Mélenchon for prime minister: cohabitation or confrontation?

Le Pen surges forward

The danger is that the left will use anti-fascism as an excuse to cut a deal with the liberal centre. To put it mildly, that would be a profound mistake, warns Paul Demarty

Last weekend’s French national assembly elections were always likely to be a rough ride for Emmanuel Macron’s astroturfed party, La République En Marche! (LREM). Polls widely suggested that a loss of its overall majority was possible.

In the event, though LREM’s coalition, Ensemble, remains the largest group in the assembly, it was something of a bloodbath. LREM/Ensemble lost over 100 seats, once the second-round votes were counted. Two members of the outgoing government - health minister Brigitte Bourguignon and environment minister Amélie de Montchalin - were defeated, and prime minister Élisabeth Borne was run close (she later handed in her resignation, which was refused by Macron). So Macron has some reshuffling to do - and, once he has done that, his government will have to work with only 42% of assembly seats under its control.

The big winners on the night - unsurprisingly, given the recent presidential vote results - were on the left and the far right. It is the latter that has gained most of the headlines; Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) vastly outperformed expectations. The most optimistic polls had RN on around 40 seats, which would have been a huge advance in itself. In the event, however, Le Pen’s mob got over 80, which is likely to leave it as the largest single opposition party.

Group therapy

That is partly an effect of developments on the French left. Having narrowly missed out on the second round of the presidential election, thanks to the embarrassing totals of other left and centre-left candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon managed to put together a rainbow coalition led by his La France Insoumise (LFI), including the socialists, official communists and greens.

The resulting group, the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (New Ecological Social and People’s Union, or Nupes), gained 131 seats - slightly below expectations, but still a substantial gain over the 2017 election for all components except the Parti Socialiste. Yet it already seems to be splitting into its component parts, with Mélenchon’s call for all its elements to sit together as a unified opposition bloc immediately rebuffed by all the others. Assuming this holds, that would leave Mélenchon’s LFI as the third largest party on 72 seats, and thus still a significant voice in the chamber.

There is perhaps some centripetal force in the form of the detailed structure of the assembly. Business is based on which members are in which groups, which typically correspond to parties, but are a little fuzzy at the edges. Speaking time is allotted proportionally to groups, which must have a minimum of 15 full members. Likewise, positions on various committees are allotted the same way. For example, the head of the finance committee is conventionally allotted to a member of the largest opposition group. The smaller components of Nupes are keen to keep their own groups; but that would leave RN in charge of the finance committee. Since it is merely a matter of convention, however, the Nupes parties could vote together to put one of their own people in (assuming they can agree a candidate). Every other ripple in the French parliamentary fabric that favours the largest opposition group will tend to push the Nupes components together.

What cannot be avoided, of course, is the formation of an RN group for the first time (its predecessor, the Front National, briefly had one in the 1980s, when the electoral system briefly became proportional). It now has a very serious contingent, and will no doubt use its new privileges to advance its agenda, which will in turn shape the behaviour of its opponents in the chamber.

The partial breakup of Nupes also offers Macron more options in his parliamentary arithmetic. It is difficult to see a formula that works for him, however. An arrangement with the republicans - the current trading name of the French Gaullist right - would suffice, but so far the Gaullists have rejected any overtures. They may perhaps be split. A deal with the socialists and greens would give the whole thing a rather Merkelist flavour - possible, but maybe not so suitable to the French palate. We expect a lot of wheeler-dealing in the coming days and weeks, at any rate. If no arrangement can be concluded, and Macron does not feel optimistic about proceeding on a bill-by-bill basis, then he can always call another election, but presumably would not be guaranteed a better result than what he has now.

Explanations for this result vary. Turnout was exceptionally low, which typically benefits the far right. There was less evidence than usual of vote transfers - the assembly elections are a two-stage process, where, if there is no outright winner in the first round, voters can transfer to another candidate in the second. Historically, this has provided a lot of scope for tactical voting to ‘keep the fascist out’, a mechanism which seems to be in abeyance this year. A Guardian editorial chided Macron for heightening his anti-left rhetoric and thereby causing “a collapse of anti far-right solidarity”.

Yet both these explanations seem extremely short-termist. When Jean-Marie Le Pen sneaked into the second round of the presidential election in 2002, it was quite genuinely a shock result, and the leftwing response (‘Vote for the crook, not the fascist’), though misguided, at least had the forgivable character of a panic reflex. In the intervening two decades, despite ups and downs, the French far right has simply become an established and, as it were, fixed presence in the political mainstream. It is surely this that needs explanation, not momentary eddies in turnout patterns and suchlike.

That would put France in the company of large parts of the western world in recent history, of course, where mass votes for the far right are increasingly normal, and conventionally far-right political views extend well into the ‘traditional’ mainstream right parties (including the French and American Republican parties, for example). Since the end of the cold war, and the coterminous defeat of the labour movement in the west, the parties of the working class - such as they are - have been less and less able to focus discontent on coherent political projects, even reformist or otherwise hopeless projects. The result is that discontent appears in an atomised form, easily exploitable by rightwing demagogues. This plays out slightly differently from country to country: the French right is marked by France’s colonial history, and the long struggle - since the Revolution - between reactionary, Catholic and monarchist France and the anti-clerical republican France of liberté, égalité, fraternité. There is nothing exceptional, however, about a purple period for the RN, when there is Alternativ für Deutschland over one border, Geert Wilders over another, and so on ad infinitum …

What is exceptional about the French situation, if anything, is the view from the other side of the assembly. Assuming that Mélenchon maintains his current policy of firm opposition, then it seems we have a large bloc of representatives who dabble in revolutionary rhetoric, denounce the monarchical features of the French constitution and oppose Nato. LFI has its defects, as we shall see, but it does have the benefit of being, precisely, insoumise - in the decade and a half since Mélenchon started his career as the perennial left candidate for president, he has - almost uniquely among ‘radical left’ reformist leaders in Europe - resisted the pull of corrupt alliances with the centre-left.

Nupes represents some kind of blemish on that record, but it involved more compromises on the part of the social democrats than LFI, and on current evidence, the upshot is ‘as you were’ for LFI - except with four times as many representatives. Compare the dismal outcomes for Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, or (allowing for the two-party-system straitjacket) the Corbynite left Labour moment, where opportunistic alliances with the social democratic right (or even just the right, as with Syriza) led, by more or less circuitous routes, to political disaster. We need no illusions in Mélenchon and LFI to point to their increasing success as a great demonstration of the power of saying no when the deal stinks.


Shall the lesson be learned, in France and abroad? We must be sceptical. In the end, LFI is not anything like a principled communist organisation. It is an obedience cult around one man, on the ostensible basis of an eccentric left-reformist nationalism. Mélenchon may not be so cheap a date as Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, but no doubt he too has his price. Therefore, we expect the one prominent counter-example to the prevailing coalitionism to fail sooner or later, as it no doubt will do if some rerun of Nupes emerges as the largest force in a future election, never mind the procedural questions we mentioned earlier.

There is also the question of how the current moment is characterised by the wider left. It is a small enough exaggeration to say that we are, at large, gripped by an intense panic, at the increasingly robust presence of the Marine Le Pens, Donald Trumps and Geert Wilders of the world. The left is increasingly prone to analysing all this as the rise of a new global fascist movement, of ‘creeping fascism’ and what have you. The assumption that there should be ‘anti far-right solidarity’ between liberals, conservatives and the left is a product of the rise of that far right, and perhaps seems more pertinent now than it did in 2002.

We should not wish to deny the core claim here, that bourgeois politics is in a phase of sharpening reaction and the results so far are barbarous - never mind if more Trump/Le Pen types actually gain power. The problem is that, beyond a certain point, this form of ‘anti-fascist’ solidarity is self-undermining. What is the point of voting for the crook, if the resulting crookedness just makes the fascist look better? How can everything be sacrificed to keep the fascist out, when the fascist gets in anyway?

Likewise, the argument is common on the anti-fascist left that capitalism intrinsically engenders fascism. This argument typically involves inexactitude in the definition of fascism - which, however, we will leave on one side to consider its function: to legitimise anti-fascism as a form of the struggle for socialism. This is, in the end, too optimistic - anti-fascism is not inherently socialist, and all the less so, the more elastic our definition of fascism. The truth is more the opposite - the subordination of the socialist goal to anti-fascism cements the identification of the left as a fake opposition to the oppressors and the elite, and thus to legitimate chauvinist, right-populist, or even fascist characterisations of that elite against leftwing and above all Marxist conceptions of the elite as the capitalist class and the capitalist state.

It is that intrinsic connection to capital and the state that tells against all these broad left projects in the end - be their leaders self-satisfied fan boys of Ernesto Laclau, as per Iglesias and the Podemos leadership, or hard-headed left social democrats à la Mélenchon. There is no momentary formulation about neoliberalism that can, in the end, circumvent the spiritual entropy that follows from bourgeois rule unopposed by the working class acting for itself.