The French left, the presidential race and the unavoidable

Two months before the French presidential vote, nothing seems likely to prevent a debacle for the French left wing that until five years ago dominated France’s political landscape.

Far right supporters wave flags and banners in France
French far-right party Reconquete! presidential candidate Eric Zemmour's supporters attend a meeting in Chaumont-sur-Tharonne [File: Bertrand Guay/AFP]

Argelès-Gazost, France – In the heart of the French Pyrenees National Park, Frederic Walton smiles when he gazes at the gorgeous snow-covered peaks surrounding his mountain hut.

Business is good this year for this entrepreneur, despite the rise in COVID-19 infections due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

He even struggles to hire enough staff to run his lodge. But one thing makes him look down and shake his head with bitterness: the disarray of the French left-wing political force.

“Disillusioned by all of them, that’s how I feel,” this former member of the Socialist Party who once ran for mayor in a small Pyrenean town told Al Jazeera.

“Them” are the seven left-wing candidates running for president in the country’s April 10 elections. None polls higher than 8 percent and all of them combined barely reach 25 percent, a historic low for the left.

‘A dreadful choice’

Like an overwhelming majority of left-wing voters, Walton would like them to unite.

“Otherwise, we are facing a dreadful choice between the right and the far right in the second round,” he said.

Indeed, France’s presidential race is dominated by centrist President Emmanuel Macron (25 percent), right-wing Valerie Pecresse (16 percent), far-right Marine Le Pen (16 percent) and far-right Eric Zemmour (13 percent).

Marine Le Pen (L) meets residents during a campaign visit in Bruay-la-Buissière
Marine Le Pen meets residents during a campaign visit in Bruay-la-Buissière [Francois Lo Presti/AFP]

The last one to join the scrum was Christiane Taubira, former justice minister, poet and left-wing icon after she passed the same-sex marriage law in 2013.

She was nominated by about 400,000 voters of the unofficial “people’s primary” last month. Designed to bypass traditional political parties, this primary’s goal was to select a unifying figure to represent “the values of ecology and social justice”.

But neither Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Popular Union, radical left) nor Yannick Jadot (the Greens) or Anne Hidalgo (Socialist Party) recognised the legitimacy of the process. Their names were on the ballot without their consent.

All promised to continue their campaign until the first round of the elections, on April 10.

“Historically, the French left is split between two camps: the radicals and the reformist social-democrats. In today’s politics, it’s a match between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and what is left of the once-dominant Socialist Party, with the Greens in the middle,” Pierre Haski, a senior political commentator, told Al Jazeera.

Despite having similar rhetoric on environmental issues, the need for more public services and public spending, left-wing parties and candidates remain far apart when it comes to their vision of the European Union or NATO.

‘A new divide’

“Since 2017, Emmanuel Macron has managed to conquer the pro-European voters on the centre-left, those who used to vote for the Socialist Party,” Hugo Drochon, professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham, told Al Jazeera.

“He’s reshuffling the political life around a new divide between the centre and the extremes, hurting traditional parties both on the left and the right,” he said.

Five years after the presidency of Socialist Party’s François Hollande ended pitifully, without him being able to run for the country’s top job again, “the left is still reorganising itself”.

“New dynamics are being forged. The Socialist Party is no longer a hegemonic force, therefore, no one wants to make concessions and drop out because it would be a political suicide. It’s a recipe for disaster,” Haski said.

Ideological, sociological crisis

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, coupled with a never-ending movement of deindustrialisation in the West has led to both an ideological and sociological crisis for the French left.

Following the footsteps of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Third Way in the United Kingdom, the French Socialist Party implemented pro-market policies when it was in power.

It moved to the centre and increasingly disappointed its working-class electorate.

“Without a clear ideological compass, the left has moved from social to societal issues, more in tune with a well-educated, more urban electorate. Therefore, the working class has felt increasingly let down by political parties, especially those on the left. It’s one of the tragedies of the French political life of the past 20 years,” Haski said.

The Zemmour phenomenon

A sentiment echoed on the market square of Argelès-Gazost, a little mountain town near the border with Spain.

On a cold but sunny winter morning, Régine Flament hands out leaflets of her champion, veteran politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is running for his third presidential bid since 2012.

“This year, hurdles are higher than usual. People are fed up with politicians, they think they’re all crooked,” says the 72-year-old pensioner. Even in this historic stronghold of the left, enthusiasm has faded. “In our conversations on the market, we manage to engage on the lack of hospital beds, the high cost of living and energy … but we really struggle converting people’s anger into a vote for us,” she says wearily.

According to opinion polls, the cost of living, healthcare and the fight against climate change are the key concerns for voters.

These issues, traditionally owned by the left, should logically be at the centre of the political debate.

Instead, right-wing themes such as immigration, the place of Islam in the French society and crime have dominated the presidential campaign so far.

This can largely be explained by the recent rise of Eric Zemmour in the far right of the political spectrum.

French far-right party Reconquete! presidential candidate Eric Zemmour smiles
Far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has 13 percent support in recent opinion polls [Stephane De Sakutin/AFP]

The former journalist, convicted multiple times for hate speech against Muslims, has become the phenomenon of this campaign.

“He has made his views central thanks to the massive help of the Bolloré media group and its multiple TV channels and newspapers,” Haski said.

“Zemmour is also using the echo chamber of social media to his advantage. Meanwhile, none of the other candidates have managed to be vocal enough about the voters’ main concerns,” he said.

Nestled in his mountain hut, Walton just finished a book on the far-right polemicist-turned-presidential hopeful.

“I am very worried, but I’m not sure I’ll go vote in the second round, because it’s almost certain there won’t be a left-wing candidate,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera