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‘Ni Macron, ni Le Pen’ and the French political left

Sofie van der Maarel

‘Ni Macron, ni Le Pen’: students were shouting, days after the first round of the 2022 French elections. Their  ‘neither Macron nor Le Pen’ symbolized the disappointment after far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon did not make it to the final round. Since, a lot of attention has understandably been focused on the continued rise of the far right, with Le Pen getting the closest ever to becoming president. Moreover, the low turnout, especially among young voters, is deserving of further analysis.

But it is a reinvigorated left and in particular the relative success of ‘La France Insoumise’ that should not go unnoticed. Even as polls already predicted a rally between Macron and Le Pen, hopes were still that Mélenchon could bring change. Indeed, Mélenchon and Le Pen had a very close call in the first round, which could only partly be explained by a shared voter base.

14 April 2022, student protest in front of university building, Paris

Among youth between 18-24 years old, 31% voted for Mélenchon. In this sense, his ‘La France Insoumise’ (France Unbowed) almost managed to manifest the broad-based ‘movement’ it was supposed to be. French intellectuals also promoted Mélenchon. For example, well-known writer Édouard Louis stated:

"I think his candidacy represents the possibility of getting out of this political rise of the right and the far right … he brought reality back to politics on the left, speaking of ecology, racism, the hardship of work … that is why I support him and will vote for him."

Mélenchon’s campaign did not solely appeal to highly educated voters, but also managed to attract a large amount of traditional ‘working class’ voters. In a documentary on the elections, a taxi driver is asked: ‘Do you like Mélenchon?’, to which she responds ‘I prefer Mélenchon to Macron, because Macron is for the rich. I am not rich’. The hopeful sentiment was not entirely misplaced: Mélenchon ended up third with 21.95% of the votes in the first round.

10 April 2022, people standing in line for a polling station at a municipality building in Paris, with Ukrainian, French and European Union flags.

After the first round, most of the previously hopeful candidates endorsed either Macron or Le Pen. Mélenchon only stated ‘do not vote Le Pen’, he never endorsed Macron. By doing so, he addressed the part of his voter base that would consider a vote for Le Pen’s ‘Rassemblement National’ (National Rally) in protest of the status quo. To then vote for Macron as the alternative was not self-evident. Some leftist voters framed their choice as one ‘between the plague and cholera’, which may partly explain the low turn-out. For a better understanding of the aversion against both Macron and Le Pen, it is useful to further contextualize the 2022 elections.

In Paris, most government buildings have three flags: one of Ukraine, the European Union and France. They symbolize the main topics of the 2022 presidential elections. The first flag symbolizes support of the Ukrainian people. As most of the news today, the French elections were overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

On 24 April 2022, Macron is declared the winner of the 2022 Presidential Elections (France 24)

The second flag symbolizes the focus on the European Union. Le Pen sought to transform the European Union from inside, after realizing that a ‘Frexit’ was no longer popular among voters. In contrast, Macron wanted stronger European integration and investment in an European defense force. His attempt to portray himself as a European leader and dealmaker with Russia led to disgust among (leftist) voters in France, which saw in this focus the personification of an aloft French elite, with its open disregard of growing inequality and social problems in France.

The third French flag symbolizes the turn to domestic politics. High inflation is leading to less purchasing power, in France conventionally measured against the rising prices of a baguette. Together with retirement finance, this was one of the main topics of Le Pen’s campaign. While Macron was accused of ignoring domestic politics, the alternative of voting for a far-right candidate was not an option for many people. This brings us back to the student protests and their dilemma. And back to Mélenchon.

What can the enthusiasm for his party tell us about the status of the left in France? The sentiment among many students the days before the first round was optimism and activism. Naturally, they also saw the polls in favor of Macron and Le Pen. Nevertheless, people organized themselves and campaigned the weeks before the election.

Stills from documentary ‘Why The Far Right Surged In France

In addition to the French intellectual left and young voters (especially students), Mélenchon succeeded in rallying ‘working class’ voters. These voter groups would not necessarily be considered part of the same ideological groups, following the division between economic (‘left/right’) and socio-cultural (‘liberal/authoritarian’) dimensions (Kitschelt, 1994; Lefkofridi et al., 2014). Mélenchon was able to unite these groups with an agenda focusing on economics and climate, instead of immigration. He promised to lower the age of retirement, increase the minimum wage, tax the wealthy, and freeze food and fuel prices. While this inevitably broadened the left coalition, it meant compromises for many of his voters. The fact that Mélenchon did much better than predicted furthermore suggests that in situations where there is no fully congruent option, voters tend to privilege economic concerns (Lefkofridi et al., 2014). Finally, the effect of a protest or ‘alternative’ vote from the left should not be underestimated.

Macron is the clear winner of the 2022 presidential elections after the second round. But in some ways, the real battle happened in the first round, between the second and third places. And this battle continues as Mélenchon announced a ‘third round’: the legislative elections in June 2022 will see a prime minister appointed. Although the chances he will be chosen are low, he promises his voters that ‘un autre monde est possible’. So did Le Pen. In the meantime, the status quo remains in France.