Macron is slipping, but French Communists divided over way forward
A protester carries a French Communist Party flag in Paris, May 5, at a demonstration protesting the first anniversary of President Emmanuel Macron's inauguration. | Francois Mori / AP

It’s been 18 months since France was rocked by the crushing victory of the pro-European Union Emmanuel Macron and his new political movement in the presidential and legislative elections last year.

That victory delivered a body blow to the two established parties—the conservative Les Republicains and the Socialists—and, despite an ultimately poor result, cemented Marine Le Pen’s arch Eurosceptic, anti-immigration Front National, rebranded Rassemblement National (the National Rally), as a major political force.

The only shimmer of hope was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose uncompromising anti-austerity message saw for the first time in decades a radical left force outflanking the Socialists in the presidential poll.

Today, Macron’s star has thankfully fallen. The former investment banker, who stole votes from left and right on a false promise of a third way, is paying for his nakedly cut and slash pro-business, pro-rich agenda.

He pledged a democratic revival, but France clearly doesn’t like to be ruled by an autocrat who imposes his will by decree and openly insults members of the public who express concern at his nasty policies.

It’s little surprise that Macron’s ratings have fallen—faster than any previous president—and support within his government is crumbling, with three ministers quitting in as many months.

Yet neither Les Republicains (struggling to define themselves as distinct from Macron) nor the Socialists (paying for their distinctly un-socialist record in government and a late, unconvincing left turn) nor even Le Pen (fighting to maintain her personal credibility) have been able to capitalize on the president’s woes.

Macron on the throne: President Macron, who once said he would rule France like Jupiter, the king of the gods, has seen his popularity slide dramatically in recent months. | Charles Platiau / Pool Photo via AP

In contrast, Mélenchon, ever on the campaign trail, now stands as the nation’s most popular leader.

This should be cheering for anybody on the left, including Communists who share many of the same policies and ideas. But it is not so.

The French Communist Party, or PCF, has long played second fiddle on the left since the Socialist Party under Francois Mitterrand’s overtook it in the early 1980s. Last year, for the second presidential election in a row, the PCF went with the Mélenchon ticket.

This was a controversial move among many Communist Party members, who in 2016 delivered a thin majority of 54 percent for this approach (overturning a 55 percent vote against the strategy among activists at a party conference held just three weeks earlier). This was not without reason. Despite the PCF playing an important role in campaigning for the former Socialist minister and mostly bending over backwards for him, Mélenchon announced his candidacy, program, and the creation of his party-cum-movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) without any prior discussion. Indeed, he’s been quite open about his contempt for the PCF and its leadership.

Two weekends ago, internal tensions over the PCF’s strategy of alliances and a real sense of drift came to a head. For the first time ever, the leadership’s political line—to be debated and endorsed at the party Congress scheduled for November—didn’t win the day.

MP Andre Chassaigne’s alternative proposals in his “Manifesto for a 21st Century Communist Party” secured 42 percent of the 30,000 votes cast by party members, against 38 percent for the leadership’s “Communism is the Issue of the 21st Century.”

For Chassaigne, the vote expresses a desire to “break with the downward spiral of effacement, and to start a new dynamic that will assure the PCF a place in the political landscape.”

There were two other “alternative” texts competing against the leadership’s line—“Rebuild a Class-based Party” and “For a Communist Spring”—that secured 8 percent and 11 percent respectively.

The overall results suggest those in the party in favor of alliances with other left forces, including La France Insoumise, and those wanting a more autonomous role for the party, standing its own candidates and mobilizing around a clearer line more focused around core traditional working-class issues, are finely balanced.

Either way, the failure to achieve a clear majority for the leadership line is a humiliating defeat for national secretary Pierre Laurent and the strategy he’s pursued over the past eight years.

It was on his watch that for the first time the PCF did not field its own candidate at the presidential elections.

His predecessor Marie Buffet’s disastrous 2 percent showing in the 2007 poll—a historic low compared to Jacques Duclos’s 21 percent in 1969—was certainly a factor in the choice to accept Mélenchon’s candidacy for the Elysee Palace and ally itself with the Left Party on whose ticket he was then running and which was made up of left Socialists, former Troskyists, and Greens.

But while the 2012 legislative elections that followed the presidential elections gave the party a lift (from 4.3 percent to 6.9 percent), the 2017 vote returned a pitiful 2.7 percent. (In the 1980s and late 1990s, they had been polling around 10 percent).

A steep fall in membership since 2008, from 78,000 to 50,000 today, has added to worries among the Communist base, particularly as La France Insoumise claims to have half a million (it must be noted that membership in the latter comes without a fee or much responsibility).

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, with Pierre Laurent, right, national secretary of the French Communist Party. | Jacques Brinon / AP

This past weekend, the leadership commenced what Laurent described as an “immense debate,” ahead of the congress in Ivry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, on November 23-24. Coming out of the National Council meeting, Laurent said that the drama has subsided somewhat and that “there is a shared willingness to recognize the result of the vote” that saw the leadership’s text replaced with the alternative Manifesto and “to hear the message of those who are asking for a more assertive party.” He indicated his “availability” to continue as National Secretary.

But there is also a possible successor who has clearly emerged: Fabien Roussel, the leader of the powerful Federation du Nord, described by some as “warm” and “debonnaire.” After the National Council meeting, Roussel said, “If my experience, my mandate as a member of Parliament can be useful, if it can bring people together, if it can give the idea of a party that is moving and renewing itself, then I would be happy to make myself available.”

He stressed, however, that is goal was “not to divide, not to campaign against Pierre Laurent.” Rousell added that the debate among Communists must first focus on the substance of the strategic questions before them rather than on a race among candidates.

It is likely that the PCF’s debate—perhaps leading to revised policies, from elections to the environment to Europe—will take rather longer to clarify, let alone gather majority support.

So where does this leave PCF-La France Insoumise relations?

At a personal level, there’s no love lost with Chassaigne, who stood against Mélenchon for the leadership of the Left Front in 2012.

As for Mélenchon himself, having written a blog in September urging the Communists to say au revoir to their leadership, one can assume he’ll be enjoying the show.

Buoyed by an imminently expected left split from the Socialist Party to create a new pro-La France Insoumise party, he may be hoping for an infusion of Communists into his movement too.

Mélenchon’s hegemonic ambitions for the left may pay off. But it’s also possible a PCF, more sure of itself and its position, better leveraging its residual power locally and in the trade unions, will lead to more mutually respectful and perhaps productive relations with La France Insoumise.

What’s for sure, with the government and other opposition parties in disarray, now seems a good time to mount a strong, unified, and fighting response to reverse the disastrous political shock of 2017—however it is achieved.

This article originally appeared in Morning Star. It has been supplemented with new material from L’Humanite.


Tom Gill
Tom Gill

Tom Gill is a London-based writer and journalist who writes on Europe, the left, trade unions and social movements. He is a contributor to Morning Star, the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain, and he is editor of the blog Revolting Europe.