Mar 24, 2022 - World

French election highlights the weakness of the left

Clockwise: Emmanuel Macron, Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot, Jean-Luc Melenchon
Clockwise from top left: Emmanuel Macron, Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photos: Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images, Chesnot/Getty Images, Stephane De Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images and Chesnot/Getty Images

With less than three weeks until the first round of voting in the French presidential election, the once-dominant left is hardly a factor.

Driving the news: While far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is in third place with 13% in Politico's latest poll of polls, he lags behind far-right contender Marine Le Pen (18%) and far behind centrist President Emmanuel Macron (29%). Other left-leaning candidates fare far worse.

  • Greens candidate Yannick Jadot polls at 5% while Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has just 2% despite representing what was until recently one of France's two major parties, the Socialists.
  • Valérie Pécresse of the center-right Republicans and extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour both garner 11%.
  • Macron currently looks set to comfortably defeat any challenger in a second-round runoff on April 24.

State of play: France's traditional center-left party, the Socialists, "completely imploded" with the unpopular presidency of Macron's predecessor François Hollande, according to Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Atlantic Council's Europe Center.

  • Macron saw the writing on the wall for Hollande, his former boss, and was able to create a broad centrist coalition, absorbing many Socialist voters. "The Socialists basically never recovered from this," Haddad told Axios.
  • Meanwhile, French politics were shifting to the right. As issues like immigration and identity came to the forefront, the left has been divided between those wanting to maintain France's traditional universalist ideals and those echoing progressives in the U.S. by focusing on racial justice issues, Célia Belin of the Brookings Institution told Axios.
  • Macron's positioning, having "no particular ideology" and governing with both center-right and some center-left policies, has also enabled him to "suck the air out" of parties on the left, Belin said.
  • Macron is also an ardent supporter of the EU, a position he shares with many on the left though not with Mélenchon, who has been more critical of Brussels.

Meanwhile, the nationalistic right was offering "extremely straightforward" responses to the changes in society, "a bit like the Brexiteers before Brexit," Belin said.

  • Saying "no to Europe, no to NATO, no to immigrants. All of these are easy recipes," Belin said of the far-right. "They've never been in power. They've never compromised on anything."
  • Meanwhile, leftist candidates like Hidalgo and Jadot are perceived as representing "Parisian yuppies that care about the environment" rather than "workers' interests or real people's interests. And they are imbued with feminism and ecologism and woke-ism," Belin said.
  • Those caricatures of the left-leaning candidates as "fringe," which come not only from the far-right but also from the government, tend "to shrink their potential base even more and really sort of delegitimize them."

What's next: Macron appears likely to win a large portion of the center-left vote and hold onto the presidency for five more years, but it's unclear whether a successor would be able to keep his centrist coalition together.

  • This leaves an opening for the Socialists and the Greens, particularly on environmental issues on which Macron has fallen short of expectations, but "they will have to figure out a way to work together or they’re both done," Belin says.
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