The presidential, and subsequent legislative, elections in France earlier this year told us a number of things about the changing nature of the nation’s politics. First, that the main contest is now, and has been since 2017, not that between left and right but that between centre and far right. Second, that the stumble in the 2017 presidential election which saw the traditional big beasts of the Parti socialiste and Les Républicains eclipsed by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement nationale and Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! was not just a temporary aberration in the configuration of national politics. Third, that Marine Le Pen’s firm grip on the sizeable far-right electorate, strongly challenged for a time by an exotic figure even further to the right than her, Eric Zemmour, has been confirmed. Fourth, that the radical left, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (“Rebel France”) (LFI) movement, is now by far the most important socialist force in the country, having swept aside its rivals in the last few weeks of the presidential campaign before further consolidating its dominance by forging, and leading, a new left-wing alliance, which performed impressively in June’s legislative elections.
There could be no ignoring the Parti socialiste’s spectacular failure in the presidential election (its candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, polled 1.7%, the worst score in the party’s history). But, as is sometimes the case in human affairs, the hurt occasioned by one’s own failure can be significantly magnified by the success of others. LFI had run a brilliant campaign, which came to a head just when it counted, in the final fortnight of the contest. Playing on the relative weakness of the other left-wing candidates, it called on the electorate to cast a vote utile (a tactical vote) in Mélenchon’s favour which might see him surging through to the second-round run-off against either Macron (he would almost certainly have lost) or Le Pen (he would probably have won). In the event, Mélenchon came in just a little more than a point behind Le Pen and a few more behind Macron and thus failed to make the second round, but he, and his movement, had nevertheless clearly notched up a political triumph.
The Parti socialiste found itself in the brief pause between the second round of the presidential elections (April 24th) and the first round of the legislatives (June 12th) under immense pressure from LFI to form a broad alliance to maximise left-wing representation in parliament, deprive Emmanuel Macron of a parliamentary majority and force on him a cohabitation with a left-wing prime minister – who would be none other than Jean-Luc Mélenchon. (Macron, one suspects, would rather have cut off his leg rather than enter into such a prospectively stormy liaison.) LFI, strengthened by its election success, certainly had the upper hand in the necessarily brief discussions over the terms of the deal with its political allies. What was agreed was that only one left-wing candidate would contest each constituency ‑ and that the majority of these would be nominated by LFI. One can see some justification for this: Mélenchon had, after all, won more than twice as many votes as all the other left-wing presidential candidates put together. On the other hand, many socialists did not feel that it was fair on them to be limited by the “snapshot” of public opinion that was the vote of April 10th. The party retained, in spite of Hidalgo’s derisory vote, considerable strengths in provincial towns and in the regions, where LFI was still a much more minor presence. (Eight of the ten most populous cities in France are currently run by the centre left ‑ five by the socialists, three by the Greens.) LFI’s advantage meant that some candidates were parachuted in to constituencies with which they had previously had little connection. It should be said that this didn’t stop the left-wing electorate voting for them. In the end, in spite of some grassroots revolts the PS’s leadership and its negotiators did not feel they had much choice; it was, they felt, at this particular juncture a case of coalesce or die. The broad front group which emerged from the talks (which assumed the name Nouvelle union populaire, écologique et sociale, or NUPES), was indeed dominated by LFI and in the legislative elections (in June) it performed impressively, helping – in unwilling tandem with the far-right Rassemblement nationale, which also did well – to deprive Emmanuel Macron of an overall majority and becoming the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
The exhilaration that accompanied this victory for “unity on the left” was not to remain unalloyed for too long. It quickly became clear that no one apart from LFI wanted NUPES to evolve into a single left-wing political party: though there would be co-operation in parliament, socialists, communists and Greens all wanted to maintain their own political identities, and perhaps also to keep their future options open. This was not merely a case of party egoism: both the socialists and the Greens have serious difficulties with what they see as LFI’s cavalier, or populist, attitude toward the European Union (their desire to pick and choose which commonly agreed European policies they will subscribe to and which not, and also to take a “national route” when it is their view that this suits France). Probably all the other left parties have problems with LFI’s perceived softness on the essential French republican principle of laïcité (secularism, very roughly), which they suspect the insoumis have been prepared to drop or tactically soft-pedal when seeking electoral support from Muslim communities.
La France Insoumise sees itself as a movement rather than a political party. And like many another “movement” before it (gathered around a charismatic leader) it is not hugely bothered about internal democracy. One of its leading intellectual figures, Charlotte Girard, left the party as long ago as 2019 after failing in her efforts to have structures accepted which would give a voice to the membership and allow it to bring forward policy motions for consideration further up the line. After the installation last week – without an election – of a new leadership group around Manuel Bompard, the most loyal of Mélenchon loyalists, internal discontent is growing. At a time when some of the other component parts of NUPES are involved in organising congresses, which will vote on policies and leadership, Bompard says that LFI prefers “consensus – in order to avoid a clash between a majority and minorities”. Many of the membership and the newly elected deputies, as well as figures who were previously part of the leadership circle but have now been dropped, are far from persuaded. Many parliamentary deputies indeed were not even informed of the meeting which announced the leadership changes and did not know where it was being held. Of the new structures, the leader of the LFI group in the European Parliament, Leila Chaibi, commented: “One has the impression that in respect of some people criteria were concocted that were designed to exclude them; and in the case of others, posts were conjured up for them.”
On top of this disquiet over the lack of democratic structures in the movement, there has been the particularly embarrassing case of the figure previously considered LFI’s number two. Adrien Quattenens is a gifted orator close to Mélenchon and often spoken of as his dauphin (anointed successor: the dauphin is normally the king’s eldest son). The royal reference is perhaps not inappropriate: Louis XIV is famously said to have announced “L’état, c’est moi (The state, that’s me)”. Mélenchon is thought to have pretty much the same idea about the political movement he created.
In September, the satirical journal Le Canard enchaïné revealed that Adrien Quattenens’s wife was bringing an action against him for conjugal violence. The couple had separated and divorce proceedings were in motion. In a statement made through Twitter, Quattenens admitted having slapped his wife during an incident in 2021 in which, he said, there was “extreme tension and mutual hostility”. In November, Céline Quattenens spoke of a history of moral and physical violence extending over several years. Adrien Quattenens, speaking through his lawyer, has strongly denied this.
The initial reactions of some of Quattenens’s party colleagues were perhaps less than one might expect from a party that prides itself on taking women’s rights very seriously – or indeed even one which has access to professional media advice on damage limitation. True, one deputy commented, Quattenens might have to spend a little time in the wilderness, as had notable figures before him, like Christ, or General de Gaulle, but after that surely everything would be all right again. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in a Twitter message on September 18th, thought it better to point the finger elsewhere: “The ill-will of the police, the voyeurism of the media, social media, all have been invited into the conflictual divorce of Adrien and Céline Quattenens. Adrien has decided to take everything on himself. I salute his dignity and courage. I convey to him my confidence in him and my affection.”
On December 13th, Quattenens was fined €2,000 for his violence against his wife and given a four-month suspended jail sentence. He had previously stood down from his party functions with LFI but it seems he has no intention of staying away from parliament, even temporarily. Indeed he is determined to be there when the chamber reopens in January, though for the moment he will not be sitting on the LFI benches. On the day after his judicial condemnation he gave a long interview to BFM-TV. This time his colleagues were not quite so supportive. The prominent deputy François Ruffin (just recently removed from the party leadership and who had previously publicly backed Quattenens) said that his colleague’s hasty recourse to the media bespoke at the very least a culpable absence of restraint. “Not in my name, not in my name,” tweeted the Paris deputy Sarah Legrain, while Danielle Simonnet wished to make it clear that Quattenens, in his interview, was speaking on his own behalf and not on that of the parliamentary group, adding: “Sometimes you just have to know when to shut up.” The strongest statement came from the LFI deputy Marianne Maximi, who said that “revealing the past, the childhood, the intimate life of the victim” (a reference to comments made by Quattenens in the television interview) in the interest of “minimising and relativising his own violence” was “a strategy commonly employed by the authors of conjugal violence”.
Referring to both the internal struggles over the absence of democracy in LFI and Mélenchon’s indulgent handling of the Quattenens case, Le Monde (a firmly left-wing newspaper), thundered in an editorial:
[The whole affair] would put one more in mind of the antics of a Trotskyist groupuscule than of the behaviour one might expect from a party fully integrated into parliamentary life and aspiring to take power by democratic means. The episode confirms at the same time Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s arm’s-length relation to democracy and the fragility of what he has sought to build.
It is perhaps as well for LFI that there is no significant electoral test coming up in the near future. Perhaps, if it is prepared to learn some lessons, it will bounce back. But it is unlikely to recover whatever trust or good will it might once have enjoyed among its socialist, Green or communist allies. There is a possibility that Emmanuel Macron, deprived of an overall majority in the assembly, might at a time of his choosing be tempted to call early legislative elections. Otherwise, there will be a long wait until the next presidential contest in 2027. There is little we can say at the moment with any certainty about that. Macron cannot run again. Will his centrist formation survive his departure intact or will its component parts reassert their individual political characters through separate presidential campaigns for Édouard Philippe (on the right of the centre) or Olivier Véran or Clément Beaune (on the left)? Will the centre-right (Les Républicains) at last find an electorate after a number of failed attempts by mimicking the positions of the far right as it seems determined to do under its new leader, Eric Ciotti? Or is it doomed to continue to decline or lose significant figures defecting to the centre? Can the socialists, who occupied the French presidency for nineteen of the last forty-one years, ever recover their strength? (The answer to this one is that – at the moment – the party having comprehensively lost almost all of its working class support and its links with trade unionism, it is really hard to see how.) Can LFI maintain its radical élan without Mélenchon – no longer a parliamentary deputy – as figurehead (he is now seventy-one)? Perhaps it can.
Looking around the political landscape, it is somewhat depressing to note that the greatest pole of stability and evident staying power seems to come in the form of Marine Le Pen, whose support has been slowly increasing in successive presidential elections and who has recently seen off a quite determined assault on her position from a well-organised rival on the far right. Le Pen is still well short of what is required to win the presidency, but her apparent four-point advantage over Macron (according to Ifop polling) in the 25-34 age group in the run-off of this year’s election might give us grounds for worry. One hopes that, whatever their differences and rivalries, all of the forces of republican France will give the highest priority to making sure that the Rassemblement nationale – which distinguished itself again this week by congratulating the white members of the national football team ‑ never wins the presidency.