In Britain it was the Tories who tore themselves apart over Europe, but in France it is the left for whom Brussels has long been a battleground.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the de facto leader of the French left following his impressive performance in last month’s presidential election, is an unabashed Eurosceptic, as are most in his La France Insoumise (LFI). The Socialist Party, on the other hand, share Emmanuel Macron’s view that Europe is the future and if France must sacrifice some of its sovereignty in the pursuit of closer integration then so be it.
The former Socialist president François Hollande embodies the Europhile left and he is aghast at the prospect of any kind of coalition between his party and Mélenchon’s ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections. In an interview last week, Hollande described the prospect of any alliance with LFI as ‘unacceptable’, explaining that ‘it would mean that the next government would call into question European treaties’.
Equally opposed to a coalition is Hollande’s former agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, now the mayor of Le Mans. He is also a staunch Europhile and, like his erstwhile boss, he adopted a hard line towards Britain post-Brexit. ‘You cannot say when exiting the EU you will keep all the advantages but leave behind anything that doesn’t suit you,’ said Le Foll in October 2016 during a visit to London.
For Le Foll and for Hollande, the EU is sacrosanct and Mélenchon’s lack of faith in Brussels makes him an apostate. Hollande’s zealotry is so visceral that he can’t grasp how his party’s worship of the EU has alienated millions of voters, particularly the working class, who feel that Brussels has done little to improve their lives this century.
It is also why he and Mélenchon are mortal enemies. The pair were allies when François Mitterrand presided over France between 1981 and 1995, but the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic harboured doubts about what German reunification would mean for Europe; he advocated closer economic integration but wished to retain far greater political autonomy.
Mélenchon was even more cautious than Mitterrand over Europe, and when France held a referendum on the EU Constitution in 2005, he was a vociferous supporter of the winning ‘Non’ campaign. He was in tune with left-wing voters – the most Eurosceptic of the French electorate – but he was not singing from the same hymn sheet as most prominent Socialist politicians. Hollande and his then wife, Ségolène Royal (the Socialist candidate at the 2007 presidential election), were in favour of the Constitution, which was deviously ratified by the French parliament in 2008 in its new guise as the Lisbon Treaty.
Mélenchon quit the Socialist Party the same year, accusing it of becoming too bourgeois and too beholden to Europe, and it was Hollande whom he singled out for particular criticism, describing him as a ‘pedal boat captain’.
Hollande is now the voice of a dwindling band of centrist Socialists, whose politics are indistinguishable from Emmanuel Macron’s - hence the fact that their candidate in this year’s presidential election, Anne Hidalgo, polled less than two per cent of the vote.
Mélenchon says that he is the authentic left and his ambition of assembling a coalition to contest June’s parliamentary elections is going to plan. On Sunday evening, it was announced that the Greens and LFI had formed the ‘New Popular Ecology and Social Union’, and the Communists and Socialists are expected to join in the next 24 hours.
In explaining their decision to form a coalition, the Greens’ communique said there were a ‘great many points of convergence’ with LFI, including a pledge to scrap nuclear energy, the raising of the minimum wage and the lowering of the retirement age from 62 to 60. And on the question of Europe, the most contentious issue, the Greens reaffirmed their commitment to the EU but said they were now prepared to ‘disobey’ treaties.
This is a similar position on Europe to the Socialists, who began negotiations with LFI last Wednesday. In a statement two days later, the Party said they would be prepared ‘not to respect certain rules’ emanating from Brussels. Their justification was ‘the need for a break in the liberal direction of the European construction, [and] for a new project in the ecological and social transformation’.
In an address on Sunday, May Day, always a date when the left flexes its muscles in France, Mélenchon reassured the Socialists that Frexit was not on his agenda; he simply wants to take back some degree of control from Brussels.
This is heresy for Hollande for whom the EU is omnipotent. Indeed, there are rumours circulating in the French media that he is contemplating a return to politics, to restore the honour of the Socialist Party in time for the parliamentary elections. Mélenchon won’t be worried. He called Hollande a ‘has been’ at the weekend, and with good reason. It is Mélenchon who is now the face of the French left.