OPINION: France’s ‘left alliance’ is an optical illusion and Mélenchon will not be PM

Four parties of the French left have formed a pact with the intention of winning a majority in the French parliament and forcing Emmanuel Macron to accept the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon as his prime minister. But, says John Lichfield, the alliance is a mirage and their plan will fail.

OPINION: France's 'left alliance' is an optical illusion and Mélenchon will not be PM
Will Jean-Luc Melenchon really become prime minister? Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the most quarrelsome man in French politics, has achieved something unprecedented in the history of La Gauche Française.

President Emmanuel Macron’s Centre is squabbling. The Right is deeply divided. The most united tribe in French politics as the June parliamentary election approach is the perennially scattered Left.

The Gauche  has often come together to fight elections in the past but always around a consensual, moderate “party of government”. Mélenchon has built an electoral alliance around his own anti-market, anti-Nato, anti-EU, anti-American, anti-German, some say anti-democratic, radical party, La France Insoumise.

READ ALSO Why France’s parliamentary elections are important

It is an extraordinary achievement. It is also an imposture – an optical illusion, an exercise in trompe d’oeil. The Greens, Communists and Socialists have signed up for the New Popular Ecological and Social Union to save their parliamentary skins.   

Without some kind of deal with Mélenchon – emboldened by his 22 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election – they risked near-exclusion from the new National Assembly.

Worse, they might have to forego their share of the €37 million a year in public subsidies which goes to parties which do well, or even reasonably well, in parliamentary elections.

The Socialist Party, in power until five years ago, has  become a vassal of the Socialist renegade Mélenchon, in order to survive. In doing so, it looks likely to fall apart.

Even before the National Council of the party rubber-stumps the electoral alliance, leading Socialists are jumping ship. They include the party’s last prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve and the President of Brittany, Loïg Chesnais-Girard. Others will follow.

 Some soon-to-be-ex Socialists, including several of the party’s remaining 28 deputés, may run independent campaigns in the first round of the parliamentary elections on June 12th.

The dissidents object to any deal with Mélenchon, a rancorous man who has spent the last 20 years insulting his former Socialist party colleagues. They object in particular to the Eurosceptic, even Europhobic, tone of the common platform adopted by the Ecological and Social Union.

 Although watered down by the Green party (EELV) and then again by the Socialists, it still speaks of “disobeying” or “derogating” (temporarily withdrawing) from European Union rules on the economy (ie free competition and trade) and the size of national budget deficits. It also insists that a putative Left government would never break national or EU law.

How can both be true? They cannot. The Popular Union’s programme is just as dishonest on European Union membership as the manifesto pedalled by the Far Right leader, Marine Le Pen. It implies a kind of Frexit by disobedience: a Red Frexit which dare not speak its name.

Much of the rest of the programme – including returning to 60 as the standard retirement age and freezing fuel and food prices – is also incoherent. It runs counter to the core policies of other non-Mélenchoniste elements of the alliance.

A freeze on fuel prices? Really, Greens? Abandoning nuclear power? Weren’t we told that nuclear energy was precious to the Communists?

But there is an even greater imposture by the Popular Union: the suggestion that it can win an overall majority of the 577 seats in the National Assembly on June 12th and 19th and impose Jean-Luc Mélenchon as prime minister and de facto ruler of France.

There is little likelihood that the Left can win an overall majority of seats. With Mélenchon as self-declared “candidate for Prime Minister” there is no chance at all. The posters created by La France Insoumise with the slogan “Mélenchon Premier Ministre” are an effective campaign tool – for Emmanuel Macron.

The parliamentary elections will be fought by three almost exactly equal forces of Left, Centre and Right.

The Right is hopelessly divided between its two Far Right movements, the Lepennists and the Zemmourists and the weakened and internally split centre-right ex-party-of-government, Les Républicains.

 Each of these parties will run competing candidates in most places in Round One. Their chances of reaching Round Two in enough seats to win a parliamentary majority are zero.

The pro-Macron Centre is divided between four or five parties or factions, including Macron’s own centrist party, La République en Marche. Difficult and bad-tempered negotiations are under way to allocate the 577 seats to a single “Macronist” candidate. They will succeed – eventually.

The Left is nominally united behind Mélenchon’s  Popular Union. Blocs of seats have been allocated to its four main components and a couple of smaller fragments. They will do reasonably well. They will probably win more seats united than they would have won separately. But they will not win a majority.

Why not? In theory more than one candidate can reach round two. But the bar for a third candidate is very high if turnout is, as expected very low. To reach the second round a candidate must score 12.5 percent of the registered electorate in Round one. If turnout is below 50 percent, as seems likely, that means 25 percent of the actual vote or more. There was only one “triangular” second round contest out of 577 five years ago.

In the second round in June wherever a Mélenchon candidate faces a Macron candidate, there will be a surge of right-wing votes to defeat the Mélenchoniste Left. In other words, the parliamentary elections will resemble the presidential elections in reverse. A Harris Interactive poll this week suggested that Macron’s camp might win well over 300 seats and the grand Mélenchon alliance less than 100 – even though the Left may have more votes overall in Round One.

I expect that the outcome on June 19th will be somewhat tighter than that.

Mélenchon repulses many people (including many on the moderate Left). But he also inspires many young people and residents of the multi-racial suburbs, who usually vote little. In the first round of the presidential election, Mélenchon outscored poll predictions because he turned out the young Metropolitan and banlieue vote in larger than expected numbers.

If he can do that again on June 12th (possible but doubtful), the Left can win many more than 100 seats the following week. It might just conceivably help to deny Macron a working majority.

But in rural and better-heeled constituencies, Mélenchon is more scarecrow than pied-piper (cf Jeremy Corbyn). There are not enough Mélenchon-friendly, Metropolitan and suburban seats for the Left to force Macron to surrender de facto power to Mélenchon or any other left-wing prime minister.

Member comments

  1. Melenchon epitomises the political narcissism of the French Left which has brought them to near irrelevance. It’s also a dreadful warning to the British Left (especially Labour) in a ‘Xmas yet to come’ way of where they would have ended up if they had persisted with Corbynism.

  2. I haven’t read such utter twaddle before on this site. For one, the Socialist party stopped being socialist, with voters totally disengaged with their lack of vision in the party. Secondly, Mélenchon has a popular backing and will do well – the advert John refers to in favour Macron is somewhat disingenuous, speaking more to his political inclinations.

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Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers – French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

From coffee runs to rugby tickets and professional photos - France's election financing body has revealed some of the items it has refused to reimburse from the 2022 presidential race.

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers - French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

Spending on the election trail is tightly regulated in France, with maximum campaign spends per candidate as well as a list of acceptable expenses that can be reimbursed.

In France the State pays at least some of the election campaign costs, with the budget calculated according to how many votes the candidate ends up getting. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know about French election campaign financing

On Friday, the government body (la Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques – or CNCCFP) released its findings for the 12 candidates who ran in the April 2022 presidential campaign. 

All of the candidates had their accounts approved, but 11 out of the 12 were refused reimbursement on certain items. Here are some of the items that did not get CNCCFP approval;

Rugby tickets 

Jean Lassalle – the wildcard ‘pro farmer’ candidate who received about three percent of votes cast in the first round of the 2022 election – bought “19 tickets to attend a rugby match” according to the CNCCFP’s findings. The organisation said it would not be reimbursing the tickets and questioned “the electoral nature of the event”. 

The total cost of the tickets was €465 (or €24.50 each).

Too many coffees

Socialist candidate, and current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo reportedly spent at least €1,600 on coffee for her team during the campaign.

According to the CNCCFP, however, the caffeine needed to keep a presidential campaign running did not qualify under the country’s strict campaign financing rules.

Too many stickers

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s was told that the 1.2 million stickers that were bought – to the tune of €28,875 – to advertise the campaign would not be reimbursed. Mélenchon justified the purchasing of the stickers – saying that in the vast majority of cases they were used to build up visibility for campaign events, but CNCCFP ruled that “such a large number” was not justified. 

Mélenchon was not the only one to get in trouble for his signage. Extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour was accused of having put up over 10,000 posters outside official places reserved for signage. The same went for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, who decided to appeal the CNCCFP’s decision not to reimburse €300,000 spent on putting posters of her face with the phrase “M la France” on 12 campaign buses.

Poster pictures

Emmanuel Macron – who won re-election in 2022 – will not be reimbursed for the €30,000 spent on a professional photographer Soazig de la Moissonière, who works as his official photographer and took the picture for his campaign poster. 

The CNCCFP said that Macron’s team had “not sufficiently justified” the expenditure.

Expensive Airbnbs

Green party member Yannick Jadot reportedly spent €6,048 on Airbnbs in the city of Paris for some of his campaign employees – an expense that the CNCCFP said that public funds would not cover.

Translating posters

The campaign finance body also refused to reimburse the Mélenchon campaign’s decision to translate its programme into several foreign languages at a cost of €5,398.

The CNCCFP said that they did not consider the translations to be “an expense specifically intended to obtain votes” in a French election.

Best and worst in class

The extreme-right pundit Zemmour had the largest amount of money not reimbursed. Zemmour created a campaign video that used film clips and historic news footage without permission and also appeared on CNews without declaring his candidacy – because of these two offences, CNCCFP has reduced his reimbursement by €200,000. He has been hit with a separate bill of €70,000 after he was found guilty of copyright infringement over the campaign video. 

The star pupil was Nathalie Arthaud, high-school teacher and candidate for the far-left Lutte Ouvriere party, who apparently had “completely clean accounts”. A CNCCFP spokesperson told Le Parisien that if all candidate accounts were like Arthauds’, then “we would be unemployed”.