Yves here. Please welcome Jonah Birch, who came to us through a good friend of the site, Tom Ferguson. Jonah is a sociologist who most recently was an assistant professor at Marquette University and has just returned to New York City. His areas of interest include political sociology, social movements, European politics, work and labor markets, and comparative political economy which overlap strongly with our interest in class war and power dynamics. In addition to his academic work, Jonah has written for Tribune and Jacobin. He reads French, which should help improve our coverage of European economic and political developments in what is providing to be a time of serious stress and potential upheaval…..as these French elections are showing!
Yesterday’s parliamentary elections in France (the results of which can be found here) offered a stark reminder of how quickly the political situation can change these days. Just over a month after incumbent Emmanuel Macron bested far right candidate Marine Le Pen in a run-off for the Presidency, Macron’s parliamentary supporters found themselves in a surprisingly close race with France’s new left coalition, the The New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (or NUPES by its French initials). In an election marked by low turnout, the President’s party emerged with the largest share of deputies – 234, down roughly 100 from 2017 – in the 577 seat National Assembly, but will now have to rely on the mainstream right Republicans (LR) to govern, or face the prospect of five years of gridlock.
This result marks a major defeat for Macron.
For the left, which ended up with 141 deputies, the impressive showing marks a surprising turnaround. Formed under the impetus of the left’s presidential standard-bearer, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the NUPES brought together a broad array of forces, ranging from Mélenchon’s own France Insoumise (FI), to the Greens, the Communists, and the rump of the nearly-moribund Socialist Party. It will now serve as the primary opposition to the Macronists in the next legislature.
The left’s success is a reversal of the pattern in French politics during the past decade, when it was largely the far right that set the terms of debate. Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) emerged from Sunday’s election with the third most seats in the National Assembly, increasing their representation from 8 deputies to 89. Still, after two successive elections in which Le Pen made it to the run-off of the presidential vote against Macron, the NUPES’s ability to provide a serious alternative to Macron’s brand of economic liberalism and state repression is an impressive achievement.
During the campaign, the image of an ascendant left provoked a flurry of denunciations from the press. Polls showing the NUPES running neck-and-neck with Macron’s electoral front, Ensemble! (Together!), provoked paroxysms of fury from the media and more conservative voices. Fears of a triumphant left winning a majority in parliament have led Macron and his allies to reverse the traditional “Republican Front” against the far right. The Macronists basic message is that between the “extremes” of the NUPES and the RN there is nothing to choose (although in the aftermath of the election, Éric Dupond-Moretti, Macron’s Justice Minister, floated the prospect of an alliance with the RN).
The NUPES rise has been fueled by widespread concerns over the skyrocketing cost of living. Inflation, which passed 5% in May, the highest level since the early 1980’s, was a key concern for voters during the election campaign. The left offered several proposals for dealing with the issue: first, a set of emergency price controls on essential items. Second, a double-digit hike in France’s national minimum wage (the SMIC) to 1500 Euros a month. Third, a boost in pension benefits, public sector pay rates, and minimum welfare benefits to protect living standards.
The NUPES’s electoral program (a French version of which can be found here) also included measures like a Green New Deal-style infrastructure plan for the environment, a million new public sector jobs, a 32-hour full time workweek, a cap on executive salaries, and substantial new taxes on the wealthy. All of these proposals were met with anger and derision from the French press.
For Macron’s part, he and his party have spent the weeks since his reelection pretending the campaign was already over. Macronist candidates repeatedly avoided public debates with their opponents in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote.
The President, who in April defeated Le Pen 59% to 41% in the second round of the presidential tally, has made it clear that his second term will focus on extending plans for restructuring the French economy, after COVID forced a brief pause in his reform offensive.
In July of last year, Macron used a national address on France’s post pandemic recovery to call for a sweeping reform of retirement benefits. While offering few concrete details, the President’s speech signaled a possible renewal of his government’s pre-Covid battle with French unions over retirement benefits. Prior to the start of the pandemic, that conflict boiled over in late 2019, when the government’s announcement of a controversial pension reform bill sparked a wave of of strikes and demonstrations that continued into early 2020. This measure would have transformed the current pension system in three key ways: first by abolishing the employment-based occupational schemes that have traditionally been a pillar of the French retirement model, in favor of a unified public system; second, by introducing a points-based formula for determining benefit levels which would make the system less generous; and third, by imposing new restrictions on eligibility, including a hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64.
If the government goes forward with the plan, it’s sure to find itself in a showdown with the left and the unions. Polls show public opinion is opposed to raising the retirement age, and the government’s plan has garnered sharp criticism from labor. In the past, proposed measures to roll back retirement pensions have led to widespread public protest. Notably, in late 1995, a proposal to cut public sector pensions provoked a six week long strike wave that forced the conservative government of then Prime Minister Alain Juppé to retreat. Subsequent pension reforms in 2003 and 2010 also resulted in widespread public protests. A repeat of those experiences is something Macron will be keen to avoid this time around.
For the left, this situation poses both dangers and opportunities. Such a stark turnaround in the course of just five weeks raises the prospect of a progressive, anti-liberal agenda once again returning to the center of French political debates.
Correction: This piece originally stated that the last time a French president lacked a parliamentary majority was 1986. But of course that’s incorrect – it’s a situation that’s existed several times since then. – Jonah Birch