By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor
The parliamentary elections in June confirmed the existence of the three political blocs that took shape in the presidential election – the left, the right and the far-right. Of course, parliament in a capitalist state does not represent the final word in democracy. But parliamentary elections do illustrate the class struggle’s temperature and the balance of class forces. The recent elections also demonstrated the momentum of the political blocs and the contradictions within them.
The results were a big blow to Macron’s project. It was caused by a sudden growth of the left, but also Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National’s RN unexpectedly good results. The president has a relative majority with 245 seats out of 577. The left alliance, la Nouvelle Union Populaire, Écologique et Sociale NUPES gained 131 seats [plus 22 other left parties. See table 1], up from 64 in 2017. The RN went from 8 seats to 89. To pass a bill, a party needs 289 votes. Therefore, Macron needs the 64 votes of either the conservative Les Republicains LR or the RN.
The results of the legislative elections have confirmed that the French crisis of political leadership is gathering pace. In losing his parliamentary majority, Macron will struggle to run the country, and instability will grow. His project of a latter-day prince able to rule beyond the accountability to parliament is endangered.
Immediately after the parliamentary elections, Macron’s new PM, Elisabeth Borne, tried to form a coalition government of “national unity’. Her attempt was rebuffed by the left: despite her efforts to divide the new NUPES left coalition by a cynical appeal to a ‘sense of responsibility’ for the sake of stability. Her overtures were also rejected by the right. The conservative LR leaders detest Macron for destroying their party as a leading force. They now see working with Macron as akin to ‘climbing aboard the Titanic’ as the conservative politician Xavier Bertrand put it.
How did this result come about? Over the last decades, the presidential elections have been followed the next month by legislative ones, which usually confirm the results of the former, giving an absolute majority to the presidential camp. So, voters don’t usually place much importance on voting again, and abstention is high. But this time, Mélenchon and la France Insoumise succeeded in maintaining the momentum of his presidential campaign when he announced that he could become prime minister if voters came out to vote in the parliamentary elections.
Another factor is the decline in Macron’s popularity. The self-proclaimed shiny new, liberal, centrist president Macron of 2017 who claimed to be ‘above classes’ is long gone. His record over the last five years has destroyed any illusions that he has anything to do with the left. He has led five years of implementation of neo-liberal reforms to overturn the social and economic gains made by the people since 1945. Only this week, Macron has reiterated his determination to force the French people to ‘work harder and longer.’ He became increasingly authoritarian in the face of the mass mobilisations on pensions and the struggle of the Gilets Jaunes [Yellow vests]. The latter saw thirty-two activists lose an eye and five a hand. In the end, Macron was re-elected by default, more by a desire to stop Le Pen than a vote of confidence.
Mélenchon and the rise of the new left
The presidential candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon also saw a rebirth of hope for a left alternative, especially amongst the most deprived sectors of the working class who saw Macron as entirely illegitimate.
The unity of the whole left was needed for this alternative to thrive. Mélenchon’s much higher vote than the other left candidates in the presidential election made that unity more possible. But it was not just unity to get seats for each party; it had to be principled and based on a ‘shared government’ program. After three weeks of discussions between the left parties – France Insoumise, the Greens, the Communist Party and the Socialist party – an election program was agreed. These discussions also took place on social media and mainstream media, reaching millions of voters. The presidential election coverage had been dominated by far-right rhetoric about immigration and racist replacement mythology. Whereas the legislative election became a national debate about the NUPES programme, which in turn was largely based on the platform of Mélenchon and la France Insoumise FI.
Despite the hopes in ruling circles and its media that such an alliance would not work, it was established and is still going strong. Mélenchon, who had been vilified for so long, became extremely popular, and many people started to campaign very intensively in the working-class areas where abstention is higher than the national average. Mélenchon’s leadership gave back to the people the sense of what is working-class politics. Despite this enormous work in the working-class areas, abstention was still strong. But the parliamentary campaign slogan #melenchonmatignon Mélenchon for PM crystallised the real choice facing France.
Initially, the other three left parties rejected the FI call to keep NUPES as a united left parliamentary group. Those parties had only partially learned lessons from their sectarian error in opposing a united left candidate in the presidential elections. Whilst resisting the temptation to fetishise parliamentary procedure, it is essential that the left should exploit every opportunity to make political capital in the National Assembly. One such example is the election of Éric Coquerel from NUPES and la France Insoumise to the finance committee chair. He has already launched an official investigation into the scandal of private companies making huge sums of money operating on behalf of the government over covid and other matters.
Macron’s programme was kept close to his chest during the presidential and legislative elections and not subjected to public scrutiny. From time to time, he hinted that he might reconsider some of the policies he had pursued in his first term. But these comments were more designed to appeal to the eye of the beholder, than to be taken as commitments to change direction.
The election results reveal that the Macron project represents a minority in France. However, the significance of this should not be overstated. The attack by capital on the working class and the oppressed commands majority support in parliament. Neither the LR nor the RN will oppose Macron’s attacks on pensions, the minimum wage, and unemployment benefits, not to mention the ramping up of racism and the growing authoritarianism.
Macron fanned the flames of racism and the far-right in legislation and rhetoric in his first term. The most notorious example was when his security minister Darmanin attacked Le Pen for being ‘too soft on Muslims’. The stream of laws against so-called ‘Separatism’ by Muslims added more racist grist to the reactionary mill. The post-election announcement by the new PM to prioritise new measures against foreigners who commit criminal acts shows that Macron intends to continue this racist offensive.
The parliamentary breakthrough of the far-right
The present growth of the RN is mainly due to Macron. Macron aimed at creating the chimera that the main threat to the republic was Marine Le Pen and that he was best placed to defeat her. This inflation of the far-right by Macron was self-serving. The RN parasites on the anger of sections of the petty-bourgeoisie about their economic problems. The RN’s electoral progress was concentrated in the countryside and small towns. It is very weak in the cities and big towns where it is viewed with widespread hostility.
Marine Le Pen could have been stopped in the first round of the presidential elections if there had been unity on the left, as she was only narrowly ahead of Mélenchon Instead, she was able to raise her profile, eclipse her far-right rival Zemmour and consolidate her vote across several regions. Le Pen and the RN exploited this momentum in the parliamentary elections.
On the back of this breakthrough, the RN gained some positions in the running of parliament for the first time. The RN were elected to two of the presidencies of the permanent commissions of the National Assembly. The RN gained two posts as deputy chairs. That was only possible with the backing of MPs from the LREM and the LR. The RN line for this new term shows that contrary to their reputation, they are reliable MPs who do the work they are expected to do. It will gain further legitimacy, and as a result, so will their ideas.
The votes for the leadership of parliamentary committees revealed that the right has more in common than divides them. As even the conservative Le Figaro put it, ‘The LR and the RN – the Entente that dare not speak its name.’ The tradition in Parliament is that the opening session of the newly elected NA is chaired by the oldest member of the National Assembly. This time it happened to be an RN MP. He gave a tearful speech regretting the loss of the once colonised Algeria. He was not only applauded by MPs of his party but also members of other parties.
The French right – the Macronists, the conservative LR and the RN have a symbiotic relationship. They are variants of the same strategy, using racism to divide and confuse the opposition to neo-liberalism. We can be sure that the Macron government will continue legitimising the RN and its racist agenda.
‘Not the ballot or the streets – but both’
The presidential and the parliamentary campaigns of Mélenchon and NUPES placed centre-stage the critical demands of the working class and the oppressed for an alternative to austerity and racism. They also articulated a comprehensive economic alternative to the cost-of-living crisis, which would reverse the shift of wealth from labour to capital. The election campaign also saw a powerful response from Mélenchon to state violence. His simple statement, ‘The police kills’ in response to yet another death at the hands of the police, united Macron, the LR, the police trade union and Le Pen in howls of anger. The latter being secure in the knowledge that opinion polls showed that at least 60% of the police vote for her. Significantly, the leaders of the Greens and the Socialist party, whilst questioning Mélenchon’s bluntness – did not oppose the substance of his comments. Not so long ago, they refused to join with him in refusing to join a reactionary march of police.
La France Insoumise’s understanding of the importance of the relationship between extra-parliamentary and parliamentary politics is also striking. The struggle unfolding in France illustrates the potency of the maxim, ‘Not the ballot or the streets, but both.’ Or as Mélenchon puts it, ‘a citizens’ revolution’
The current parliamentary tactics of NUPES reflect this outlook. It refuses to accede to Macron’s attempt to insulate parliament from the balance of forces in French society. As expected, the vote of no-confidence or defiance in the PM tabled this week by NUPES was defeated as it received no support from other parties. NUPES understood that the absence of a no-confidence vote would mean that the right-wing parties could lie and grandstand in the future about their opposition to Macron.
In the months ahead, the struggle against Macron’s agenda will deepen. The president has made it plain he has no intentions of retreating. The class struggle in France should be followed by the left in Europe and beyond. The creation of a new left which articulates a hegemonic alternative to neo-liberalism and racism is being built in France. In recent weeks it has made significant steps forward. It has the potential to make many more.