French Parliamentary Elections: Left Surges, But Neofascists Also Gain Amid Centrist “Neutrality”

The June parliamentary elections created a large space for the French Left, something not seen in decades. The right-of-center government of President Emmanuel Macron’s Together! bloc suffered a huge defeat, not even obtaining an absolute majority in the National Assembly, with 245 of 577 seats, down almost 100 from the 2017 election. A leftwing coalition, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), took a surprising second place, with 131 seats (and with 13 more going to other leftists), with the neofascist National Rally (former National Front) taking 89 seats, also a big increase for them. Clearly, those who gave Macron nearly 60% of the vote in April were not voting for him, but against the neofascists.

What Is NUPES?

NUPES came together in May as a coalition ranging from the Socialist and Communist Parties to Greens and LGBTQ activists, with its biggest component the leftwing populist France Unbowed party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. On the eve of the election, Mélenchon, a leftwing social democrat, made what centrists thought to be a big mistake when he explicitly criticized police abuse of young people, tweeting “the police kill,” for which the Macron bloc mercilessly attacked NUPES as anti-police. But this attack may in fact have backfired.

Mélenchon made another symbolic gesture well to the left of standard social democracy when he evoked Karl Marx’s critique of a “capitalist system that instrumentalizes human beings and nature” also quoting the humanism of Che Guevara: “When someone is humiliated and deprived of liberty, I am concerned” (Philippe Gagnebet, “A Toulouse, Mélenchon, en terrain conquis, diriges ses attaques contre le chef de l’État,” Le Monde, June 16, 2022).

These two gestures do not of course reflect Mélenchon’s actual policies, but they do indicate what was put before the French public, and what a large portion of them thought they were voting for.

NUPES has agreed upon a 650-point program that includes a hike in the weekly minimum wage to 1500 euros (roughly equivalent to the US demand for $15/hr.), a return to a full retirement pension at 60 years old, price controls against inflation, environmental projects to create a million new jobs, a degree of support for immigrant rights, for animal rights, and for LGBTQ rights, as well as other gender justice issues, among them a proposal to budget one billion euros for programs to curtail violence against women. However, the program contains only vague support for Ukraine and does not oppose nuclear power plants, among other problematic features and silences. And it is obviously at best opposed to neoliberalism, rather than to the capitalist system itself.

Some Specific Victories… and Defeats for the Left

Among the victorious NUPES candidates was ecofeminist Sandrine Rousseau, elected to represent a Paris district after weeks of door-to-door campaigning to offset the media blitz of the Together! bloc.

But the most-discussed NUPES victory was that of Rachel Keke, who immigrated from West Africa two decades ago. Since then, she has been part of the working class, most notably as one of the leaders of a two-year victorious strike by housekeepers against a hotel owned by the Accor group. Keke has promised to look into the conditions of the janitorial staff at the National Assembly.

NUPES evinced particular strength among youth and in urban areas.

Elsewhere, NUPES was defeated by neofascist candidates or centrists. In a number of cases, as in a district in Auvergne in the southeast, a neofascist defeated a NUPES candidate in a runoff after a Macronist who had been eliminated in the first round condemned both sides as “extremists.”

Macron’s Failure to Take a Clear Stand Against Fascism: A Moral Victory for the Left?

This was part of a nationwide pattern, wherein the Together! coalition almost always refused to support NUPES, even when this meant the possibility of a neofascist victory. Macron’s prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, stated openly that while “no votes should go to the [neofascist] National Rally,” they could not support “candidates who do not respect republican [democratic] values, who insult the police” (Alexandre Lemarié, “L’évolution de Macron sur le front républicain,” Le Monde, June 20 2022). This from the same tendency that appealed to the Left just two months ago to back Macron against the neofascist Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections.

For its part, NUPES was firm in its support for the democratic republic, much more often swallowing its differences with Macron in order to back his candidates when they faced the neofascists in the runoffs.  Thus, in the 108 districts that pitted neofascists against Macronists in the runoff, the losing NUPES candidate explicitly backed the Together! candidate against the National Rally in 14 districts, called for “not one vote for the National Rally” in 72 districts, and took an ambiguous position or said nothing in 22 districts (Alexandre Lemarié, “L’évolution de Macron”).

In eroding even further the “republican front” established decades ago to bar the path of the neofascists, Macron’s party certainly won a few more seats. But at what price for the future? What will happen the next time if a centrist presidential candidate appeals to the Left for help against the neofascists, as Macron did in April?  Even if the Left’s leaders continue their principled stance, will the base follow?

Nonetheless, the Left came out of this campaign, and the April presidential election, with a moral victory. No other political force took as clear and principled stance against fascism, the main danger facing all of the developed countries – and many others – today.  The centrists will have to answer for themselves on this before history, especially those like Macron who claim they entered politics in order to combat the neofascist threat.

The Fascist Danger Continues

It also needs be underlined that France’s neofascists remain a huge danger. In the first round of the presidential elections in April, Macron got 28%, Le Pen 23% and Mélenchon 22% of the votes. Then, in the second round, Macron won with 58.5% of the votes vs. Le Pen’s 41.5%, after the Left came out strongly against Le Pen.  In the June parliamentary elections, the National Rally gained 89 seats, way more than ever before, which left them jubilant and speaking of a “tsunami” in their favor.

The poisonous anti-immigrant racism whipped up by Le Pen and by even more extreme demagogues like Eric Zemmour is not going away, and will not be undercut by five more years of a Macron presidency. They will continue to blame immigrants and people of color for unemployment and economic stagnation, as similar tendencies do all of the world, and Macron will continue to meet them halfway, with attacks on immigrants and support for “law and order,” all the while fighting for greater austerity and dismantling of social protections for the populace.

At the same time, it is a good sign that Mélenchon was just a hair’s breadth behind Le Pen in the presidential elections, and that NUPES has become the main opposition to Macron in the National Assembly, which will give the Left a permanent platform from which to put forth their ideas. Now that Jeremy Corbyn has been defeated in the UK, there is nothing comparable to the kind of support that NUPES has gained in any other parts of Europe or North America. It will offer an alternative – at least to a degree — to the truncated debate between neoliberal centrists and neofascists that dominates in so many societies. That at the very least is a sign of hope, for France and the world.