What’s Next for the French Left?

What’s Next for the French Left?

With sweeping labor reforms on the horizon, a nasty fight awaits Macron and his new party in the fall. 


There is no denying it: The last few months have been disastrous for the French left. As the gospel of neoliberalism goes up in flames across the Channel, French voters have handed over the republic to one of its true believers. Not only did they elect Emmanuel Macron as president. But last Sunday, they delivered his newly formed party, La République en Marche (LREM), a parliamentary supermajority, granting him the tools to comfortably enact his business-friendly agenda.

These will be trying times for the French working class, and really anyone concerned with the country’s collective well-being. Macron wants to radically restructure labor law in favor of employers; he wants to enshrine parts of the nation’s ongoing state of emergency into common law; and he wants to lower corporate taxes. Recently distilling his vision in a frightening and cruel tweet—which he wrote in English so it could be shared worldwide—he claimed France should be a “nation that thinks and moves like a start-up.”

Still, one would be mistaken in equating Macron’s success at the polls with a broad democratic mandate for his policies. After capturing the presidency in a run-off against the widely disliked Marine Le Pen, his party’s triumph in the legislative elections was propelled by historically low turnout. Just 42 percent of registered voters took part in last Sunday’s second-round ballot. This is the lowest turnout percentage for such a race in the nearly 60-year-old history of the Fifth Republic. According to polling, roughly three-fourths of 18-to-24-year-olds stayed home along with two-thirds of working-class voters.

Buoyed by these stunning levels of disinterest, LREM’s second-round tidal wave was also not as colossal as projected. Not all who did turn out voted for Macron’s cocktail of neoliberal policy programs. In fact, there were even some glimmers of hope last Sunday for those committed to the welfare state that Macron and his parliamentary alliance seek to undo.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise captured 17 seats. Having met the 15-deputy threshold necessary to form an official “parliamentary group,” FI will now benefit from formal offices and subsidies, a guaranteed amount of speaking time during debates, and a role in crafting the legislative schedule. While this clearly pales in comparison to Macron’s exploits, it is no small achievement for a brand-new political formation.

The group also includes some much-needed new faces for the French left. Aside from the party’s standard-bearer, a gifted orator whose wit and combativeness seem ready-made for parliamentary debate, FI counts among its ranks a self-described Afro-feminist librarian, a pro-union filmmaker dubbed the “French Michael Moore,” and a home health aide elected in a historic working-class district in Lorraine.

Meanwhile, the French Communist Party (PCF), a frequent punching bag for the foreign press, showed renewed signs of life. The Communists actually boosted their standing in the Assembly from seven to 11 seats. And after signing a pact with deputies from overseas districts, they too will have a parliamentary group of their own. A potent mix of personal and political tensions persist between the PCF and FI, but the factions have said they plan to work together in the Assembly.

Finally, the embattled Socialist Party (PS): Despite having had its worst performance in a presidential election since its founding in 1969, it has managed to hold on to 30 seats—not a terrible score considering recent electoral performances. Unfortunately, the quality of these deputies leaves much to be desired: Just two of them were so-called frondeurs, or legislators who, like the party’s recent presidential nominee Benoît Hamon, came to oppose François Hollande’s rightward turn and cast key votes against the governing majority. Nevertheless, the PS’s roughly 200-member national council passed an encouraging resolution on Saturday, declaring the party in “opposition” to Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s new government. This was a key message ahead of the Assembly’s vote of confidence slated for July 4.

But the trajectory of the PS’s post-Hollande reconfiguration is still far from decided. The same deliberative body in the party also shot down a resolution that explicitly called on parliamentarians to vote against Macron’s government, opening the door for Socialist deputies to abstain from the upcoming vote of confidence. Some of them may well ignore the official resolution and side with Philippe’s government anyway. In any case, the coming months will be clarifying: The PS can drift toward Macron; it can drift toward Mélenchon; it can waver back and forth. Any one of these paths will likely cause further fragmentation.

Of course, no matter how one looks at it, the left in France remains in a state of fracture and is badly overmatched in the legislative political arena. Combined, the voting blocs of Socialists, Communists, and La France Insoumise count fewer members than the other major non-Macron faction, the right-wing Les Républicains. About 90 LR deputies remain in “opposition” to the president, while nearly 40 right-wing deputies have formed their own parliamentary group that is open to working with the government. No matter what, legislators can do little to stop Macron from getting his way.

This means any looming political conflicts are unlikely to be decided in Parliament alone. Since opponents lack the formal means to block those parts of Macron’s agenda they oppose, they’ll be forced to wage their battles in the media, in civil society at large—and, of course, in the streets. In France, la rue is more than a symbol. Demonstrations are a basic fact of political life and their power can determine the success of legislative initiatives—from failed efforts to cut social security benefits in 1995 to the more recent legalization of same-sex marriage. In the age of Macron—and what’s effectively shaping up to be a rubber-stamp Parliament—protest could take on even greater weight.

The stakes here are enormous. The left faces more than the usual opportunity to build credibility ahead of future elections. Because if it fails to do so, darker forces will. Haunting the republic’s unprecedented turmoil is the specter of the National Front, the far-right populist party, which picked up only eight seats in the National Assembly but still boasts considerable support, especially among low-income voters.

The mainstream right, for its part, is genetically incapable of mounting sustained opposition to La République en Marche. Official pronouncements aside, the economic ambitions of Les Républicains have too much in common with those of the president to elicit any real hostility. Macron’s prime minister and finance minister were both, as recently as last month, members of Les Républicains. And the government’s famously pro-business rhetoric has already earned praise from France’s powerful employers’ association, a traditional ally of the right.

That leaves left-wing forces—especially La France Insoumise—as chief beneficiaries of inevitable public frustration with Macron. It could also mean this frustration continues to sustain the National Front. Both have support from young and working-class people, groups that will be most affected by looming reforms and, historically, the first ones to resort to mass protest on a national scale. There appears to be signs that the left might be better positioned to take advantage of the current moment. According to a recent poll, Mélenchon’s party best “represents opposition” to the president. But one can only hope that remains the case ahead of municipal and regional contests in 2020 and 2021.

After all, Macron’s high approval ratings will almost certainly dip in coming years. While he may have won a supermajority for his new party, pillars of his agenda remain broadly unpopular. Topping the list are plans to overhaul labor law. Details of the proposal are still being hammered out. But at the moment, the reforms would allow company-wide collective-bargaining agreements to take precedence over their industry-wide ones on an as of yet undefined scope of issues. They would also cap worker compensation in cases of wrongful termination, and they would combine different mandatory employee representation structures into a single unit. All in all, the reforms would grant more authority to companies to shape individual workplaces to their liking, and the government has announced its intent to make the changes under a special fast-track legislative procedure.

While any possible labor law overhaul will likely breeze through the National Assembly, 61 percent of the country is “worried” about the government’s reform plans, according to an Elabe poll.  Last year’s labor reforms—far more modest in comparison—were deeply unpopular, with about three in four opposing them, and they ignited months of contentious protest. Against the backdrop of the now 20-month-long state of emergency, police violence may hit a noticeable high.

A nasty fight awaits Macron and his new party in the fall. Students and workers return from summer vacation in September, around the same time as the government is slated to approve the labor reforms. While labor confederations remain in dialogue with the government, France’s largest one—the General Confederation of Work—has already called for a day of nationwide strikes in September. Meanwhile, radical union locals have joined forces in the so-called Front Social and called for another day of protests and blockades that month.

Indeed, the most militant of activists believe they must effectively shut down the country with strategically focused strikes to win these sorts of national showdowns. Ultimately, efforts to do so last year failed—as they did in 2010 when unions unsuccessfully opposed Sarkozy’s hike in the retirement age. More than a decade ago, though, a conservative government withdrew legislation over a proposed youth employment contract in response to mass street protests. The latter is often cited in left-wing circles today, not without a healthy dose of wishful thinking. In any case, this much is clear: Macron’s honeymoon is soon coming to an end.

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