The Interminable Quandary of the French Left

4 May 2023

The fractious meeting this week of the parties comprising the Nupes has unleashed a spate of editorials (e.g., this and this) wondering if the loose, (electorally) pragmatic coalition of left-and-lefter wing parties will survive its ideological differences, clashing ambitions, and general orneriness. Everyone pays lip service to the idea that unity is a must, while no one is willing to accept unity on anyone else’s terms.

Business as usual, some will say, while others will blame Mélenchon’s “ego” or Faure’s squeamishness or the self-regarding preoccupations of the Greens or the Communists. But the differences are deeper and more structural than these accounts would allow, and it’s no accident that they loom larger and larger as the European elections draw nearer. For “Europe” is the contemporary name for what has divided the French left since the Congrès de Tours a century ago: whether the task of the political left is to overthrow capitalism or to manage it, to rein it in or destroy it, to inflect its inexorable pressures or to bend them to some semblance of the social good.

“Europe” in this connection is merely a convenient term for everything the left disagrees about, but rather than explore the disagreement, which is as painful and distasteful as picking at a scab, there is much jockeying among the champions of this or that “unifying strategy.” Among the outright contemners of capitalism François Ruffin is the most prominent of those who think that Mélenchon’s democratic egoism is the main obstacle to forcing the mushy left into line behind the plucky revolutionary vanguard. He has changed his style since his début as a director of agitprop, but whether he still mistakes the headquarters of LVMH for the Winter Palace is less clear.

Among the would-be managers of capitalism, the Greens, while envying their German counterparts’ important ministerial portfolios, show no sign of wanting to discuss the hard realities of decisions recently taken in Berlin or Brussels, such as the imminent end of traditional home heating and the accelerated retirement of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. The Socialists, meanwhile, would rather pretend that all of Europe’s problems were solved by Jacques Delors in the 1980s. While the Germans earnestly debate the dilemma of depending on the Chinese market while deflecting China’s geopolitical ambitions and coping with Washington’s heavy-handed efforts to counter them, the PS has not been able to articulate any thoughtful alternative to the Macron/von der Leyen good cop/bad cop duo.

When “debate” on the left is reduced to reruns of old TV news/talk “clashes” that nobody watched when they were new, it’s no wonder that le dialogue des Nupes seems to be going nowhere fast.


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