What has happened to the far left in France? From its heights after the Second World War, where it regularly featured as the third (and sometimes even second) political force in France, the far left has been reduced to a rump movement in the French political landscape. Here’s why, and here’s what can be done about it.
There is one initial question we must answer, though: what is the far left? In its heights, until the election of François Mitterrand in 1981, the far left largely consisted on the all-powerful Communists, with a few Trotskyite movements tagging along for the ride (most notably, Workers Struggle, or FO, under Arlette Laguiller, who has become almost a cult figure amongst French political wonks). With the arrival of the Socialists in power, the far left began to squabble, with the Socialists and with itself. To greatly simplify matters, the far left split into those who wanted some kind of accommodation with the Socialists, and those who felt that Mitterrand and his ilk were too close to the capitalists that they wished to bring down. The entry, and then swift departure, of Communists into the 1981 government, weakened the Communists and brought succor to the newly emerging Trotskyite groups, who, in the great tradition of the far left, seemingly had little difference between themselves but stubbornly refused to merge into a more cohesive political force.
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the electoral system, strongly reinforcing bipartisanship, kept most of the far left out of elected positions, whilst the Communists, thanks to electoral agreements with the Socialists, remained disproportionately represented, particularly in local government. The new green movement also began to nibble away at some leftist groups and provided an alternative force without the uncomfortable political and historic associations with the former Soviet Union that had dogged some groups (particularly the Communists themselves). At the same time, a new generation of post-war leaders came to the fore.
Then came 2002, and the emergence of LO and the Communist Revolutionary League (LCR) with 5.7% and 4.2% of the vote respectively – much greater than anyone had anticipated. Both led by charismatic figures (it naturally helped that the LCR was led by a fresh-faced postman, Olivier Besancenot), they benefited from the strict equality of airtime rules in election campaigns and looked set to build up their base. In the intervening years, the movements largely stagnated once more, bickering amongst each other and failing to score in subsequent local or regional elections. In 2007 LO fell back to 1.3% and the LCR to 4.1%.
Then came the economic crisis and the hope by the far left that their predictions had come true and the time had come for their remedies to be called upon by the electorate. This is really where their folly becomes apparent.
First, the Communists, having scored a disastrous 1.9% in 2007, and plunged into debt due to the reduction in public funding that the score produced, took drastic action and effectively sub-contracted out their political leadership. Forming the Left Front, led by popular polemicist and self-obsessed former Socialist, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Communists effectively ceased to exist as a separate force. Melenchon’s respectable 11.9% score in 2012 failed to carry him into a parliamentary seat in the recent legislative elections. In fact, he risked weakening the local Socialist candidate who scraped through, defeating Marine Le Pen, and has now limped off to lick his wounds, throwing a few barbs at the new Socialist government’s emerging economic policy. Whilst he will likely be a perennial feature in Presidential elections, his finest hour is probably past and he has left his movement weakened at local levels leaving it unlikely to be in position to build on the Communists’ respectable local structure.
The Trotskyists too have continued their descent into irrelevance. In a commendable spirit of renewing the leadership of the party, Laguiller retired from politics to be replaced by Nathalie Arthaud, a young economics professor. Articulate, but uncomfortable with journalists and often unnecessarily aggressive, she lacked Laguiller’s charm and came across as more clinical than anything else. Her reading of the crisis was also too comic-book-bad-guy extreme and whilst banker-bashing always raises a French voter’s heart, she failed to develop her economic viewpoint and lacked credibility. The LCR dumped the popular Besancenot and plumped for the plucky, but overwhelmed, Philippe Poutou, a factory worker. He made no secret of the fact that he did not enjoy politics, and whilst he did make something of a breakthrough in the final week of the campaign, he was hamstrung by proposals such as employing 3 to 4 million new public workers to end the financial crisis. The LCR in the meantime reformed as the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), once again illustrating that it was against more things than it was actually for.
In the meantime, the mood of the country shifted towards the centre left, and for those who like a dose of extremism in their politics, the far right. Time and time again, studies have shown the porous nature of the support on the far left and the far right in France, with unskilled white working class voters swinging from one to another, based partly on economics, partly on personality, but very little on immigration, race and social issues, the one area where the far left and far right are totally distinct. This paradox means that extremism politics in France appears to be something of a zero sum game: about 20% of the population is willing to go for it – it is just a matter of convincing them to plump for the left or the right. Melenchon recognized this and it is the key reason why he targeted Le Pen in his campaign so directly.
What can the far left do then to bring back those natural constituents who have voted for the National Front since 2002?
Firstly, it needs better leadership. The far left has always been wary of the cult of personality that is something of a necessity for a political party; many in the Left Front were increasingly concerned at Melenchon’s behavior during the campaign and there were grumblings amongst the Communists about the initial decision to appoint him as their de facto candidate. It needs however a media-savvy, pedagogic spokesperson to present the movement to voters a-new – perhaps Besancenot can be persuaded to return.
Secondly, it needs to cut out the unnecessary division. Every political movement contains a spectrum of views: look at the Socialists on voting rights for foreigners, or the centre right on gay marriage. The political programmes of the Left Front, the NPA and LO are startlingly similar and they should find a basis on which they can merge. The old distinction between mainstream Communists and Trotskyites on the degree of internationalism in the revolution has no place in a globalised world and is a source of confusion for voters.
Finally, the far left needs to stop relying purely on a revolutionary discourse to explain what needs to be changed in society and how. This it has begun to do: its electoral platforms are concrete and contain understandable measures. However when questioned on how the implementation of these ideas could take place, the old revolutionary discourse takes over. In a world where your average voter has had unprecedented exposure to economics over the past four years, this no longer washes. The messages need to treat the voters with the sophistication they deserve. This is coincidentally the area where Marine Le Pen fell down so badly in the recent campaigns – her economic message, carefully prepared, ran out of steam after the second follow-up question. If the far left can hone their batch of policies to convince rather than frighten, it can mop up those voters looking for a credible solution to the crisis, and who have found Le Pen wanting.