic. We are treated to the bizarre and unedifying spectacle of seeing men whose political careers were defined by their abandonment of socialist values in office now invoking those same values against efforts to revitalize the Left. And while those PS grandees rejecting the deal claim to be doing so out of fidelity to the republican tradition of Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, and François Mitterrand, they ignore that Jaures’s most abiding commitment was to unity of the Left, that Blum was a committed Marxist, and that Mitterrand was an arch-cynic who happily allied with a then-Soviet-aligned Communist Party.

Of course, supporters of the alliance have been no less keen to conveniently invoke the history of the Left. The Popular Front of 1936 has been a key point of reference –  and Mélenchon had hoped to seal the accord on the 3 May, the anniversary of its great electoral triumph. The circumstances surrounding the formation of NUPES are vastly different to those that sparked the creation of the Popular Front: it is a consolidation of a historically weakened Left rather than an alliance of powerful mass parties, and its primary opponent is a centrist President rather than a fascist threat.

But there is one crucial similarity: with both the Popular Front and NUPES, the drive for unity came from below. In 1934, the seeds of the Popular Front were sown by the spontaneous merging of Socialist and Communist columns at the great anti-fascist demonstration of 12 February; in the present, it was Mélenchon’s remarkable performance in the first round of the presidential election (largely a product of tactical voting – a clear signal that left-wing voters wanted unity) that provided the impetus for the opening of negotiations. And polling shows that the idea of the alliance is overwhelmingly supported by the left-wing electorate.

Centre-left opponents of NUPES though should perhaps be reflecting on a different historical precedent. In 1972, the recently re-founded Parti Socialiste broke from a long-standing centrist orientation to agree a “Common Programme” with the more powerful Communist Party. Although perceived by some as a betrayal of values, it was this commitment to a “Union of the Left” that ultimately revivified what had been a moribund socialist movement, and created the conditions for Mitterrand’s victory of 1981.

The PS has only ever come to power (whether in 1981, 1997, or 2012) when it has been able to position itself as the vehicle for the hopes of the whole French Left. The new alliance, although it will be dominated by its radical rival, at least gives the PS the chance to be a part of those hopes today.


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