The French elections should send a chill down the spine of every Labour member

Neal Lawson
© Victor Joly/

The first round of voting for a new President of France should send chills down the spine of every Labour member and voter here in the UK. The combined vote of the soft-left Socialist Party (PS), the harder-left France Insoumis (Unbowed) and the Greens came to less than 30%. More tellingly, their divided efforts didn’t just fail electorally but failed politically. The debate in France was all about how right-wing the country is and should be. The reasons for this abject failure are deep. The UK isn’t France, but there are critical lessons for Labour.

They start with the fact that the formerly centrist, even social democrat, Emmanuel Macron never built the resources to take France in a more progressive direction, the vision, narrative, policies, alliances, and agency necessary for meaningful change. Maybe he never wanted to. But, since the launch of En Marche (On the Move) in 2016 and Marcon’s rejection of his former comrades in the PS, he has shifted steadily to the right. He has played a purely electoral game, shifting right to pick up as many conservative voters as possible on the assumption that citizens in the gaping hole to his left will hold their nose and vote for him rather than allow in the real far-right contender Marine Le Pen.

There are deep problems with this strategy. The first is that French politics has moved wildly to the right as Macron chases Le Pen. But what if, come the second-round stage, left voters don’t hold their nose? What if too many just sit at home, or indeed, as is being predicted, that some working-class backers of Jean Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed, could also switch to Le Pen, as similar demographics did for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. And of course, some to the traditional right of Macron could also break in favour of Le Pen, putting her over the line in the second round. Right-wing independent candidate Eric Zammour has already instructed his 7% of the vote in that directiuon. We will see. It’s a very dangerous game.

The steady and inexorable drift to the right is the real underlying problem. A divided left loses and becomes weaker. All the cards and all the movement is with the right. The cycle repeats itself and becomes self-fulling. Of course, the right in France are also divided but they find much better second-round representation in the shape of centre-right Marcon or far-right Le Pen. For the left, in Macron, there is no fig leaf of progressivism remaining. The only reason to vote for him is to stop Le Pen but in so doing support the right-wing shift – just at a slower pace.

There are few direct electoral parallels with the UK, we don’t have a presidential system to allow a Macron to simply appear – though it could be argued that since Margaret Thatcher we are heading in that direction but with no direct democratic accountability. But the fundamentals of left weakness are the same, the lack of vison, narrative, policy, alliances and agency. Like Marcron, Labour is tacking right in the hope it can win back ‘Red Wall’ voters on the basis of not being the Tories, being seen as competent but purposefully not having a radical agenda. Of course, the Tories might keep on shooting themselves in the foot, but in the absence of these fundamental resources, a weak Labour government would, at best, resemble that of Francoise Hollande who Macron succeeded in the Elysee Palace.

Hollande’s Socialist Party collapsed after that debacle and yesterday polled just 2%. And, like Macron, Labour is leaving huge space to its left behind it. Voters resent being taken for granted and eventually find a new home, witness the success of the SNP, the Brexit vote and maybe the Greens in Labour’s metropolitan heartlands to come.

Finally, it is as true in France as it is likely to be here in the UK that a divided left mostly loses to a united right. A left unable to see what it has in common, or who don’t see who the real enemy is, is not serving the people it claims to. After all, 80% of what you do want, is a whole lot better than 100% of what you don’t.

Back in 2017, the fresh-faced and untested Macron won the second round over Le Pen by 32%. In two weeks time, the second round run-off is sadly going to be closer. This morning the French centre left, left and Greens need to kick-start a major debate, not just to realign their voting forces but develop the intellectual, cultural and organisational basis for a political project relevant to the demands and challenges of the 21st century and the perma-crisis whirlwind it brings with it. Otherwise, authoritarian populism will become a reality in office as well as the country. Back here, Labour cannot say it hasn’t been warned.

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