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The French left’s Pyrrhic victory

Its triumph over the National Rally pits bourgeois radicals against struggling workers.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Politics World

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You could almost hear Europe’s elites breathing a collective sigh of relief on Sunday evening.

Ever since the right-wing National Rally (RN) earned a thumping win in the first round of France’s legislative elections last weekend, the French establishment and its supporters had been bracing themselves for the party of Marine Le Pen to become the dominant, if not the majority, force in the French parliament. For days, the broadsheet press had busied itself wringing its hands about the rise of the far right, while assorted bourgeois leftists talked darkly of the rise of fascism.

Then the news broke. Exit polls showed that the RN had in fact been pushed into third place, behind the left-wing coalition, the New Popular Front (NFP), and President Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble coalition, which came second.

The results now confirm what the exit polls suggested. Out of 577 seats, the NFP has 182, Ensemble has 163 and the RN has 143. Cue sweat being wiped from political-class brows across Europe. In the words of a Guardian headline, ‘win for left-wing alliance keeps far right from power’. Or as the NFP’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of France Unbowed (LFI), put it, ‘the people have avoided the worst‘.

Yet there’s something more than a little Pyrrhic about this semi-victory over the populist right. For a start, the RN has still massively increased the number of seats it holds – by over 50 per cent. It is easily the largest single political party in the French assembly. By contrast, Mélenchon’s LFI, the biggest party within the NFP, has just 78 seats. Given the fragile nature of the coalitions now within the assembly, whatever government that emerges after this weekend – Macron’s prime minister Gabriel Attal has already offered to step down – will struggle for coherence.

Furthermore, while the RN may have lost the election, its raw vote share will give it plenty of encouragement ahead of the presidential elections in 2027. According to the latest figures, the RN received 37 per cent (10million) of all votes cast. That far outstrips the NFP’s 26 per cent (seven million) and Ensemble’s 25 per cent (6.5million).

There’s no doubt that there’s still considerable nervousness among sections of the French public over the RN. Which is hardly a surprise, given the National Front, as the RN used to be called, was founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – a vicious anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that ever-growing numbers of French men and women are willing to lend their vote to a party that has, in recent years, sought to shed its politically toxic image. (Marine expelled her father from the party in 2015 over his anti-Semitism.)

But there is another reason why this ‘victory’ over the populist right rings hollow: the cynical manner in which it was manufactured. Last week, as part of the ‘republican front’ against the RN, the NFP and Ensemble mutually agreed to pull over 200 candidates from three-way races in districts where the RN had a chance of winning. The aim was to frame the election as a simple choice between the so-called far-right and the forces of anti-fascism.

These tactics are hardly new, of course. When threatened by the RN and its predecessor, the National Front, the French political establishment, in alliance with the left, has often turned national elections into a binary choice – for or against fascism. These tactics were deployed most famously in 2002, to stop toxic racist Jean-Marie Le Pen from defeating Jacques Chirac in the presidential elections.

Yet while these tactics have once again proven successful, they produce an entirely negative result. In short, these votes for Ensemble and the NFP are not for anything. They are not for a particular political programme or even a particular leader. Indeed, in every other respect except their opposition to the RN, the NFP and Ensemble – the two elements of the so-called republican front – despise one another. The NFP has actually pledged to roll back many of Macron’s own reforms, including lowering the retirement age to 60 and bringing back an old wealth tax. Moreover, as countless vox pops with French voters on Sunday have shown, those ticking an Ensemble or NFP box often didn’t like either coalition. They were simply being asked to thwart the RN.

There is another striking difference between this attempt to keep the RN at bay and previous efforts. In the presidential elections of 2002, and again in 2017 and 2022, when Macron twice defeated Marine Le Pen, the French left played the supporting role, bolstering the establishment candidate, be it Chirac or Macron. This time, however, it finds itself as the main player, having become the largest coalition in the assembly.

But this relative success could backfire on the left. The NFP’s cheerleaders may imagine they’re leading a glorious fight against resurgent fascism. But the truth is that the vast swathes of working-class France now voting for the RN aren’t doing so because they’re racist or neo-Nazi or trying to undermine the republic. They’re doing so because they are concerned about migration, Islamism, greenism and their own marginalisation, but are confronted with political parties – of the left and centre – who refuse to address these issues at all.

The RN has clearly become a vehicle for those struggling on the periphery, those living outside the centres of metropolitan privilege, to deliver a blow to France’s complacent elites. As Emile Chabal, professor of contemporary history at the University of Edinburgh, put it recently, ‘the RN can fairly lay claim to being the party of the French working classes’. While the RN is hardly an ideal outlet for this rebellion, it is all that voters feel they have at their disposal. The French left, meanwhile, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of leading the charge against this expression of working-class disaffection and anger, with the NFP largely drawing its own base of support from bourgeois city-dwellers.

The RN, its limitations on full display, may have failed to make the electoral breakthrough many anticipated this time. But the populist anger fuelling it is not going anywhere. The more the people’s concerns are dismissed, the more the French revolt will grow.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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