A fledgling party emerges from the ashes of the French left
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Between Macron and Mélanchon a wasteland at the left of the political spectrum has been up for grabs. The latest pretender, a party launched by an essayist, an environmentalist and a leftist economist, has just held its first meeting.
The French left was devastated in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. The dominant party on the left, the Socialist Party (PS) – the party of presidents François Hollande, François Mitterand and countless other powerful politicians in recent decades – lost 90 percent of its deputies and was forced to sell its historic headquarters in the centre of Paris.
Just a week after its founding, Place Publique – a party founded by, among others, essayist Raphaël Glucksmann, economist Thomas Porcher and ecological activist Claire Nouvian – has attracted 10,000 members. On Thursday night, about 1000 of them flocked to Montreuil, a town east of Paris, for the first meeting of the movement that seeks to address “ecological, social and democratic emergencies in Europe”.
Eighteen months after the debacle of the 2017 presidential and legislative elections, the non-radical left has been rendered mute, smothered by far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon on one side and centrist Emmanuel Macron on the other. The Socialist Party, which won only 6 percent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election, has yet to come out of its coma. Its presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, founded a new party, Génération.s, but it has failed to gain traction. The Europe Ecology – The Greens party is poised to ride alone into battle for the European elections.
"It’s hopeless," said Noémie, a 20-year-old philosophy student. “But for the first time in a long time, we want to hope again. I read Raphaël Glucksmann’s book, “The Children of the Void”, and I found it very interesting. This movement is made up of people who are already engaged and who want to go into politics to get things moving. I like their approach."
Many others present on Thursday night at La Marbrerie, an old marble factory that has been converted into a performance space, have read “The Children of the Void”. In this bestselling book (number one on the charts since it was published on October 11), Glucksmann says that the European left has stopped thinking and stopped doing politics, allowing populists to gain ground. He calls for an awakening.
#placepubliqueJ. Aquien (@JudAquien) November 15, 2018
Ça commence ce soir, c’est une émotion difficile à décrire. J’ai toujours été idéaliste, j’ai toujours cru en la capacité humaine, et j’y crois plus que jamais. pic.twitter.com/Xc54liliJC
"His book has had a big impact on a lot of people and he is the most well-known of the party’s cofounders," says analyst Pierre-Yves, 49, who came to gauge the atmosphere at the group’s first meeting. “But some have come for Thomas Porcher, others because they have followed Claire Nouvian’s efforts. With so many from the NGO world, from non-profits to activists, many roads lead to the Place Publique.”
What attendees have in common is their disappointment with political parties in recent years. Some were disgusted by socialist President François Hollande’s five-year mandate, his economically liberal policies and his controversial proposals like one to revoke the citizenship of dual-national terrorists. Others were seduced by the new grassroots politics of Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party, but have since grown disenchanted. Still others were drawn to Benoît Hamon’s new party, but are now frustrated by its organisation, which they deem too hierarchical. And finally, there are those who supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but were turned off by his angry outburst when anti-corruption investigators raided his home and party headquarters.
“What do we risk by trying?”
Claire Nouvian, founder of the ocean conservation NGO Bloom, called on those present “to create not only a powerful citizens’ movement, but a majority movement”. “What do we risk by trying? At worse, we look like idiots,” she said to the enthralled crowd. “The only risk is that we find ourselves in 30 years, facing our children, facing ecological disaster, only for them to tell us that we did nothing.”
The economist Thomas Porcher, a member of the academic collective Les Économistes atterrés (Aghast Economists), which opposes “the neoliberal orthodoxy”, is a popular figure in the French media and an advocate for reducing social inequalities. He asked the crowd how a country as rich as France can have so many homeless people in the streets. “We can't accept that those who treat others, those who save lives, don't have any money because instead we give fiscal gifts to the rich,” he said.
A champion of participatory democracy and mayor of the small town of Kingersheim near the German border, Jo Spiegel said that “democracy is not delegated. It is lived on a daily basis”, and that “democracy is participatory or it is nothing”. He promised that the Place Publique would be “a common house” that will put “people at the heart” of its approach.
"What interests us isn’t 2019 or 2022. It’s 2030, the date when climate change will become irreversible,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, the last leader to take the stage. “But if we need to, we will seize 2019 and 2022 to act for 2030. There is fatality only in inaction.”
There are signs that the fledgling movement could grow: several current and former elected officials made an appearance on Thursday night, including a current member of the National Assembly, a European deputy from Génération.s, former environment minister Philippe Martin (PS), and several members of local government in the Paris region.
With the left crumbling and divided, there is today a place to be claimed between Mélenchon and Macron. The co-founders of Place Publique defended themselves, saying they don’t seek to exacerbate the divisions on the left. They gave no hint as to whether they would stand for European elections in 2019. But clearly, the intention is there: the goal is to control enough of the debate to emerge as a dominant force.
It remains to be seen whether they will find supporters beyond their natural audience. In Montreuil, the town nicknamed “hipsterland” by some, the audience was very predominantly white, young, educated and urban. The launch was a success among these white collar members of the upper-middle class, already sensitive to the causes defended by the party. The leaders of this citizens’ movement must now convince the less privileged.
This article originally appeared in French.