The realignment on the French left highlights the basic requirement that the left unite the working and professional classes.
Shortly after midnight last Friday, the national council of the French Parti Socialiste (PS) validated an historic accord which the parties of the left—La France Insoumise (LFI), Europe Écologie Les Verts (the greens), the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) and the PS—had reached. United in the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (Nupes), the French left now aspires to secure a majority in the legislative elections on June 12th and 19th. It vows to raise the minimum wage to €1,400 a month, lower the retirement age to 60, freeze the prices of vital necessities and reintroduce the wealth tax abolished during the first presidential term of Emmanuel Macron.
Europe was the major political stumbling block in the negotiations between the Eurosceptic LFI and the PS, with the socialists refusing to sign an agreement committing them to disobey European Union treaties on economic and budgetary issues. The parties agreed a compromise which circumvented their differences, stating that ‘while some of us talk of disobeying and others of temporarily going against [the treaties], we share the same objective: to be able to fully implement the common governing programme’.
Arguably, the presence of the pro-European greens offers further assurance against Euroscepticism prevailing, making it unlikely that a government of the united French left would join hands with anti-European right-wing populists in Hungary and Poland. Rather, it would seek to rework the treaties, in so far as they prevent departures from neoliberal orthodoxy, in co-operation with other European progressives.
The presidential election in April may prove to have been a harbinger of what will follow after Macron. Sensationally, the radical leftist and LFI leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came close to beating Marine Le Pen on the far right, with 22 per cent of the votes. Had the left united behind Mélenchon, he would have qualified to contest the second round with the returned incumbent. The election revealed that the left, the centre-right and the far right are almost equally strong, each bloc drawing the support of around a third of the electorate.
Offering a credible alternative to the liberal-conservative right and the far right, the united left stands a reasonable chance of redrawing the political map of France in the legislative elections. Ultimately, though, to prevail the left must succeed in appealing to both the working class and the educated, urban middle class. This is the same challenge social democrats in several other European countries face.
The left in France, as in many countries elsewhere in Europe, has been in decline, largely because the cross-class coalition that social democrats have historically embodied has unravelled. The socialists have moved to the right, embracing neoliberal policies which have fuelled inequality. This has prompted alienated working-class voters to shift to the far right, while many more have abstained from voting altogether in recent elections. Fully 28 per cent of French voters opted out of the second presidential round this year—the highest proportion since 1969.
Europe’s 20th-century history shows that democracy is in peril when social democrats prove unwilling or unable to unite the working class and the middle class in a cross-class coalition. Instead, the fascists and ‘national socialists’ succeeded in assembling such coalitions in Italy and Germany, with well-known tragic consequences.
Nupes does more than bring the parties of the French left together: crucially, it bespeaks an ambition to reconnect social classes which have drifted apart politically. Schematically, the greens and the socialists appeal to urban middle-class professionals, the communists to the working class. Only LFI boasts a cross-class electorate with roughly as many voters from les classes populaires—the working class and the lower middle class—as from the educated, higher middle class. It is thus no surprise that LFI has become by far the biggest of the parties of the French left.
Historically in France, the left has prevailed, and social and democratic progress has been achieved, when the progressive ‘bourgeoisie’ has assumed a leading role in channelling the social, economic and democratic demands and aspirations of the popular classes. It is an instructive history.
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This tradition has its origin—as indeed does the left itself—in the French revolution, when the centre-left party, the Montagnards, challenged the ‘free market’ policies embraced by the majority in the elected revolutionary assemblies. The Montagnards hailed, as did the adherents of laissez faire laissez passer, from the bourgeoisie—most were jurists, like Maximilien Robespierre. But they recognised that the market did not meet the expectations of the urban poor, the sans-culottes, and that the inequalities generated and perpetuated by unregulated markets were a source of radical unrest and political instability. They thus argued for regulating the market, notably the price of bread and other vital necessities.
The class coalition of the Montagnards and the sans-culottes was ultimately defeated and the former ejected from power. An enduring pattern of progressive cross-class interaction was nonetheless established.
This alliance was resurrected—albeit briefly—in 1936 in the shape of the Popular Front of Léon Blum, which was brought to power by a coalition of the working class and the progressive bourgeoisie. Although short-lived, the Popular Front government was still consequential, laying the foundations of the welfare state in France. In 1981 François Mitterrand reunited the left and its class coalition, and socialists and communists formed a government after he won the presidency.
The socialist ambitions were however soon abandoned and in the PS the market-oriented left prevailed. The minister of finance and the economy Jacques Delors, who became president of the European Commission in 1985, called in a book published that year for the rehabilitation of ‘the market, the company, the profit and the employers’, because ‘a society also develops through inequalities’.
In similar vein, in an article in Le Monde in 1984, the future president François Hollande opined that the ‘dogmatic conception of the working class, the idea that the workplace could also be a space of liberty, the notion that individuals belong to social groups tied together by solidarity must be abandoned’. Claiming that the left was ‘not an economic project’, Hollande implied that it should not address economic inequalities.
Today, Hollande strongly opposes the new union of the left, arguing that its economic reforms are unaffordable. Back in 1984, he predicted that the left would only survive if it succeeded in securing ‘the acquiescence of society in its modernization’.
In this, though, he did not himself succeed. The market-oriented employment ‘reforms’ he enacted as president during his single quinquennat from 2012—which the new left union promises to abrogate—were hugely unpopular and he chose not to seek re-election.
Warning to others
In April, the PS candidate and mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo—who is also opposed to the socialists’ turn to the left—received 1.75 per cent of the votes. The fate of the party is a warning to other social democrats. The French socialists have lost not only the working class, but also the educated middle class for whom they pretended to speak. They overlooked the fact that the interests of the working class and the educated middle class largely align.
Nonetheless, the notion that the working class belongs to the past and that modern societies are broadly middle class—which purportedly dictates neoliberal policies—is still by and large an article of faith among many European social democrats. A case in point is Sweden, where the governing social democrats have privileged winning over high-income professionals and remain wary of compromising their credibility among them.
Yet in a new Swedish study the union-backed think tank Katalys makes the case that the interests of the working class and the educated middle class do in fact accord. Surveys show that more ambitious welfare policies, as well as taxation of the fortunes of the wealthiest, enjoy cross-class support. Similarly, 60 per cent of high-income, middle-class professionals in France supported the demands of the gilets jaunes for economic redistribution (though that support fell below 50 per cent when the movement took a violent turn).
The leading economist and expert on inequality Thomas Piketty hails the accord between the parties of the French left as marking ‘the return of social and fiscal justice’. But Piketty points out that the scale of the investment needed in health care and education, and which climate change demands, is going to require far more ambitiously redistributive policies than restoration of a modest wealth tax. The wealthiest 1 per cent will have to contribute significantly more.
If the united French left however succeeds in mobilising the cross-class majority that favours social and fiscal justice, it will have shown—in Mélenchon’s words—that ‘another world is possible’.
Halil Karaveli is a political scientist and author, most recently of Fransk klasskamp och demokratins framtid, an essay (in Swedish) on what the European left can learn from French history.