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The faux radicalism of the Popular Front The French Left contains the seeds of its own demise

A woman protests in Toulouse this week (PAT BATARD/Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images)

A woman protests in Toulouse this week (PAT BATARD/Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images)


June 27, 2024   5 mins

Interviewed on French television last Friday, a prominent parliamentarian from the far-Left La France Insoumise, Matilde Panot, defended a claim made by her leader, Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon, about the relative inexperience of LĂ©on Blum when he became head of the French government in 1936. When she was reminded that Blum had sat in parliament for over 15 years as leader of the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), she conceded defeat. “I don’t know where I got that from,” she muttered.

Similar confusion hangs over the New Popular Front. The party is a surprise development of Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap election. Its name invokes the union of the Left in the Thirties, which culminated in the Popular Front government formed in 1936: a government led by LĂ©on Blum and a host of ministers from the SFIO and the Radical Party, and supported from the outside by the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) of Maurice Thorez.

Yet as Panot demonstrated, the choice of the name does not come from an intimate acquaintance with the history of the Popular Front. Today, it is little more than a slogan, one that celebrates a surprisingly quick display of unity on the Left and — above all — a desire to impress upon French voters the danger of a radical Right victory in the forthcoming elections. Indeed, if we compare more closely the world of 1936 with that of 2024, we can see how the New Popular Front is a very different beast from its namesake: rather than echoing the changing interests of particular social groups in France, it is an expression of electoral opportunism.

As the historian Claire Andrieu recently observed, the Popular Front of 1936 was a fusion of the socialist and communist movements in France, forced upon reluctant party and parliamentary leaders by party members and activists determined both to block France’s drift into authoritarian nationalism and to secure specific gains in the class war between workers and bosses. This move was triggered by violent demonstrations led by the far-Right Action Française group on 6 February 1934, which many viewed as an attempt to seize power. For months, leaders of both the PCF and the SFIO resisted these bottom-up demands for unity, until the PCF was told by Moscow to strike a deal with the socialists.

This fusion, and the elaboration of a shared legislative programme, was made more difficult by the nature of French democracy at the time. Though still excluding women, the Third Republic had become deeply embedded in society. Its political arena was populated not just by political parties but also a host of organised labour groups, and a plethora of committees and leagues of intellectuals. As a result, the Popular Front’s programme was signed off not only by the PCF, SFIO and Radicals, but also by the country’s principal trade unions. Thus the coalition was one of the first expressions of what the sociologist Peter Wagner called the era of “organised modernity”: collective action, pursued by social groups, structuring the lives of individuals, of families, of villages and towns, resulting in a fusion between politics and society.

By contrast, the New Popular Front of 2024 was negotiated in six days, behind closed doors, by party bosses. The agreement was struck between the Socialist Party, the Greens, La France Insoumise (LFI) and the French Communist Party. It also brought on board prominent figures who enjoy a more distanced relationship to the main parties on the Left: RaphaĂ«l Glucksmann, whose “Wake Up Europe” campaign for the Socialist Party did surprisingly well in the European elections, and François Ruffin, a firebrand who sits loosely on the LFI benches but functions more often as an independent voice on the Left.

Most obviously, their alleged catalyst is the prospect of a victory for the far-Right in the legislative elections. Macron’s decision to dissolve the national assembly came as a surprise for most and reflected a willingness to gamble with what he thought was still a refusal, among a majority of French voters, to accept that Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) could ever become the party of government. Aware that this historic refusal may no longer exist, the disparate forces of the Left decided to put to one side their differences. This “antifascist” animation, however, is far from the only reason for this new alliance’s genesis — and perhaps not even the most important one.

Far more essential to the formation of the New Popular Front has been the electoral dissolution of Macronism as a political force. Evident already in the 2022 legislative elections, where Macron’s party was unable to win an outright majority in the national assembly, it was confirmed in dramatic fashion by the poor showing of the presidential party in the European elections of June 2024. In those elections, the combined score of the Socialists, Greens and LFI would have placed the Left within just five points of the RN, and a good 10 points ahead of Macron’s party. Thus, what brought these political figures together — who, just days before in the run-up to European elections, had been viciously accusing each other of antisemitism and warmongering — was the whiff of political office. Should the unified Left come ahead of Macron’s party in the first round on Sunday, they will most likely face the far-Right in a second-round run-off. And under those circumstances, they fancy their chances.

“Far more essential to the formation of the New Popular Front has been the electoral dissolution of Macronism as a political force.”

Paradoxically, however, as well as being its animating force, the implosion of Macronism is also the New Popular Front’s main limitation as a political force. It is, after all, operating only at the level of the political players themselves. There is no associated social movement or a coming together of rival social forces. Its programme is an amalgam of the interest of the different parties involved, with an economic programme that focuses on tackling the cost-of-living crisis.

This old Keynesian strategy of boosting aggregate demand through government spending has echoes of Mitterrand’s socialist programme of 1981. However, without a firm anchoring in French society, it is likely these measures would be just as short-lived as Mitterrand’s, who undertook a dramatic U-turn two years into his first term as President. Elsewhere, the New Popular Front has said it would reject the EU’s fiscal rules without explaining how it would go about doing this. Once again, there is a striking contrast with the original Popular Front, whose legislative achievements included the 40-hour week, two weeks’ paid holiday and a host of new additions to the French labour code which were sealed in the Matignon Agreement of June 1936.

Offering little by comparison, the New Popular Front is no more and no less than a product of the collapse in the centre. For this reason, it is not surprising to see the return of some of the familiar faces of the Left from the Nineties and early 2000s, such as the former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin. Far from being a radical force for change, then, it reflects a belief among the old guard that this is a good time to impose a more moderate Left onto what had become a Mélenchon-dominated Left. Indeed, it seems fitting that the New Popular Front may well be a vehicle for the political return of the last Socialist president, François Hollande, who is standing in his old constituency in CorrÚze, in the heart of France.

Crucially, because it is a product of the implosion of Macronism, the New Popular Front contains within it the seeds of its own demise. Little more than a product of a void, it is already coming apart as the rival figures within it make the case for why they are the best candidate for prime minister. MĂ©lenchon has refused to step aside, declaring instead that he is ready to govern, invoking the ire of all other parties in the New Popular Front who have spent years criticising his rhetorical excesses and narcissism. The recent exchange between Hollande and  MĂ©lenchon, where each has said that the other should “shut up”, speaks volumes about the mood within the coalition.

Its essence, in other words, is far removed from that of 1936, when the Popular Front was the political expression of a vast social movement rooted in the struggle of the workplace: pay, working conditions and the right to collective organisation. Back then, it was overwhelmingly a workers’ movement, one that generated new forms of popular culture preserved in the joyful and sun-kissed photography of Pierre Jamet and many others. The New Popular Front of 2024, by contrast, is an alliance of political rivals occurring within a context of widespread cultural pessimism. Electoral success may yet lend it some impetus, but even then, it is difficult to see how it can escape the fragmentary pressures that produced it in the first place.


Christopher Bickerton is a Professor in Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge.

cjbickerton

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
22 days ago

The French Left contains the seeds of its own demise
They’re more like the original Popular Front than we’d first thought.

David McKee
David McKee
22 days ago

In Britain, we complain there’s next to nothing separating Labour from the Conservatives, so there’s no choice for the voters.

French voters, on the other hand, have a colossal choice to make. They don’t seem to like it very much.

Maybe we should count our blessings.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Neither major party in the UK has any sense of the magnitude of the structural problems that we face as the world moves on from the political arguments of the industrial era within which they were formed.

The French are historically and temperamentally more suited to radicalism, but blessed we are not.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
22 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

There will always be a bloc against Le Pen in the presidency because France knows her party as neo-Fascist in its tradition and heritage.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
22 days ago

Mitterrand did not decide to u-turn on his Keynesian strategy. It was decided for him. In just two short years he and his Prime Minister tested the strategy to complete destruction. It failed in its own terms. The Franc was devalued three times, inflation soared, an incomes freeze attempt to slow inflation led to incomes falling in real terms, and unemployment rose. Economic reality stopped Mitterand continuing his Keynesian strategy.

We can find many explanations of why Mitterand’s Keynesian strategy failed, reasons tailored to suit our politics. Fundamentally though, whatever these reasons are, they are unchanged in 2024. The Euro fiscal rules (which France has already blown) weren’t the cause of the Keynesian strategy failure in 1983, and they won’t be the cause of a Keynesian strategy failure in 2026.

The New Popular Front has had 40 years to reflect on Mitterand’s Keynesian strategy failure, and the best they can do is offer to repeat it all again and insist this time it will be different…

Europe politically, technically, and culturally, is acting out its greatest hits but unable to innovate new material. The continent is trapped in a semi-comfortable retirement living off a large inheritance and shrinking pension.

Martin M
Martin M
22 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“….and the best they can do is offer to repeat it all again and insist this time it will be different
”….which is pretty much Strategy 1 in the Left’s playbook.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
22 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

If the Commercial Property bubble actually bursts in due course, the Tories may ultimately be glad they lost the election.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
21 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The Keynesian strategy probably failed because those dominating the world financial system just enforced a strong monetarist neoliberal consensus back then. If you stimulate for full employment, welfare and growth, you also need progressive taxation on capital and high profits – not necessarily to pay for things – but to prevent inflation and devaluation of the currency. However, capital could evade such fiscal policies in the deregulated global financial system. This, of course, was by design. Mitterrand later attempted to construct a more social EU but ran into a similar problem. Even after 2008 those in power were unwilling to really break with neoliberalism and austerity, even though they asked for trillions in stimulus for themselves at the same time.
if we want change in global finance the US – who control the world’s reserve currency – probably has to be on board. Biden, for all his faults, is one of the first presidents who has blatantly declared neoliberalism a failure and has actually tried to bring back production. And just in general we see that nobody seems to care much about the 3%/60% deficit rule anymore, except the EU.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
21 days ago
Reply to  RA Znayder

We can argue about the truth of what you write, but that is to miss the point. None of these things can be changed by France or the EU anymore than Africa can change them. The conditions needed for a Keynesian strategy to not self destruct will never be present.

The reality is Europe’s economic power began draining away in the 1930s, and this has only accelerated in more recent years. We are economically weak, the slowest growing region on earth, burning through accumulated capital, borrowing heavily from international markets to fund an aging population, refusing to have children, and with few if any internationally competitive innovators in the last two decades. Unfortunately Europeans think and act like it is still the 19th century.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
21 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

At least, in the 19th century, people understood Classical Mechanics enough not to expect the country to have ‘always available’ instant power from windmills and solar.

The reason why Dutch windmills were successful drying out the country was that, as long as the wind blew enough each year, targets were met.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
21 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The conditions for Keynesianism not to self-destruct seemed pretty much present during the postwar consensus, before the oil crisis and certainly before the dollar was changed into FIAT. Not saying that none of the reforms of the late 70s were necessary but much of it worked out much worse than the postwar consensus. Of course, much of it was also simply an elite power grab. In fact, the neoliberal system self-destructed so bad that since 2008 we need Keynesianism on steroids to keep it running. Since then we have been living with this weird zombie-economy where the welfare state is back but this time, mostly the stimulate endless asset bubbles. What Europe and the West need is not population growth but simply a return of production and actual innovation instead of BS jobs, endless speculation, rent seeking and whatever other counter-productive practices the con men, who have constructed our financialized economy, came up with. Much of the “can’t be done” narratives is simply the lack of imagination in the heads of dogmatic economists who base themselves on models that have a poor relation with actual physical reality. That’s also why they’ve been unable to understand Japan for the last 50 years. The problem is, until there is another consensus most people actually buy that “There Is No Alternative”

Martin M
Martin M
21 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

….and not only that, but Europe has (up till recently at least) leaned a bit towards Socialism.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
21 days ago
Reply to  RA Znayder

Biden certainly doesn’t care about the fiscal deficit. He’s increasing it exponentially by $1 trillion every quarter. Until the Magic Money Tree runs out of steam and the whole system collapses. It will not be pretty.
If Biden is the answer, you’re asking the wrong question.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
21 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

People stare themselves blind on the deficits but often forget that central banks inject trillions in the economy through the backdoor using quantitative easing (QE). The data is pretty clear. Fiscally conservative measures like austerity and selling of state assets (though not always bad) often do not prevent money printing, with some delay it requires even more of it. FIAT with free floating exchange rates is, in essence, always a ‘magic money tree’. Moreover, the US, with the dollar as a reserve currency, has a different economic reality than a country like Venezuela. Can it all collapse? Sure, but I’m much more worried about the extreme asset inflation caused by QE than the effects of deficits on the real economy. For example, I think QE is really a huge underlying factor in housing crisis everywhere in the West. It’s essentially just monetary inflation.
In any case, I’m not advocating for Biden but I just meant that it is clear that different economic winds are blowing. Trump, as far as rhetoric goes, also broke with some neoliberal fundamentals.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
21 days ago
Reply to  RA Znayder

The deregulated global financial system as you call it is a huge problem. It is tyrannical in the basic sense of the word in that it allows a small number of actors to exercise vast political and economic power without being accountable to anything or anybody. This is what populism should be trying to undo. It’s also what a lot of left wing socialist/communist type groups are trying to undo. The elites are besieged by both sides and further undermined by geopolitical conflicts with rising powers who also want to destroy much of the existing system or take it for themselves. They are in an awful position and there’s no sign it’s going to better anytime soon.
I’m not sure I’d give Biden that much credit. He saw which way the political wind was blowing and chose to save his establishment backers and his party from a massive populist backlash down the road.I do give him, or whoever is actually running his administration, credit for correctly understanding that attempting to return to the free trade orthodoxy policies of 2015 would result in a massive backlash that would probably guarantee a populist candidate, either a nationalist like Trump or a declared socialist like Bernie Sanders would win a landslide election somewhere down the road. A radical populist candidate like Trump who managed to win with a margin similar to that of Reagan or Bill Clinton would, in today’s polarized political environment, would have a tremendous popular mandate. It’s difficult to overstate the political impact such an event would have. It would represent an unquestionable and unassailable rejection of neoliberal globalism and that leader would have both the real political power and the popular mandate to begin undoing the global financial system that insulates elites from the policies of elected governments.
Biden hopes that putting some economic nationalist policies in place and adopting some of the rhetoric of populism in economic terms will defuse the political time bomb that’s been ticking since 2008. Trump’s unpopularity has proven to be a major boon for the establishment. It’s given them a window to do something before a more powerful, more charismatic, populist can emerge with a platform that garners a large majority of the people. Trump was never going to be an FDR type unifying force, though it’s striking what he has managed to accomplish despite himself.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
21 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Excellent summation.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
22 days ago

“Elsewhere, the New Popular Front has said it would reject the EU’s fiscal rules without explaining how it would go about doing this.” The same way as Macron’s government is rejecting the EU fiscal rules – by running large budget deficits. The only difference would be that the NPF would boast of doing so, while Macron denies that his government is doing the same thing.

Gary Chambers
Gary Chambers
22 days ago

Whatever the results, Macronism and it’s technocratic centrism has been repudiated. The president will be even more of a lame duck than he has been since his re-election. The RN should bide their time, allow the rainbow left to form a shaky coalition with Macron’s party and cruise to a decisive parliamentary and presidential victory two years from now.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
22 days ago
Reply to  Gary Chambers

Agree. The intractability of French politics until the presdential election against a disimproving economic backdrop means no one should pick up the ball next week, since the blame will stick. Thst said, Moutet – a good commentator on French politics imo – suggesting in DT yesterday that Macron may resign. In which case “let’s go round again” ….

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
22 days ago

This is just the Cultural Left we see everywhere now. Basically a mixture of Trotskyists and identity warriors, engaging the young on gender and Palestine.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
21 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

I’ve started working with a lot of young people, 30-40 so far. Maybe I’m encountering the wrong demographic, but I can’t see any interest in Palestine whatsoever.

I think the middle-aged may be self-pleasuring or off on some delusional frolic of their own, if they think the young are much interested in Palestine, or gender for that matter.

I am sure kids nod politely when they get lectured on such topics, like you do when you’re a schoolkid and some vicar visits to talk about ministry & vocations, but you’ve probably forgotten it in an hour.

Dr E C
Dr E C
22 days ago

European kids have been taught the evils of Nazism in school ever since WW2. Why we didnt do the same re communism isn’t clear to me, but it’s about time we started.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
22 days ago

The left is nothing more than posh people LARPing at being working class. I remember this from my uni days when well-off middle-class kids affected black accents or tried to sound like they were from Croydon.

George Venning
George Venning
21 days ago

The LFI is the response to the implosion of Macronism.
Centrism, is simply another word for small “c” conservatism – the belief that nothing fundamentally needs to change, steady as she goes, let’s see how we get on with a bit of incrementalism and a little more efficiency shall we?
This doctrine is structurally ill-equipped to deal with societies facing serious change. It is electorally viable in times of crisis because it seems sensible but, since it refuses to change much, it ends up disappointing the electorate, which then takes revenge.
See, for examples, almost all the parties of the European centre left following the Financial crisis. These were not defeats but wipeouts – implosions.
Pretty sure this is where Starmer ends up by the end of his first term.
But because of a slight assymmetry in the manner in which Left radicalism is treated relative to Right radicalism, it will, once again be the political right that is positioned to capitalise.
Resistance to this radicalism will come not from politics but the simple drag of the bureaucracy, which will thus come to be viewed as leftish… rinse repeat. Anyone else feel like they might have seen this film before?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
21 days ago
Reply to  George Venning

IDK. Mainstream political parties are pushing policies that will objectively harm their countries – policies that are effectively supported by competing political parties. It’s been agreed by all mainstream parties that net zero and open borders are good for the country. I don’t recall seeing anything like this in my lifetime.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
21 days ago

I started reading the article but could not focus. My mind kept wandering to the large influx of non Europeans flooding in to the Countries of Europe and the non-Americans flooding in to the United States. The demographics are not changing naturally but are being FORCED to change. Immigration is a natural vent that has happened over and over again over the millennia but what is happening now is not natural. There is an attack being waged on the West and we are watching it happen. Once the voting majority changes to the incoming immigrant hordes then change will happen very quickly. Don’t expect the incoming majority to treat the disappearing European minority as an endangered species. It will be just the opposite, more like the proverbial Red Headed Stepchild.

Stephen Feldman
Stephen Feldman
21 days ago

The Left lung ago abandoned its one unique idea: society should directly run by workers, not politicians who are part of the bourgeoise

George Venning
George Venning
21 days ago

Also, that it should be run in the interests of the workers.
This idea gives you:
Universal education,Limits on child labour, The old age pension,Council HousingState funding for and wider access to the artsThe NHSThe right to collective wage bargainingThe weekendetc ad nauseam.
Many of these things are actually in the interests of capital – a better educated workforce, a healthier workforce, lower wages because of cheaper housing etc. But it was actually the left that won them.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
21 days ago

A writer actually wrote far left. I have to admit to a bit of surprise; usually, these qualifiers – far, extreme, and so forth – are reserved for the right, to the point that it is impossible to only say ‘right.’
Perhaps some of these movements would be better served by abandoning any “radical” tendencies and simply working to be competent. Do the basics of governing – public safety, controlling the border, maintaining roads and bridges, and a few other tasks that would be very difficult to do privately.
Govt’s problems tend to stem from excesses, the proverbial mission creep that leads otherwise mediocre people to believe they have the solution to every problem. Of course, the other half to that is a populace that increasingly demands govt intervention on every issue, even when (especially when?) those in govt have no experience in whatever the issue is.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
21 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

‘Abandoning any “radical” tendencies and simply working to be competent” is a sign of being a conservative, with a small ‘C’. 🙂

It’s what most People want, and the Elites, with their Luxury Beliefs, abhor.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
21 days ago

The real state of affairs on the left will become apparent in the second round of voting, when Macron’s people will presumably expect the left to help to rescue the government from a situation entirely of its own making.
In constituencies where the left candidate has come in second to the Vichyite and is therefore in the run-off, will Macron call on local voters to back the left’s candidate, and if not why not? Also, will the left call on their supporters to unconditionally back Macronite candidates where they are in run-offs with Vichyites, or will they exact major policy concessions in return for their support?
The left needs to decide whether it wishes to become even more of an appendage of the establishment. If they choose a path of collaboration, they will keep the far right at bay (for a time), but they will ultimately pay the price of disappearing as a distinct political force.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
21 days ago

Forgive me for asking, but what parties do Muslims vote for in France? Inquiring minds would like to know.