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After Macron’s Gamble in France, History Is Repeating Itself

The French left is making the same wager it did before fascism gripped Europe. What will happen as the center collapses?

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for a bilateral meeting during the Global Forum for Vaccine Sovereignty and Innovation at the French Foreign Ministry on June 20, 2024, at the Quai d'Orsay, in Paris, France.

Two weeks after Emmanuel Macron called parliamentary elections in France, one likely trajectory of those elections is increasingly clear: increasing representation for the far right and for the left, combined with the collapse of the center vote.

The high vote totals secured by several far right parties in European Union elections between June 6 and 9 was widely predicted. The European Parliament is weak, having few powers and no meaningful ability to make law. Very few voters in the EU’s 27 member states know who their representatives are in that Parliament. Its sessions are not televised and are rarely discussed in the media. For all these reasons it has been for many years a target of protest voting. In the European elections, the far right Identity and Democracy group (of which the French far right Rassemblement National — “RN” — is a member) increased its seats in the European Parliament from 49 to 58 out of 720. Overall, the far right increased its representation by 16 seats out of 720 — from 118 to 134. This was consolidation, not revolution.

Therefore, when the French President Macron announced that he would call parliamentary elections early and treat them as a referendum on whether the RN should form the next government in France, this news came as a shock even to Macron’s advisers.

In the French presidential elections of 2017 and 2022, Macron was able to boost his popularity by presenting himself as the only political figure capable of stopping the far right. No doubt, he believed that a similar gamble again would have the same consequences.

However, every poll indicates that Macron is likely to see his vote fall sharply. One difference between now and 2017 was that, then, Macron was a new force in French politics. A former member of the Socialist Party, Macron was young, and unburdened by the baggage of having a record in office. In power, he has overseen laws reducing employees’ protection in the workplace and compensation for unfair dismissal, cut taxes on the rich, increased the pension age, mobilized the police to attack demonstrators who were accusing the police of racism and passed draconian anti-migrant laws despite revolts by his own members of Parliament. Over time, he has alienated more and more of his original voting base. Most voters believe that Macron had no need to bring forward elections, that he has done so opportunistically, and that it is time for change.

The first surprise for Macron was the decision of France’s left-wing parties to unite. Each of the Communists, Socialists, Greens and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party La France Insoumise all agreed to sign up to a single slate, the New Popular Front.

This isn’t the first time in recent years the left has cooperated. They had been in an electoral alliance from May 2022 to October 2023, but that alliance collapsed over foreign policy. Moreover, in this year’s European elections, the parties had been more divided than ever, with moderates denouncing radicals. Yet within 24 hours of Macron’s announcement, this new alliance had been created with the social democrats, environmentalists, and others to their left being united by the danger of far right victory.

The term “Popular Front” reaches deep into the French left’s historical imagination. The first Popular Front was announced in 1934 then contested elections in 1936. A slate of left parties and centrist parties united behind a single set of candidates and won elections, resulting in a government that recognized the right to strike, reduced the working week to 40 hours and increased the pay of the lowest paid workers.

The New Popular Front has adopted an ambitious manifesto, promising increases to the minimum wage, price freezes on energy bills and a “golden climate rule” intended to protect diversity and prevent global warming. Polls predict that the Popular Front will win 25-28 percent of the vote in 2024, or around 10 percent more than Macron’s party.

So successful was the Popular Front in 1936 that even France’s pro-business Radical Party signed up to it. That hasn’t happened this time around: Macron is refusing to voluntarily concede ground to anyone. During the election he has tacked to the right, attacking migrants and trying to create an anti-trans panic, introducing into French politics talking points taken from the English-speaking right. Meanwhile France’s historic main center-right party, the Republicans, has split down the middle on whether to support the RN.

The Republicans’ leader, Éric Ciotti, announced he would back the RN’s leader, Marine Le Pen. That news caused turmoil in the former’s party, which claims to stand in the tradition of General de Gaulle and the French anti-fascist resistance. After locking out his own members of Parliament from the party’s offices, Ciotti was sacked as leader and expelled from the party, although that decision has since been reversed by the courts.

Le Pen has tried to build an alliance of far right forces. This is likely to include voters for the main anti-Le Pen far right party Reconquête, although it too is now in crisis, with its leader Éric Zemmour struggling to maintain an independent position, and accusing members of the Le Pen family of having betrayed him.

The historian Jospeh Fronczak, in his book, Everything Is Possible, makes the point that how people think about the left and the right is different from how these tradition operated in history. People like to think there is a single recognizable thing, “the left,” which behaves with a degree of coherence and self-discipline, so that left-wing parties will naturally unite around policies and will work together as allies to achieve greater equality.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Fronczak observes, there were very few examples of left unity or even of left-wing parties that saw one another as allies. The idea that there is a single thing — the left — which faces an antagonist on the right, he argues, is almost entirely a product of the period of European politics after Adolf Hitler’s victory in Germany.

The history of Europe after 1936 shows that Fronczak is right. The French Popular Front inspired other alliances across Europe, and it was immediately copied in Spain, leading to the election of a Popular Front government, to which the right responded by launching a civil war. The process had begun by which fascism was driven out of European politics for 50 years. The French left knows this history and draws on it in 2024 — that’s why their alliance calls itself the New Popular Front.

But, as Fronczak explains, there were parallel processes taking place on the right too. Voters abandoned the center parties for right-wing parties, and the center-right parties for their far right allies. A united anti-fascist voting bloc faced an equally large, equally united, pro-fascist bloc. The energy drained out of the Popular Front, which proved unable to deal with problems including opposition from the right, the ongoing effects of the 1930s depression, and divisions over how much support to offer the Popular Front in Spain. By 1938, the government was forced out office, paving away for France to collapse in response to German invasion in 1940. Something similar has been happening in 2024, with the various personalities of the French right lining up to endorse Le Pen.

What our present period shares with the 1930s is the sense of polarization and the collapse of the center. The difference this time around is that no outcome is inevitable. The French election will end in a historic victory either for the left or for the far right. Which party will triumph is yet to be decided.

We have seen in the last few weeks a series of attempts by the RN to bolster its appeal by courting business in recent months and employers briefing they would prefer a far right government. Supporters of Israel’s war on Gaza have also intervened in the election, insisting that the far right’s support for Israel makes them reliable allies, and that their historic antisemitism should be forgiven.

The process of left unity has galvanized social movements in France, with demonstrations in its support. The mood has changed from 2022, when the prospect of a Le Pen presidential run was met with widespread apathy. The individual parties are stronger for this electoral movement; acting on the desire of unity lifts everyone.

If Le Pen is able to form a government in France, that would be a disaster for the social movements that look to the left. The party is promising to end immigration and to introduce measures to deny migrants and people of color access to health, education and employment. It would do nothing to address the climate crisis. It allies with the center right and would go further in the right’s attack on France’s welfare state.

The country is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It is also, alongside Germany, one of the two countries that does more than anyone else to shape the development of the European Union. The 13 million votes for the RN in the second round of the 2022 presidential elections were already the largest vote for a far right party anywhere in Europe since 1945. It was the electoral breakthrough of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 1983 that paved the way for the emergence of the modern far right later that decade in countries such as Belgium, Austria and Italy. Once the RN’s vote had passed a certain threshold, the taboo against the right collapsed in other European states.

Whichever faction wins the legislative elections, the Popular Front or the far right, will have an opportunity to shape France and Europe for years to come.

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