“France can’t be governed” sobbed right-wing newspaper headlines as the results of the June 18 French parliamentary elections came in. Several pundits worried that Emmanuel Macron’s government would be “paralysed”.
Le Parisien was obliged to conclude that the left-wing Popular Union (Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale, NUPES) had “won a semi-victory”, but noted at the same time, “a historic breakthrough” for the far-right.
Macron, recently re-elected president, lost around a hundred seats compared with five years ago. His supporters won 246 seats, 43 short of an overall majority in the 577 seat National Assembly. He will need to negotiate ad hoc alliances to get laws passed, either with the traditional right (who got 64 seats) or with the fascists (89 seats).
Other reasons for celebration included the defeat of a number of Macron’s star ministers, including: Jean-Michel Blanquer, a mad Islamophobe convinced that French universities are controlled by what he calls “Islamoleftists”; Christophe Castaner, the butcher who organised the brutal repression of the Yellow Vest protesters, when dozens lost eyes or hands from rubber bullets; environment minister Amélie de Montchalin, who hit the headlines last week when she attacked her local left-wing opponent, who is Jewish, as a Russia-loving antisemitic left-wing anarchist.
The left, while still very much a minority in the assembly, grew from 64 MPs to 155. In addition, the 64 elected in 2017 were, in general, elected on far less radical platforms than NUPES.
The appetite for “spectacular change” as NUPES leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon terms it, is very real, particularly in some regions. In the overseas Caribbean departments, eight out of nine elected MPs are aligned with the radical left alliance. Réunion island in the Indian Ocean returned six out of seven. In the Seine-Saint-Denis department, grouping together the multi-ethnic working class suburbs around Paris, all 12 MPs are from the radical left alliance.
The polarisation also led to a huge rise in the number of MPs from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN), which grew from eight seats to 89. Three million people voted for the RN in the first round of the 2017 legislative elections, rising to 4.2 million this time, an increase of 40%. The electoral system favours bigger parties and this has very much magnified the advance of the RN in the National Assembly.
The rise of the RN is very much the fault of Macron. Mélenchon pointed out that Macron and Le Pen are performing “a duet and not a duel”, and certainly Macron’s series of Islamophobic laws, meant to divert attention from his vicious austerity programs, have helped Le Pen no end.
In addition, many of Macron’s candidates eliminated in the first round refused to call for a vote for left-wing candidates in those places where the fascists and the left faced each other in the second round. All this after Macron had promised in 2017, “to do everything to make sure that [those who voted RN] would no longer have any reason to do so” after he had been in power for five years.
The mass media has also played its part in recent years, inviting well-dressed fascists to join debates and chat shows every day of the week. The left must also bear some responsibility. Most organisations have been very weak at organising antifascist campaigning, often considering fascism as an inevitable result of austerity and poverty.
The RN now claims to have 80,000 members. With its 89 members of parliament and the new funding flowing from these positions, it is to be feared that they will be able to build solid party structures at a local level in hundreds of towns, which has been their main weakness so far.
So is the glass half full or half empty? People can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic. What is clear is that polarisation continues.
Macron is weakened, but determined to push forward his Thatcherite reforms. Faced with mass strikes, he failed to smash the pension scheme in 2019, but he is determined to start over, and aims to raise the standard pension age from 62 to 65. Macron insists that students should pay far more to go to university. At present they pay “only” around A$440 a year. Furthermore, he wants to continue to slash public sector jobs and taxes for the rich.
The tremendous combativity that French workers have shown over the past 25 years means we can be sure there will be massive struggles, and soon. The new left MPs, elected through a dynamic and even insurgent campaign, must throw themselves into supporting extra-parliamentary struggle as well as doing their job in the Assembly.
There is plenty of work to do on the left. The fight against Islamophobia is still often avoided by most left organisations, such as their silence over the recent racist ban on full-body swimsuits. The conservatism of the trade union leaderships in the strike movements will have to be challenged also, and antifascist campaigning needs to become a national habit.
[John Mullen is a Marxist activist in the Paris region and a supporter of the France Insoumise. Visit his political website here.]