The new French left must unite behind a fresh vision

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The writer is a professor at MIT and College de France and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

On July 7, France will enter a new political era, regardless of the outcome of the polls. Either the Rassemblement National (RN) and its allies will have enough seats to get an absolute majority or — if a hastily reinvented “Republican Front” holds — it will be kept out of power for now, but there won’t be any coherent majority.

If the second scenario comes to pass, credit will be due the left, which, in a matter of days after the election was called, managed to unite all the way from the populist fringe to the centre-left, marginalising in the process the veteran far left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a divisive figure who is the right’s favourite scarecrow.

It’s anyone’s guess why President Emmanuel Macron decided to call a snap election on the heels of his party’s crushing defeat in the European ones. But one possibility is that it was a gamble for revival of his “extreme centrism” brand. For a process of unifying a wide-ranging left, excluding its most sulphurous members and including some of the left wing of his own coalition, was apparently right around the corner. And on the other side, the RN is quietly dropping the pro-poor elements of its manifesto, morphing into a more acceptable to business political force which brings in the votes with its authoritarian, xenophobic rhetoric. An analysis of its programme shows that the losers are mostly the poor, while the winners are mostly the rich. With the 2027 presidential election in sight, the French political landscape is slowly rearranging itself along the traditional left-right axis.

Whatever happens on Sunday, it will be incumbent on the left to continue consolidating its forces and offer a credible alternative to the RN. The economic platform that this coalition put together was criticised by many economists for being unrealistic and harmful, and it certainly had its share of contestable ideas. But this criticism misses the point. The platform was put together in a matter of days and with the left very unlikely to get an absolute majority it was never going to be implemented in full anyway, although it laid down important core ideas. The real work should start now.

Seven years of Macron but also five years of Socialist president François Hollande (under whom he was economy minister) have shown that whatever it is that the centrist politicians, always intent on demonstrating their reasonableness, keep on offering is now a losing proposition for most French voters. In 2022, it was largely the better off who voted for Macron and his party. The urban poor and the middle class mostly went for the left, and the rural poor and middle class for the RN. In 2024, the wealthier French started to peel off to the RN as well.

The Macron project failed because, while it used the language of reason and competence to justify its reforms as necessary technocratic changes that were beneficial to everyone, they were often neither backed by science nor particularly fair.

To take just one example, it is obvious that the French pensions system needs reform. It is a hotchpotch of different regimes, leading to Kafkaesque situations for people who change jobs, and it is not sustainable over the long run. But the Macron pension reform addressed none of the structural issues (unlike a previous attempt abandoned during his first term). It was also regressive and in the end it had too many exemptions to save significant amounts of money. No wonder it faced massive opposition.

The rejection of the liberal democratic standard bearers is not a moment of French exceptionalism. The UK got Brexit, the US Trump, Hungary Orbán. Everywhere political elites have been repeating that prosperity is around the corner if people will only tighten their belt a little longer, while inequality increased and standards of living stagnated for almost all but the very rich. Trust in government has been steadily falling in most OECD countries for years. The recent downgrading of the French credit rating, and the “discovery” that revenue forecasts were way off, made it all too easy for the RN to put the final nail in the coffin of the image of a competent Macron government.

Nobody believes in “win win” solutions any more. To replace this illusion, the RN is offering a programme where immigrants and the poorest lose. This is seductive to those who have little and fear losing ground. To fend this dark vision off, a very broad-based left must come up with another one. One which combines production, redistribution and protection of the environment; that promotes respect and dignity of all people; that has the courage to lead the way on the big projects that France, Europe and the world need. Chief among them: fiscal reform, a just green transition, and a way to distribute the gains of growth in a more equitable way to all.

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