The French left must learn to compromise

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The writer is editorial director and a columnist at Le Monde

The French “know how to react on the edge of the abyss, but they need to see it close before becoming aware of the danger”. Former prime minister Édouard Philippe’s prediction, made on the night of the first round of an eventful parliamentary election, proved to be right on Sunday evening, after the second round. French voters did step away from the abyss, keeping the far-right Rassemblement National firmly in opposition.

What he had not predicted was that in doing so, they gave the hastily assembled leftwing alliance New Popular Front (NFP) a chance to lead the government, having won the biggest share of seats — 182 — in a National Assembly divided into three blocs: the left, the centre (168 seats) and the far right (143). To be fair, the NFP leaders did not expect it either. They now face a moment of truth: will they be able to overcome their old divisions to build a centre-left coalition that might restore stability to the country?

This responsibility falls upon them because their alliance, forged within 48 hours of Emmanuel Macron’s shock decision to call a snap election on June 9, has played a crucial role in blocking Marine Le Pen’s party. The left and Macron’s centrist coalition reached a tactical agreement to withdraw their candidates in the second round in favour of the best-placed runner-up to defeat the RN. Together with the voters’ mobilisation, this led to the spectacular reversal of the dynamic that had propelled the far right in the first round.

But there is a catch: while coming on top, the NFP does not have an outright majority in the National Assembly. If the leaders of its four parties — the radical leftist La France Insoumise, the Socialist party, the Greens and the Communist party — manage to agree on a candidate from their ranks for prime minister, they will still have to make sure that he or she can overcome a vote of no confidence. This implies learning the unfamiliar art of compromise.

Can the French become German? Or, simply put, more European? A lot will depend on Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the LFI leader, who actually dislikes Germany, has no love lost for Europe and is not showing a lot of goodwill. A former Trotskyist who has run three times for the presidency, the 72-year-old politician sees himself as the heir of a French revolutionary tradition and naturally aspires to overthrow the king — Macron.

On Sunday night, Mélenchon wasted no time in asserting his primacy within the NFP, showing up on TV without his co-leaders exactly five minutes after the first results were proclaimed. In fighting mood, he demanded that Macron appoint a prime minister from the NFP. The alliance he swore, would implement “its whole programme and only its programme”, by decree if no majority could be found. So much for compromise.

The leaders of the more moderate parties were left with the difficult task of appearing open to dialogue without disavowing him publicly. Marine Tondelier, head of the Greens, hinted that Mélenchon should be ruled out as prime minister. Former president François Hollande, who has recovered a seat as a Socialist member of parliament, but who denies any interest in seeking the job of prime minister, is not a fan either.

Hollande acknowledged that the left would have to negotiate alliances in parliament to pass legislation as a consequence, he said, of “an evolution of our parliamentary democracy”. One of the many dimensions of the institutional terra incognita that France has now entered is the transfer of the political dynamic from the Elysée presidential palace to the halls of the legislature. Under the Fifth Republic’s constitution, Macron has the right to appoint the prime minister, but once this is done, much power will rest in practical terms with the prime minister and the parties in this fragmented assembly.

It may be a recipe for disaster and instability. It could also be an opportunity for restructuring a political landscape that has been in ruins since 2017, when Macron was first elected president. Part of this landscape now is a far right that is defeated but more powerful than ever. The RN has attracted millions of unhappy voters. If the left wants to succeed, it will have to take this into account.

The NFP will probably not survive a rift between its reformists and the radical left. The reformists could then forge alliances with centrist parties, including the social democratic trend of what is left of Macron’s movement. The victory of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party shows that rebuilding a credible centre-left can reap rich political rewards. But there are many other, less reassuring scenarios for this new era of uncertainty in France.

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