The Communist candidate in the French presidential elections is a calm, likeable man called Fabien Roussel. Last week, he made an unremarkable statement: “A good wine, a good piece of meat, a good cheese; that’s what French Gastronomy is all about,” he said. “The best way of protecting them is to make sure that all French people can afford them.”
Within a few hours, Roussel found himself under heavy bombardment, as other factions of the French Left lined up to pelt him with insults and insinuations. Why was a Left-wing politician promoting hard-Right, identitarian notions such as “French gastronomy”? What did he mean by excluding couscous? What about the ecological implications of beef-rearing? And the health risks of cheese? And wine?
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Despite all the excitement, the incident will have zero impact on the outcome of the French election in April. Communist Party support in France topped 20% a half century ago; it now hovers at around 2%.
All the same, such attacks on a pleasant, rather old-fashioned “lefty” like Roussel tell a revealing story of the self-destructive tribalism of the French Left. France is now a “socialist” country which no longer votes Left in national elections: for the second presidential election in succession, no Left-wing candidate will reach the second round.
And yet, until five years ago, France had a Socialist president and a Socialist majority in parliament. Even today, most of its big, thriving cities — Paris, Marseille, Montpellier, Lilles, Nantes, Rennes, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Strasbourg — still have Socialist or Green mayors. Over 61% of French GDP is spent by the state, compared to 45% in the US, 49% in the UK and 51% in Germany. Support for what would be considered Left-wing ideas in other countries — state intervention, abortion, gay rights — is strong.
There are at least eight Left-wing candidates for April’s presidential election. By some calculations, there are as many as 12 of them — including two flavours of Trotskyist, two socialists and several greens. None has more than 10% of the vote; none has much chance of being in the top four when France votes in the first round on 10 April. Between them they have around 26% of first round support, compared to the 43% of voters who backed a Left or green candidate in 2012.
The Left in Britain and Germany also fell to a low ebb recently, but managed to resurrect themselves — seizing the Chancellorship in Germany and topping the opinion polls in Britain. Yet no such Lazarus-like revival is likely in France for many years, if ever. Why?
The most obvious explanation is the implosion, as a national force, of Le Parti Socialiste, which was created by François Mitterrand in the Seventies to herd the scattered Left and put the shepherd (himself) into the Elysée Palace.
Ten years ago, the PS candidate, François Hollande, took 28.6% of the vote in the first round of a presidential election. Its current standard-bearer, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is running at around 3%.
There are three reasons for the PS’s rapid decline: two circumstantial and one fundamental. The first is the emergence of a powerful centrist force in French politics: President Macron has hijacked between 8 to 10 points of the old “moderate Left” which used to vote Socialist.
The second concerns the weaknesses and personal antagonisms of a new generation of Left-wing leaders. Their jealousies and limitations will be illustrated in the next few days by the psychodrama of a People’s Primary — a well-meaning attempt by leftist academics and activists to unite the French Left behind one presidential candidate. But like all such attempts, it will only divide the Left further.
To understand why Le Primaire Populaire is doomed to fail, you have to look at the third and most important reason for the decline of the Left: the changing social and political geology of France.
As in other countries, mass, blue-collar support for Left-wing parties evaporated long ago. In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, two in five blue-collar workers voted for Marine Le Pen and other far-Right candidates. In their place, the broad Left (including the Greens) is now mostly populated by an educated, middle-class and urban grouping — hence its success in big cities, like Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux. Such a Left — more intellectual than emotional; more interested in ideology than in solidarity — finds it irksome to have a dominant, pragmatic worldview or a single, respected leader.
In the absence of any unifying identity, a new French polling organisation, Cluster-17, believes that talk of Left and Right no longer makes sense in France. Rather, it divides France into 16 “clusters” or tribes of voters, seven of which include or overlap with chunks of the old “Left”.
Often, these groups are contradictory. There is, for example, a fiercely secular French Left, which is as anxious about radical Islam, as well as an anti-imperialist, anti-racist French Left, which resists attempts to curb Islamist influence. There is a pro-European Left and an anti-European Left. There is a pro-nuclear power Left and an anti-nuclear Left.
“Political allegiances in France have become much more complex and individual,” Professor Jean-Yves Dormagen of Montpellier University, the founder of Cluster-17, tells me. “Instead of large voting blocs there is an archipelago of voting clusters. Social class, education, wealth, all remain factors but so are cultural attitudes.”
The key word there is individual. In France belief in action for the common good (fraternité/egalité) is carved on every town hall and imprinted on the national DNA. But the French are also a nation of fiercely individual individuals (liberté). And the collapse of Left-wing solidarity means that those who value “common action” do so in an increasingly “individual” way. This was displayed, ad absurdum at times, by the Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018-9, which instantly detested anyone who emerged as its leader. Politics should be abolished, the Gilets Jaunes believed; everyone should run the country from laptops on their kitchen tables.
This new belief in citizen power is more pronounced on the French Left than on the French Right, where the belief in a Providential Man (or Woman) remains strong. To misquote Charles de Gaulle, how can you hope to govern a French Left which has 265 different interpretations of “solidarity”?
Enter the independent “Popular Primary”: a hopeless attempt by Left-wing academics and activists to unite the Left before April. Although called a “primary”, it is more like a giant, online opinion poll to be held on 27 to 30 January. Up to 250,000 self-selected participants will be asked to give a score between 1 and 5 to the seven candidates chosen by the organisers.
Three of the “leading”, publicly-declared Left-wing contenders — Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the hard-left La France Insoumise, Yannick Jadot, the official candidate of the Green party and Anne Hidalgo — have been included without their consent. All have said they will ignore the result.
There are also three obscure candidates chosen by the organisers, including a socialist-ecologist who campaigned by going on a 10-day hunger strike. Finally, there is the woman who will probably win the primary, because she is the only well-known personality actively taking part: Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister, a great orator and a heroine for those on the Left pushing through a law legalising gay marriage in 2013.
Taubira said originally that she would only run if she was widely recognised as the candidate who could unite the Left. She now says that she will definitely run in April if she “wins” the primary; she may even run if she loses it. In other words, she will probably end up splitting the Left even more.
In sum, the French Left — dedicated to common action on behalf of the masses — is dominated by obsessive individuals who refuse to work together. If a great new leader of the Left were to emerge — another François Mitterrand or another Léon Blum, the Prime Minister of the Popular Front in the Thirties — it is doubtful whether he or she could impose his or her personality or programme.
And so an obvious question arises: how long can France remain a “socialist” country if the country has no Left capable of governing? The small, mostly sensible changes made by Macron since 2017 have been denounced by “the Left” as catastrophic. The French state remains — for good or ill — the biggest in Europe outside Scandinavia.
Yet three of the top four candidates in the polls talk of shrinking government; only Marine Le Pen would expand it.
Here lies the great paradox of the French Left: voters who support a babel of leftist candidates in Round One on 10 April could decide the outcome in Round Two on 24 April. The two-round French election system used to give a casting vote to centrists. It will go once again this year to voters of the Left, who face a choice between President Macron and whichever candidate of the Right or Far Right reaches the run-off with him: Valérie Pécresse, Marine le Pen or (less likely) Éric Zemmour.
Five years after the country’s last socialist President, the French Left finds itself with three options: staying at home; voting for a candidate that they abhor; or voting for a candidate that they merely hate.