Never mind Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron: The real story of the French presidential race was the rise of the leftwing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Starting with negligible support, Mélenchon ended the initial round of the French presidential race in a statistical four-way tie with the major candidates. He managed this despite the media’s overwhelming favorability to Macron and the paradoxically favorable coverage it has long given to the National Front (mixing fascination with, and self-righteous repulsion from, this designated bogeyman, this lightning-rod for popular discontent).
The incumbent, François Hollande of the center-left Socialist Party, who after the most unpopular presidency in French history had decided not to run for re-election, was all but openly supporting Macron. This, despite the fact that the Socialist Party had chosen in its open primary a candidate well to the left of Hollande’s government. Benoît Hamon, the unfortunate Socialist Party candidate, was a harsh critic of Hollande’s centrist, neoliberal economic policies. But he remained in line with party orthodoxy concerning Europe, globalization, and foreign policy, and he seemed, like Hollande, to place cultural liberalism and multicultural identity politics at the center of his idea of what it meant to be “on the left.”
From the end of World War II until the fall of the Eastern bloc, the French Communist Party, the old home of the far left, commanded between 15 and 25 per cent of the vote. In the 1990s, that support dipped to around 3 percent, as white working-class voters fled to the National Front or abstained. The working class fled in part because the French Communist Party had entered an alliance with a Socialist Party that, like the Democrats in America, had abandoned social protections in favor of market-driven globalization, and the white working class in favor of ethnic and sexual minorities. The National Front’s thirty-year rise from its beginnings as a marginal fascist group was enabled in no small part by the implosion of the populist, nationalist left.
Mélenchon reversed this decline. How did he do it? Whereas previous leaders of the left, from Hollande to Greece’s Tsipras, had promised an end to austerity without putting into question EU treaties requiring such policies, Mélenchon returned to the old leftwing belief that the sovereign nation-state is the only framework in which democracy can be exercised and the only lever by which popular sovereignty can be projected onto an international stage. He opposed the EU and NATO, unafraid of being tarred with the brush of nationalism and bigotry.
In short, Mélenchon abandoned the left’s thirty-year strategy of moralizing, frontal opposition to the National Front in alliance with liberals, and returned to the older strategy of competing with the National Front to represent the interests of the working class, even at the risk of appearing populist and nationalist. Instead of seeking a coalition of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities in alliance with the progressive middle class, Mélenchon appealed to workers while adopting an attitude towards immigrants that is both assimilationist and outspokenly anti-racist.
The outcome of the May 8 second round belied trends in the West in favor of the populist right. But the outcome had another, less obvious feature: a record level of abstention. In a country where a participation rate of less than 80 percent is considered a failure, nearly as many voters abstained as voted for Macron. In doing so, they resisted a nationwide media campaign labelling hesitance to vote Macron as complicity with a fascist menace. Add to this the fact that many Macron voters in both rounds were terrified by the National Front and voted for Macron by default, and it becomes clear that the youngest president in France’s history is far from enjoying any sort of consensus.
The irony is that while Macron has successfully gutted the Socialist Party and built on its ruins an openly pro-market, pro-EU movement modeled on an American-style center-left, this victory has led to a breakdown of the bipartisan landscape that characterized the French scene for decades. The two parties that have governed France for most of the Fifth Republic, the Socialist Party and the various declensions of the center-right post-Gaullist party, have both been eliminated for the first time. The cadaver of the once-hegemonic party on the left has been carved fairly evenly, between Macron’s neoliberal centrism and Mélenchon’s patriotic anti-capitalism. In place of the partisan bipolarization, there are now four roughly even and irreconcilable political forces: the National Front, the center-right, Macron’s party, and an old-fashioned hard-left.
What appears to be afoot, then, is a return to the multipartisan politics of the Fourth Republic, with a plurality of clearly delimited and radically opposed ideological options on offer. It seems that history is far from over in France.
John Rogove teaches philosophy at the Institut catholique de Paris and at NYU.