French far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, gives a speech during a campaign event in Marseille, southern France. AP
Michel Rose, Reuters
Winning next month’s legislative election may be a long shot for France’s new hard-left alliance, but the fact President Emmanuel Macron now faces two eurosceptic opposition blocs should cause concern among France’s European Union partners. The French left this week united under the leadership of a eurosceptic party that wants to “disobey” EU rules and “destabilise the Brussels machine”, departing for the first time from the pro-EU stance of previous left-wing coalitions. This reflects a new state of play in French politics with the Socialist Party, long the dominant force on the left and a driver of European integration, now reduced to a subordinate role in an alliance forged by hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.
The Socialists garnered a meagre 1.75% of the vote in April’s presidential election, while Melenchon, a fiery orator who leads the France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, won 22%, almost pipping far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the run-off against Macron. A poll published this week by Harris Interactive shows the left-wing alliance neck-and-neck with Macron’s party and allies with 33% of the popular vote. However, France’s two-round voting system means, according to the pollster, that it would still likely translate in a majority of seats for the president.
Melenchon is the heir to France’s victorious “non” campaign that rejected ratification of a European Constitution in a 2005 referendum, deeply dividing the left.
Breaking away from the pro-EU Socialists in 2008, Melenchon founded a party that in 2017 did not rule out taking France out of the EU if the bloc refused to let it roll out its big-spending, protectionist platform. The new alliance, which also includes Greens and Communists and will fight under the banner “Social And Ecological People’s Union”, says it wants to stay within the EU and does not want to abandon the euro. However, some of its policies would certainly put France on a collision course with Brussels. It wants to cut the retirement age to 60 from 62, raise the minimum wage by about 100 euros a month, nationalise the former French electricity and gas monopolies EDF and ENGIE and stop complying with EU budget limits and competition rules.
In the document sealing their alliance, the Socialists said that the concept of “disobedience” to EU rules reflected the “different history” between them and Melenchon’s party, and that they preferred to say they could “temporarily contravene” EU legislation. But they add their joint goal is to “put an end to the EU’s free-market and productivist course” and that it could be done by creating “tension” with Brussels. When asked how they would manage to make Brussels swallow the pill, members of Melenchon’s party said the sheer size of France’s economy within the bloc meant the EU would have no choice but to agree — unlike the situation faced by the Greek government of hard-left Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that lost a stand-off with the EU during the debt crisis. “France is influential in Europe. It’s 18% of the European economy. It’s not the situation of the Greece of Tsipras that negotiated with 2% of the European economy,” Adrien Quatennens, a senior member of Melenchon’s party, told Franceinfo radio.
The new electoral pact still needs final approval from the Socialist Party’s national committee at a meeting on Thursday evening. Even if its fails to win power in the June 12-19 parliamentary election, the new alignment on the left and the fact Macron is constitutionally barred from running for a third mandate in 2027 and has no obvious successor, increases the prospect of one of the two eurosceptic blocs winning power in the future. “In the long term it’s part of a process in which French politics is splitting in three: a pro-European centre and blocs of the nationalist right and nationalist left — raising question about how long the centre can hold,” Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group think-thank told Reuters.