It’s not unusual for a political rally to start late. It was harder than usual to ignore the delay on this late-January evening, though, as a freezing rain came down on the 2,000-odd Parisians lined up around the block. The rally was the largest yet for Place Publique (Public Square), a new party seeking to put the fragments of the French left back together in time for this May’s European Parliament elections and, it hopes, beyond.
Its founding principle? “Act before it’s too late” to stop runaway climate change, gaping inequality, and rising authoritarianism.
“We’ve heard scientists sounding the alarm on climate change and we’ve taken note of 2030 as the tipping point into irreversible catastrophe,” Place Publique’s manifesto declares. For the group, this ecological emergency also spells opportunity: to form a united front of the democratic left, capable of turning the tide on a Europe tragically divided between neoliberals and national-populists. “The only horizon that can unify the left is the ecological horizon,” Place Publique’s cofounder, Raphael Glücksmann, told the crowd at this concert hall in Paris’s gentrifying 18th arrondissement.
Place Publique, like a growing number of organizers worldwide, seeks to avert planetary catastrophe—not through grand geoengineering schemes but through the slow, deliberative work of direct democracy. Combating climate change, they argue, is inextricable from the redistribution of wealth, on the one hand, but also of power. That means radically rebuilding democracy–an admittedly vague goal that could take many different forms.
In this respect, Place Publique’s project converges with that of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), whose working-class revolt has rocked France since mid-November. It also echoes the demands of a burgeoning youth climate movement in Europe, which is increasingly making its presence felt on the literal public square. But to have any chance of succeeding, these overlapping movements—for climate justice, greater equality, and deeper democracy—need a foothold in state power. In France, Place Publique is just one of a dizzying number of parties vying to build that electoral bridge. And at the moment, the odds of any one of them leading to victory are looking exceedingly slim.
In the United States, the momentum that the Green New Deal has gathered has been inextricable from efforts to transform the Democratic Party from the inside. The Green New Deal has a face—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and behind her, a cadre of dedicated activists working in concert. They’ve succeeded in turning what was once a fringe idea, promoted by the Green Party and a smattering of other environmental-left groups, into a litmus test for candidates seeking to defeat Donald Trump.
In the United Kingdom, the ascendancy of a transformative, left-wing economic and environmental program followed a comparable dynamic, with the regrouping of the Labour Party around Jeremy Corbyn. The left-wing exuberance that followed Labour’s surprise near-win in 2017 has since been dampened significantly by the chaos of Brexit, but Labour could still win the next general election on a platform promising “an economic revolution to tackle the climate crisis.”
And then there’s France. It’s hard to compare directly with its anglophone counterparts, in part because France has always had a much more pluralistic party landscape. Nevertheless, over the last 30 years, French politics followed a pattern that basically mirrored that of the United States and United Kingdom, with power oscillating between the major parties of the center-left and center-right. The 2017 elections blew that all up, in a stunning rebuke of the entire French political establishment. But no party was as thoroughly trounced as the incumbent Socialist Party (PS), whose base split left (to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed), and right (to Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche). This mass defection left the PS in fifth place, with a dismal 6 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential voting.
In 2017, in other words, a dramatic party realignment did take place in France. But it wasn’t the left that won out—it was the radical center, in the form of 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron.
Fast forward to 2019. The phrase “soul searching” is often invoked to describe the state of France’s anti-populist left in the Macron era, but with the European elections now just three months away, all this rethinking is coming up against a hard deadline. Whereas Marine Le Pen’s National Front has steadily regained momentum since relaunching as the Rassemblement National (National Rally) last June—and is now polling neck and neck with Macron’s party—the left has only splintered further since 2017. The Socialist and Communist parties that commanded a plurality of the national vote for much the last century are now both polling below 5 percent.
Meanwhile, Benoît Hamon—the challenger from the PS’s left flank who represented the party in its disastrous 2017 run—has left to form Génération.s, the French affiliate of the European Spring movement led by Yanis Varoufakis. (It, too, polls in the range of 3–4 percent.) This leaves La France Insoumise as the largest opposition bloc to Macron outside of the right, but its promise of a left-populist resurgence appears to be waning as well. Largely snubbed by the gilets jaunes, and shedding other supporters through a combination of internal disputes, allegations of misuse of campaign funds, and Mélenchon’s outbursts at journalists, La France Insoumise is down to 8 percent in the latest polls.
It’s easy to get lost in all the internecine wrangling. But what’s clear is that, unlike in the US and UK, there is no single party for the French left to take back from the inside. The kind of regrouping that has allowed bold ideas like the Green New Deal to break into the US political mainstream is conspicuously absent.
Enter Place Publique. Launched last November, the group aims to channel the spirit of Tahrir Square and Euromaidan into a kind of popular front against climate change and austerity. Apart from an unorthodox small-town mayor, its figureheads are intellectuals and professional activists. They’ve rallied around a twofold ambition: to create a new democratic forum on the one hand, and, on the other, a rallying point for the “orphans” of a fractured left. The party is still hashing out its full platform, but this hasn’t stopped it from releasing a list of 10 points of convergence that it hopes can provide an initial glue.
The principle binding them together is that there is “no excuse” for letting banks, corporations, and their lobbying arms dictate the European compact. Place Publique wants to put ecology over austerity and the free movement of people over that of capital and goods. In order to do so, it aims to overturn EU deficit-spending rules, create a European-wide wealth tax, and crack down on tax havens, as well as institute humane policies on immigration and asylum.
Underlying this charter is the premise that the European Union should not be rejected but transformed—that a progressive internationalism is the only response to neoliberalism, nationalism, and climate change that stands a chance of winning. There’s a practical side to this as well as an ideological one: Tax havens, for example, are by definition an international problem, which EU-wide legislation could go a long way in addressing. (Ireland and Luxembourg, both EU member states, allow a huge share of corporate revenue to escape national coffers.)
Rewire the EU to favor redistribution, strengthen social safety nets, and revitalize public services (including transportation): Along with a rapid shift to renewable energy, these are the building blocks of a green transition, and the basis of a growing consensus among a broad swath of the left, environmentalists, and the wider public in France. There’s consensus, too, that this transition is growing more urgent with every passing day. Beyond that, though, things get hazier. A job guarantee? Largely unheard of. Universal basic income? Slightly less so, but it’s a long way from going mainstream.
It’s not that no one is talking about these ideas. The European Spring movement, helmed by Varoufakis, in January released its manifesto for a “New Deal for Europe,” which ties all of the above and more into a pretty good approximation of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agenda for the EU. But so far, it’s a movement without a base, a head without a body.
Is there a way to give it flesh and blood? In France, the latest twist in the saga comes from Benoît Hamon and Génération.s, the local affiliate of the European Spring, which in early February proposed a “citizens’ vote” allowing all self-identified leftists and ecologists to pick a joint list. Such a vote would amount to something like a united primary for the French left, which according to Hamon could overcome failed attempts at left-unity-by-backroom-deal and help foster a long-awaited collective renewal.
It’s not an entirely new idea—a similar call, backed by intellectuals and activists including Thomas Piketty, circulated in 2016 without getting anywhere. Many of those intellectuals are now associated with Place Publique and, sure enough, the group was among the first to sign on to Hamon’s call (pending an internal vote).
According to the timeline set by Génération.s, other parties have until early April to get on board. The Socialists and Communists have each hinted that they are open to it. But they are now among the smallest parties on the broad green left, and their rivals the Greens as well as the Euroskeptic, self-avowed populists of La France Insoumise have both sworn off a coalition strategy—what Mélenchon dismisses as a left-wing “logo soup.”
Meanwhile, the far right and neoliberal center have each retaken the offensive. Marine Le Pen, for her part, has shown much greater savvy in recruiting gilets jaunes to her side than any left-wing party. As for Macron, he has managed to parlay the yellow vests’ call for greater democracy into a national, televised speaking tour under the banner of a three-month-long “great national debate.”
Predictably, very little of the French public is convinced that this debate will provide satisfying answers to the fundamental questions—of economic inequality and democratic erosion—raised by the gilets jaunes. It hasn’t helped that, from the onset of the “great debate,” Macron refused to take on board the gilets jaunes’ key demands: a reestablishment of the wealth tax abolished during his first months in office, and the creation of a “citizens’ referendum” that would give voters the direct power to pass laws or revoke elected officials.
The upshot of Macron’s feigned exercise in democracy is that more genuine ones have proliferated in response. One yellow-vest contingent has retorted with its own website, The Real Debate, which uses the same software as the government’s but is unscripted; in its first weekend, the site garnered tens of thousands of proposals and votes. The previous weekend, in northeastern France, 350 delegates from roundabouts across the country participated in an in-person “great debate”: an assembly of assemblies lasting more than seven hours and resulting in a five-minute statement of principles. “Democracy, it’s super hard!” one participant concluded.
There’s no clear thread tying together the small-town gilets jaunes, the cosmopolitans of Place Publique, and all the parties scattered somewhere in between—at least, not right now. What is unmistakable is that an increasingly broad cross section of the French public is grasping to once again become “actors in their own lives,” as Carole Peintre, a social worker, told me at a local meeting hosted by Place Publique, at a kitschy Paris bar one Friday evening in late January.
At the local level, these efforts to reclaim power are thriving. What’s missing is the momentum to carry them to the national and, even, transnational levels. However rewarding, these experiments in collective decision-making need to align around enough of a shared program to beat back both the racist right and the neoliberal center in the European elections in May.
If nothing else, Place Publique seems to recognize this tension. One of the group’s underlying tenets is that “democracy refuses immediacy,” in the words of small-town mayor, and Place Publique spokesman, Jo Spiegel. But the clock is ticking. As the group recently posted to Facebook, “Every week spent in the scattering of little words is a week lost, and we move ever closer to the abyss.”