On April 24, French President Emmanuel Macron won the second round of the French presidential election, winning both a second term in office and a second campaign against rival Marine Le Pen.
The French presidential election system consists of two parts; a first round where any number of candidates can compete against each other, and the second round where the top two vote-getters compete against only each other (if one does not win a majority in round one). This, historically (Bullens), has resulted in two mainstream parties, one center-leftist and the other center-rightist, such as the Parti Socialiste (the Socialists) and Les Républicains (the Republicans), respectively.
But in the last two presidential elections (2017 and 2022), the candidates, Macron and Le Pen, have both been from non-mainstream parties, En Marche! and Rassemblement National (National Rally). En Marche, which is the party Macron created when he first ran (hence it bearing his initials), was a newcomer to the French political party scene, competing in their first election in 2017, and winning the presidential race as well as 307 legislative seats, a majority in the National Assembly (Washington Post). The National Rally has been a part of French politics for quite some time, but has been a fringe party, even after the founder of the party and father of current leader Marine, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was propelled to a spot in the second round in 2002 against Jacques Chirac, a center-right politician who decisively defeated Le Pen (The Guardian).
But in 2022, According to The Guardian, Macron increased his vote share in the second round almost nowhere, where Le Pen increased hers in almost every voting department. She also improved her overall second round percentage, earning 41.5% in 2022, compared to her 33.9% in 2017. Macron, on the other hand, fell from 66.1% to 58.6% of the vote share (Statista)
However, En Marche is a thoroughly centrist party that has adopted some rightist policies and rhetoric since Macron’s election, such as his launching of an inquiry into “Islamo-gauchisme,” which translates roughly to Islamo-leftism, and is a far-right belief that there is an inherent alliance between Muslims and leftists. And since the National Rally is a right-wing populist party, this begs the question: what happened to the French left, and why can’t they rally around a candidate?
Simply put, the French left is failing.
There are some political reasons, such as the mainstream center-left Socialist party tanking in popularity after the on-term presidency of Francois Hollande that seems to have mired the Socialist’s political chances since. In the latest presidential election, the mayor of Paris and Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, only received 1.8% of the vote in the first round.
But on the right, when the mainstream rightist parties failed, the National Rally came in to fill the gap for those voters as a newly mainstream party, two elections in a row. On the left, that hasn’t happened. The most prominent leftist party in French politics at the moment, La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has not been able to create a successful leftist coalition (up until now) or break into the second round of Presidential elections for the past two elections. This is also alarming due to Mélenchon not outright endorsing either candidate, meaning that leftist French voters had to pick between a right-wing populist or a centrist in two separate elections now.
But the French left, particularly the young French left, doesn’t seem too fond of having to make that choice, as evidenced this year by second-round abstentions reaching their highest rate in 50 years. Between no clear endorsement from the leader of the French left, young French leftists, who are incredibly pro-Mélenchon, feel abandoned by politicians, traditional and otherwise, with calls to boycott the election becoming more popular among that demographic. The last time the abstention rates were at this level, it was also due to many French leftists choosing not to cast a vote between two rightist candidates in 1969, according to French newspaper Le Monde.
This shows that many French leftists don’t see a difference between Le Pen and Macron, despite Le Pen’s international reputation for right-wing populism and alleged close ties to Russia and Russian banks, which is especially alarming in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The French political landscape is slowly turning into a three-way split, between a center-right, the far-right and the far-left. Notably absent from that list is a center-left stronghold.
The decline of the French center-left is a big issue for French politics. With Mélenchon unable to place with far-leftist policies alone, it means that there is a total absence of a strong leftist opposition against the ever-strengthening right. According to Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, the lack of strong leftist opposition is a problem across modern Europe, and is a particularly alarming one.
Leftist opposition has been crucial in European and French democratic politics since the end of the second World War. Without it, populism gains more influence and popularity, and begins to dominate. No solid leftist opposition opens a door for radical right-wing populism to take hold, which is exactly what is happening in France.
With the French gauche becoming, well, gauche, it sets the stage for extremist politics to continue to gain power unchecked.