John R. MacArthur

Will Mélenchon upend the French political establishment?

Will Mélenchon upend the French political establishment?
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In his memoirs, Charles de Gaulle famously wrote that he had always possessed ‘a certain idea of France’, a phrase that evoked a mystical past of grandeur and glory, as well as an ‘eminent and exceptional destiny’. In French it is a lovely expression, but it’s doubtful the great man had in mind the angry parents of state-school children revolting against incumbent politicians in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, where on Sunday night there was a kind of mini-insurrection by Nupes, the ungainly coalition of left-wing parties that threatens to upend the French political establishment and deny President Emmanuel Macron majority control of the National Assembly during his second five-year term.

The scene at Cocotte, a modest but lively ‘brasserie gastronomique’ on the avenue du Maine, felt like a victory party for the local chapter of Nupes (the acronym for the New Ecological and Social People’s Union). Although no one at the celebration had yet won anything officially, they had won something important – the possibility of a return to power for a left that just three months ago seemed moribund.

The voting in the first round of the legislative elections had concluded at 8 p.m., and about 25 people, including the Nupes candidate for the 10th Assembly district, Rodrigo Arenas, were glued to the television in a private room, watching their leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, declare, based on projections, a numerical nationwide victory over Macron’s renamed party, Ensemble. As it turned out, Nupes won first place in the overall vote by a hairsbreadth, 26.11 per cent to Macron’s 25.88 per cent, although on Monday morning Mélenchon accused the Interior Ministry of ‘manipulating’ the returns to give the President’s party a better look. But on Sunday night all that mattered to the Nupes supporters at Cocotte was that Ensemble had not locked up a legislative majority in the first round and would have to fight for its survival during the following week. With all but five of the 577 seats still undecided, the second-round run-off campaign this Sunday promises to be brutal as the candidates struggle to arouse at least some of the voters who abstained from the first round (52.49 per cent – a record).

None of this perturbed a cheerful Arenas, who all night stayed well ahead of the incumbent Ensemble deputy, Anne-Christine Lang, and finished with an official score of 44.6 per cent to her 29.3 per cent – not enough to win outright with an absolute majority but making him the clear front-runner in the second round. The son of a political exile from Pinochet’s Chile, Arenas has all the allure of an immigrant success story. Wiry and energetic, the sleeves of his pale-pink shirt rolled up to his elbows, he explained his success to me this way: ‘People aren’t stupid. They see the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class deprived of its former status.’ Macron, he declared, had ‘lost his bet that dumping money on the rich and on big business’ would make the country progress.

A first-time candidate for the National Assembly and a former communist turned Green, Arenas appeared to be more upset about the condition of state schools than global warming. Now 48, the father of four school-age children, he became president of the school parents’ association in the working-class suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where he is employed by the municipal council, and he is eloquent when talking about the role of state education and ‘republican values’ such as equality.

His supporters, however, are motivated not so much by grand principles as by the high cost of living and by overcrowded and understaffed schools, which he argues aren’t really free, since private-school teachers are paid by the government with the money of ordinary taxpayers who can’t afford to send their kids to private or parochial schools. Worse, ‘Parents have to enrol their children with their credit card at the ready,’ he said. I didn’t understand. Wasn’t state education free, especially in egalitarian France? ‘Not if your child’s teacher quits and there’s no replacement available’, which is an increasingly frequent occurrence in the demoralised environment of state education post-Covid. ‘Who then is going to prepare your kid for the baccalauréat exam? You have to hire a private tutor to get them through.’

There is no ‘face’ of Nupes apart from that of Mélenchon because its adherents are so disparate, and it is impossible to homogenise the different views – on the EU, for example – of Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party and those of the Communist, Socialist and Green leaders who, despite their pitifully low polling numbers during the presidential campaign, refused to stand aside and support Mélenchon’s more successful candidacy, which came very close to winning second place against Marine Le Pen in April.

Having lost in three tries for the presidency, Mélenchon might have called it quits, but his nearly 22 per cent inspired him to try one more time for power. How he managed to corral the fractious left into a coalition for the legislative elections will require a detailed book, although a key element has been the softening of his anti-German Euroscepticism, which particularly offended the centrist Socialists and the Greens. His single most effective tactic has been to call on voters to ‘elect him prime minister’, despite there being no such mechanism in the French Constitution and the fact that the president names the prime minister. ‘His big move was to persuade the rival left party leaders to sign an agreement to support him for prime minister,’ says Benjamin Sbriglio, a campaign adviser for Arenas. Apart from a few dissident Socialists, including former president François Hollande, everyone in Nupes seemed to be united in the name of winning. Not even the tactically foolish invitation by two Nupes candidates of Jeremy Corbyn to campaign in their Paris districts managed to roil the public relations unity of the coalition.

Campaign leaflets and posters of the electoral coalition Nupes (Getty Images)

Nevertheless, the idea that Mélenchon can ‘force’ Macron into naming him prime minister is fanciful. To gain an absolute majority, Nupes (having won four seats outright in the first round) would need to win 285 races out of the 386 districts where its candidates qualified for the second round – a highly unlikely result. Ensemble has the clear advantage, having qualified in 419 districts, and there will be only 278 head-to-head matches between a Nupes and a pro-Macron candidate. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s far-right party gained 18.68 per cent of the total vote and qualified for 208 races in the second round. The party that represents the traditional right, the Republicans, got just 11.3 per cent and will compete in only 87 races.

Mélenchon does have moral leverage on Macron, however. If Nupes manages to stop Macron from getting a majority – and Le Pen picks up a significant number of seats – he will have to choose between soliciting a ‘fascist’ party or an ‘extreme left’ party to form a majority and pick a co-operative prime minister. He hopes, of course, that the moderate right will win enough seats to save him, but this is probably wishful thinking, given Le Pen’s enduring, even growing strength all over the country. A Macroniste coalition with Le Pen would perfectly serve Mélenchon’s political interests, since he could lump the right into one common enemy. Some say that at 70, he is aiming for another run for the presidency in 2027.

So far, Macron’s efforts to paint Mélenchon as a dangerous extremist seem ineffective, even absurd. He was, after all, a Socialist party member for 32 years, and his political hero is François Mitterrand, perhaps the most successful French political chameleon of all time, having worked for the collaborationist Vichy government during the war and getting elected the first Socialist president in the 5th Republic. Scare stories that Mélenchon would be so disruptive as to create chaos are just that: he’s an old political operator and at heart a social democrat, not a revolutionary. Even if he wanted to, the mainstream Socialists and Greens in his -coalition wouldn’t play along and might even ally themselves with the extremely pro-EU Macron.

As for Mélenchon’s actual policy proposals – calling for a higher minimum wage, the lowering of the retirement age to 60, imposing very high taxes on the rich and cracking down on offshore tax havens and tax cheats – are hardly controversial. Last week, Macron tried to frighten voters into believing that Mélenchon was a terrible authoritarian because a Nupes government ‘would forbid you from cutting trees at your home’. In reality, the Nupes proposal would forbid clear-cutting in forests larger than two hectares, except in public-health emergencies.

At Cocotte, around 11 p.m., the socialist maire of the 14th, Carine Petit, held court for a while and then led everyone around the corner to the beautiful mid-19th-century town hall for the official announcement of the results for the 10th and 11th Assembly districts, each of which extends into the 14th arrondissement. By now the crowd had swelled to closer to 100 people, and the canapés and wine in the entrance foyer had been mostly consumed.

I had tried to interview Petit earlier, but she fed me practised bromides. She was a perfect example of Mélenchon’s astute strategy, since all of a sudden the nearly extinct Socialist party, thanks to the Nupes coalition, was relevant again. Petit could hardly disguise her glee, despite her legally non-partisan role, as she read out the vote totals for each candidate after ceremoniously descending the grand staircase from the second floor, where the paper votes were hand-counted and then verified in a second count.

Flanking her on one side was the 11th district Nupes candidate Olivia Polski, who barely edged out the Ensemble candidate, Maud Gatel, 37.6 per cent to 37.3 per cent. Petit had saved the 10th district results for last – Arenas had put on a jacket to receive his good news – which brought on a genuine roar that echoed across the lobby. The Macronistes Lang and Gatel were nowhere in sight.

It’s still deciding what it wants to be
‘It’s still deciding what it wants to be.’
Written byJohn R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

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