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Identity politics is tearing the French left apart

Pathetic rows over ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘whiteness’ have consumed the left ahead of the EU elections.

Charles Devellennes

Topics Identity Politics Politics World

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The European Parliament elections have already exposed the desperate state of the French left.

Two years ago, things looked far more positive. A broad left-wing coalition, comprising the Socialist Party (PS), the French Communist Party (PCF), the Greens (EELV) and the radical-left France Unbowed (LFI), had united in opposition to Emmanuel Macron for the legislative elections. It was a smart move. The New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), as the coalition was known, topped the polls, before successfully denying Macron a majority in the National Assembly. It was expected that NUPES would start to unite behind a single candidate for the French presidential elections in 2027.

But just two years on, this union is no more. All the political momentum from two years ago has been squandered. Today, the four parties are all running separate candidates for the European elections, which will be held later this week.

Many commentators have attributed the break-up of NUPES to political divisions on big issues. The Greens want to close France’s nuclear power plants, whereas the Communists want to open new ones. The Socialists are in favour of labour-market reforms, while LFI want increased protections for workers.

But this interpretation doesn’t cut it. The four parties were already able to overcome these differences to agree to a common programme in 2022. They didn’t split over labour-market reforms or energy policy. They have instead split over identity and culture-war issues.

Nothing better captures the woes of the left than its bizarre spats over food. In 2022, Fabien Roussel, the leader of the Communists, and Sandrine Rousseau, a leading figure in the Greens, fell out over the cultural implications of meat-eating, of all things. Roussel said the saucisson (sausage) was the apotheosis of French culture. The Communists even adopted the slogan ‘Let them eat steak’ to express their demand for higher living standards for French workers.

Rousseau bitterly opposed this vision of a meat-eating France. She condemned meat-eating for damaging the environment, and claimed that its celebration is a form of ‘toxic masculinity’.

Cultural clashes over food are not new in French politics. In 2017, then vice-president of the National Front (now National Rally), Florian Philippot, praised a couscous dish at a campaign rally. Because couscous is a North African staple, he was slammed by supporters for his ‘unpatriotic’ choice of cuisine. It seems now, though, that the cultural and identitarian implications of food are just as poisonous on the left. Some leftists seem more concerned with meat-eating being a form of toxic masculinity than with uniting behind a common political programme.

Identitarian tensions are particularly visible within the LFI. It has traditionally appealed to voters with urban, immigrant backgrounds. There are now some in the party, such as François Ruffin, who want the LFI to reach out beyond the banlieues of Paris to the ‘sausage-eating’, yellow-vest-wearing, working-class voters of peripheral France. But there are others in the party who would prefer it to concentrate on its existing support base, rather than appeal to what they see as the white, ‘nativist’ vote. This identitarian focus on race and ethnic identity stands in the way of the development of a broader class-based politics.

Identitarian disagreements on the left have come to a head over the Israel-Hamas conflict. Any left-wing politician or party that does not strike the correct pro-Palestine pose, and call Israel a ‘genocidal’ state, is ripe for attack by fellow leftists. Raphaël Glucksmann, who is heading up the Socialists’ European election efforts, has refused to use the word ‘genocide’ to describe Israel’s actions, preferring ‘carnage’ instead. As a result, pro-Palestine protesters threw paint at him at a May Day rally.

Glucksmann proceeded to blame LFI activists. This prompted LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon to demand an apology for what he said was a baseless allegation. Over the past few months, left-leaning candidates have spent more time arguing with and abusing each other than they have opposing the National Rally – the hard-right party now comfortably heading the polls.

By focussing so much on identity politics and cultural signifiers, from race to our culinary preferences, the French left is more divided than ever. United, the four parties could have hoped to receive up to 25 per cent of the vote in the upcoming elections, beating Macron’s party and coming second only to the National Rally’s predicted 33 per cent. But divided, only the Socialists and the LFI will get enough to beat the five per cent threshold for a seat in the European Parliament. The Greens and Communists are dangerously close to having no MEPs at all.

If the left is to stand a chance for the 2027 presidential and legislative elections, it has to focus less on identitarian posturing and more on policies that can appeal to all the working people of France.

Charles Devellennes is a senior lecturer in political and social thought at the University of Kent and author of The Gilets Jaunes and the New Social Contract, published by Bristol University Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics Politics World

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