[Column] French elections: Lessons for the left

Posted on : 2022-05-17 17:38 KST Modified on : 2022-05-17 17:38 KST
It’s the political right and business that benefit the most from division on the left
French President Emmanuel Macron celebrates his election victory with supporters on April 24 at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (AP/Yonhap News)
French President Emmanuel Macron celebrates his election victory with supporters on April 24 at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (AP/Yonhap News)
Timo Fleckenstein
Timo Fleckenstein
By Timo Fleckenstein, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics

Europe took a deep breath: Emmanuel Macron successfully defended the French presidency. He defeated, in the second round, the far-right challenger Marine Le Pen from the National Rally, formerly known as the National Front.

Although the centrist Macron, with endorsements from across the established political parties, won comfortably with 58.5% of the vote, it is difficult to overlook that Le Pen, on a nationalist and anti-immigration platform, still garnered support from more than 4 in 10 French voters (41.5%) — up from 34% in 2017, when she also made it in the runoff of the second round. In France, a second round of voting is needed if no candidate achieves a majority in the first instance; and the two candidates with the highest vote share face each other in the runoff.

What does get lost in the focus on Le Pen’s disturbing rise in the French electorate is the absence of a left, progressive candidate in the second round of the presidential election, and indeed also the 2017 showdown.

In 2022, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the left-wing La France Insoumise achieved a respectable 22%, but still lost out narrowly to Le Pen for the “second spot.” The Socialist candidate, and mayor of Paris, achieved a rather underwhelming 1.8%.

Once a major political force, the Socialists are on the ground, obviously failing to capitalize on the mounting social inequality and anxiety in French society. It is probably not unfair to conclude that the French left has not quite recovered from the youthful Macron crushing the political establishment in the 2017 election. But having said this, he has lost much of his “shine,” and the lack of a feasible alternative might have become his biggest political asset.

The French left is responding to their devastating defeats — not only in the presidential elections but also in the elections to the French National Assembly, where Macron commands a solid presidential majority of 346 (out of 577 seats).

For the upcoming parliament elections in June, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who broke away from the Socialist Party in 2008 over their pro-European orientation, achieved the forming of an electoral alliance between his La France Insoumise, the Socialist Party, the Greens, and the Communist Party. Although huge programmatic differences between them remain — such as European integration, a “wedge” in the left in many places — they have recognized that the fragmentation of the left undermines any prospect of social progress.

And indeed, it has strengthened Macron, even though much of the French electorate has become disillusioned with his promise of modernizing French politics. Many would argue Macron’s policies are little more than a pro-business agenda — old wine in new bottles? And it is precisely the ambition of the left alliance to achieve a majority in the National Assembly that allows them to block Macron’s pro-business agenda. For this, left parties have recognized compromise is unavoidable.

The hard truth, in France and elsewhere like Korea, is that it’s the political right and business that benefit the most from division on the left — whether it is between parties, or within parties. When we are divided, they can break every single finger of the hand; one by one. But together, we form a powerful fist and can strike! This old image of the labor movement still applies.

Unity, however, is not easy. Especially when licking the wounds of electoral defeat, it is often easier to reinforce old factions than arrive at a common understanding as to why victory was not achieved. Factions need to overcome their “reflexes” so that one can move forward together instead of playing into the hands of the political competition.

This applies to divisions in the party-political left, but also to organized labor. Trade unions’ failure to work together and indeed work together with left parties for social progress ultimately weakens workers’ interest representation.

Continued divisions might deliver President Yoon Suk-yeol more than a victory in the upcoming local elections. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson to be learned from France.

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