In France, the Far Left Is King

Quico Toro in Persuasion: For weeks, pundits have been speculating that France’s snap legislative election could blow up in President Emmanuel Macron’s face—and boy did it. Only it’s blown up in a way nobody expected. Instead of the much-feared far right victory, the election will probably force the centrist president into an awkward coalition with the left, an exercise likely to leave both sides badly bruised.

Macron had called the snap poll long before he was legally mandated to, following the far right’s surprise win in last month’s European election. Then, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally had stunned Paris by coming first in France, with 31% of the vote. Macron reacted by dissolving the legislature three years ahead of schedule and calling a snap poll, seemingly to shock French voters into rethinking.

France’s one-of-a-kind two-round legislative election—which whittles down the field between rounds, but can still leave many candidates competing in the final run-off—is hard to forecast. After the far right again topped the first round on June 30, many of Macron’s own centrists felt forced into a tactical alliance with the left to try to block the National Rally, with some centrist candidates who had come in third agreeing to drop out in favor of the left, and some third-place left candidates doing the same reciprocally for the center. The tactic worked, and the result—foreseen by no one—was a legislature with the left as the largest group, the centrists second, and the far right languishing in third place.

Keen-eyed readers will already have noticed an anomaly. By convention, we talk about the French far right, but the left is exempted from adjectival abuse: it’s never the far left, just la gauche: the left. It’s a telling choice: an implicit way of conveying that while all reasonable people agree that the extremists on the right are beyond the pale, the left is still presentable in polite company.

But how presentable is this left bloc that will presumably now get to govern France in coalition with the ever-so-presentable—though obviously past his sell-by-date—centrist president?

Well, as inevitably happens with left-wing movements, there’s a bit of everything in the coalition that campaigned this election as the New Popular Front: from the zombified remnants of the once-powerful, relatively moderate Socialist Party (remember François Hollande?) to a gaggle of environmental groups to what remains of French communism. The biggest party in this space, though, is unquestionably Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and its ascendancy over this space is clearly down to Mélenchon’s own charismatic leadership. In fact, Mélenchon probably has more say than any single other person over who becomes France’s next prime minister. What kind of leader is he, exactly?

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