Mission (almost) impossible: Uniting France’s battered, fragmented left

The multitude of mini-parties that make up France’s splintered left have more in common than they wish to admit. But getting their squabbling leaders to sit together at the same table is no mean feat.

Joël Saget, AFP | French essayist Raphaël Glucksmann, co-founder of Place publique, is on a mission to unite the country's broken and divided left.

That is the challenge taken up by Place publique, a fledgling political party – or “movement” – that aims to breathe new life into France’s moribund left and end its chronic divisions.

In step one of its near-impossible mission, Place publique invited the leaders of the five largest left-wing parties on Thursday for a debate on the “Yellow Vest” crisis that has roiled the country. The response was tepid at best: One showed up, two more sent representatives, another declined and the fifth didn’t bother to reply.

“Why is it that people who want a greener economy, greater solidarity and a more participatory democracy can’t even talk to each other?” asked Raphaël Glucksmann, a prominent essayist who co-founded Place publique with, among others, economist Thomas Porcher and ecological activist Claire Nouvian.

>> Read more: A fledgling party emerges from the ashes of the French left

“There is a major social crisis in France today,” Glucksmann added at a press briefing. “Can we find some common ground on the measures required to address the public’s anger and demands? Is there room for discussion on substance, on ideas?”

Scattered and divided

For the time being, the answer is no – at least for the two parties on the left that are faring better in the polls.

According to an Ifop survey published last week, the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, credited with 9% of the vote) and the Greens (8%), are the only left-wing parties currently polling above the 5% threshold set for European elections next May. Lagging behind them are the Socialists (4.5%), Génération.s (3.5%) and the Communist Party (2.5%). The trouble for Place publique is that only the latter three have shown any interest in its initiative.

To buttress their pitch for unity, Glucksmann and his partners point to another Ifop survey that credits a hypothetical grand alliance encompassing the three smallest parties, Place publique and the Greens with 14% of the vote – behind both the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen and the centrist LREM party of President Emmanuel Macron, but ahead of the conservatives and the far left.

The same survey says 69% of left-wing voters want parties on the left to join forces ahead of the looming European elections, including a majority of Green supporters.

“It is clear that activists want the left to stand united,” said the media-savvy Porcher, who has largely supplanted Thomas Piketty, of “Capital” fame, as the en vogue French economist on the left. He added: “In the context of the current crisis, there is a historic window of opportunity for all parties to the left of Macron to converge around a common set of ideas.”

Macron’s crisis

Underpinning this “historic” opportunity is the social crisis highlighted by the Yellow Vest protests, coupled with the flagging fortunes of France’s centrist president.

With his neither-right-nor-left pitch, Macron was both a beneficiary and an instigator of the collapse of the left-right bipolar order that had governed French politics for decades. The implosion of the Socialist Party under his predecessor François Hollande allowed Macron to “steal” a large share of the left-wing vote in the 2017 presidential vote. But he has since alienated a significant part of that electorate with a slew of business-friendly economic policies that have earned him the label “president of the rich”.

That label featured prominently during the recent Yellow Vest movement, which began as a protest against a tax fuel hike and soon mushroomed into a rebellion against a president widely regarded as arrogant, elitist and out of touch with common folk in marginalised communities.

From left to right: Place publique leaders Thomas Porcher, Jo Spiegel, Claire Nouvian, Raphaël Glucksmann and Diana Filippova.
From left to right: Place publique leaders Thomas Porcher, Jo Spiegel, Claire Nouvian, Raphaël Glucksmann and Diana Filippova.

Place publique says there is scope for a new entity or alliance on the left to address the aspirations of voters who are disillusioned with Macron but uncomfortable with the trenchant, abrasive style of far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The trouble is that several parties are keen to occupy that ground, and they don’t get along.

‘Gathering of hypocrites’

Differing strategies are one problem. The Communists, who still dream of recapturing the “working-class vote”, are reluctant to side with a group of media-friendly intellectuals whose support base is clearly urban, white-collar and white. Génération.s founder Benoît Hamon, the former Socialist presidential candidate, is desperate to distance himself from the “old-order” party he quit last year. And the Greens, tired of playing junior partners to the left, say Place publique has made a mockery of its stated aim to put people back at the heart of politics.

“I thought Place publique’s ambition was to reinvent politics, to put new faces forward, but their first instinct is to organise a meeting between left-wing parties,” the Greens’ leader David Cormand told French daily Libération. He stressed another obstacle to a united left: the personal animosity between leaders.

“We don’t wish to take part in this gathering of hypocrites,” Cormand added, justifying his refusal to take part in Thursday’s debate. “There will only be people who hate each other sitting around that table.”

‘No other solution’

Place publique’s founders appear convinced that the divisions blighting the left have a lot more to do with clashing personalities than diverging ideas. As Porcher put it, “Substantive differences are minimal on the left, it is mostly a matter of egos.”

“The truth is the left of the political spectrum is not divided because of insurmountable differences of opinion,” Glucksmann added, arguing that there is very little separating Hamon from Yannick Jadot, the candidate picked to lead the Green ticket in the European polls.

Place publique has vowed to doggedly press on with its attempts to bridge the divide between leaders, promising to organise further debates in the coming months.

“We prefer to pretend we haven’t understood this is first and foremost a people problem,” Glucksmann said. “Perhaps the door will be slammed in our face another 50 times before the European elections, but we will continue to bang on it with our head because there’s no other solution.”

He added: “The only certainty of defeat is if each party goes into the elections alone. If they want to save Emmanuel Macron, let them save him! And after that, we will have Marine Le Pen.”

This article was adapted from the French original.

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