- Interview by
- Harrison Stetler
France votes Sunday in the second round of parliamentary elections, with President Emmanuel Macron at risk of a historic setback. While he won reelection as head of state in April, the vote for the National Assembly presents a different challenge, as his Ensemble coalition struggles to form a majority in Parliament.
In the June 12 first round, it was edged out by Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES), a left-wing coalition formed in the aftermath of April’s presidential contest. As well as edging out Ensemble in the national vote total, it made it into 406 of this Sunday’s 572 runoffs — a steep rise from the last such elections in 2017, in which divided left-wing forces qualified for just 145 of these ballots.
That contest saw a Macronist majority elected on the coattails of the new president — yet such an outcome doesn’t look so certain this time, with NUPES’s rise driving a major shift in the French political field. It can legitimately claim to be both the main opposition to Macron and the largest of the three main political camps, ahead of the neoliberal center and Marine Le Pen’s far right. This has moreover destabilized the Macron camp, with government officials now resorting to scare tactics to fend off a left-wing threat dubbed as dangerous as Le Pen.
One frequent target of these attacks is Danièle Obono, a member of the National Assembly from Paris. She was first elected to Parliament in 2017 as part of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, whose program served as the groundwork for the recently formed NUPES alliance. Obono has already won reelection in her seat in the first round, winning over 57 percent of the vote. Ahead of this Sunday’s contest, she spoke with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler about NUPES’s strategy and how the political balance of power has shifted since the presidential election.
In two months, it seems as if France has gone from one era to another. In mid-April, after the first round of the presidential elections, the democratic and left-wing forces appeared to be a marginalized, third pole in French politics. Two months later, these same forces have succeeded in organizing a good part of the political debate around them. How was this possible?
First of all, I think that this confirms the analysis that we have had for a very long time and that was the groundwork for our strategy during the presidential elections. We always maintained that the country was neither Macronized nor lost to the extreme right. If you just judged things by the right-wing shift of the entire political field, you could easily have thought that. But as we always held, this shift was in contradiction with the actual state of society, with the daily life and mindset of most people. This does not mean that people are automatically won over to our cause but that French society is much more open and fluid than the media representation of things would suggest. In short, our stance is that there is a different potential majority in France and that we need to give it substance.
What the first round of the presidential election showed is that if grouped behind the program of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Union populaire, we were a few hundred thousand votes away from winning a place in the second round. On the Left and among ecological and progressive forces, the radicalism of our program and of our proposals are in the majority. What we saw after the first round of the presidential election is that Mélenchon’s call for unity has unlocked forces in society that seemed dormant, specifically among left-wing voters.
But it’s also bigger than that: this call was also heard among people who tend to be less politicized or who turn away from political debates. There is a popular bloc that can seal an alliance between the middle classes and even parts of the upper middle classes and the working classes. So, the challenge is to deepen the ties that make this alliance, which is majoritarian in society. If we are able to turn enough people away from abstention, this bloc can be the majority compared to the two other poles: the Macronist right and the extreme right.
Abstention is the big question. I’ve been hearing this for a very long time from France Insoumise figures and those around Mélenchon: “Abstention is the fourth pole in French politics.” One might even say it’s the majority in France — judging by the abstention rate in the first round — that no one really manages to capture. So we really aren’t seeing the effects yet of the strategy of mobilizing abstentionists. Why? Can that change on Sunday?
We can only hope so, and we are working for it!
One encouraging sign, however, that we saw in the first round of the presidential elections was the support for Jean-Luc Mélenchon among first-time voters, especially in working-class neighborhoods. On the other hand, look at what we’re up against: we have to work against twenty, thirty, forty years of political disengagement. The democratic crisis cannot be solved in a few elections, especially when the reasons for it — policies like attacks against collective solidarity and the welfare state — are still present and being even more entrenched by the governing forces.
We can harass these forces and try to get in their way, but we’ll have a hard time reversing the trend toward disengagement in a meaningful way if we don’t have the levers to make concrete changes in terms of policy. It’s not enough to just tell people morality tales or even just have good ideas. This is something that will take time. On the other hand, our analysis is that where we have potential reservoirs of support, if we can reverse abstention by a few percentage points, we can really make some key shifts.
We have changed the center of political gravity, which is already something! We can’t undo decades of normalization of the extreme right overnight. But we have succeeded, in that the debate is no longer between the extreme right and the Macronists. It is between Macron and the popular forces behind NUPES. The challenge for us is to use this as a lever to mobilize young and working-class voters: if everyone who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the presidential election votes again, we can win. Those who turned out to vote a few months ago, we need them to mobilize again on Sunday.
One of the strong points for NUPES in the first round was in big cities. Last Sunday, you won reelection in your Parisian constituency with an absolute majority in the first round, whereas in 2017, you faced a very close runoff against a Macronist candidate. Major urban areas have seen a remarkable swing to the left this year, which contrasts with the situation in 2017, where Macronists were very successful — but also with the Left’s relative weakness in rural France. What is behind this shift?
I think that five years of Macronism have revealed the president to be a fundamentally right-wing figure. In 2017, he was someone from François Hollande’s government who seemed to mix left-wing and right-wing politics. At that time, Macron managed to capture a certain enthusiasm in urban areas thanks to this mixture.
But the last five years have greatly clarified things. The 2021 anti-separatism law, the global security law, and the fact that he made the state of emergency part of the common law, for example, have been significant markers for many people. His shift to the right can be seen in the fact that today his electorate and the constituencies where he is most competitive are traditional conservative strongholds. In 2017, I was the only France Insoumise MP from Paris, which elected a slew of Macronists to the National Assembly. This time, three of us were elected in the first round!
We’ve discussed abstention, but there’s also the question of the reservoirs of people who already voted for candidates who got knocked out and who will now have to select a new choice. In most cases, NUPES candidates face an opponent from the president’s coalition, but there are also many runoffs that set NUPES against the far-right Rassemblement National. Where do you see you could pick up support?
We aren’t thinking in terms of “pools” or “reservoirs” of voters. We are thinking primarily in terms of the categories that must be mobilized or remobilized between now and Sunday: young people and the popular classes, mainly.
In terms of those who voted in the first round of the legislative elections, there are two axes. There is a loathing of Emmanuel Macron, which is very strong in society. And on the other hand, there is the red line in the sand around the extreme right. For us, these are two axes of mobilizing the electorate, and as a result, it could allow us to pick up voters from those who want to get rid of Macron and those who want to block the far right from power.
You’re talking about the “republican front,” which many Macronists are now rejecting by arguing that the NUPES is as dangerous as Le Pen and the extreme right. Certain figures in the Macron camp are resorting to dog-whistling about the risks of chavisme, in reference to the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. But there is also a certain incoherence, because other figures have the political courage to — almost — say that people should vote for the Left. There seems to be some trouble among the Macronists.
I think that there is more than some trouble. We have an Emmanuel Macron who was more or less reelected by default. He tried to make Marine Le Pen into his main political opponent, which is not at all the case. Once again, it has been shown that Macronism cannot solve the fundamental problems facing France. With the attempts to draw an equivalence between us and the far right, we see that there is no coherence or ideological backbone apart from the center’s marriage of conservatism and the worst neoliberal recipes for society.
In terms of the structure of Macronism as a political force, what we have seen in Parliament since 2017 is the total absence of any effort to create a political identity separate from the terms and solutions of the old center right. The presidential party has also entirely failed to establish any local political anchoring and roots. It is a political force that relies entirely on Emmanuel Macron.
It seems that it will be difficult to elect a left-wing government this Sunday. On the other hand, it is possible that the presidential coalition will not win a majority in the National Assembly. What would this mean in terms of the functioning of Parliament and the broader balance of power?
Whatever happens, parliamentary debate and politics will be revitalized. Even in the highly presidential Fifth Republic, you can’t escape the balance between institutions, a question that would be accentuated if Macron doesn’t have a majority. And it would be all the better for democracy! Whether we win a majority and are able to apply our program or whether there’s a weakened Macronism that stitches together a majority, we can hope to see a real reparliamentarization of French politics.
This may also risk the stability of the NUPES coalition, no? Without a majority in the National Assembly, Macron could try to peel some seats off from the center-left. There is a strong desire for unity now, but what are the risks facing the left-wing alliance in the months and years to come?
There are always risks, of course. At the end of the day, people will either live up to their word or not, and they’ll either uphold their commitments with their constituents or not. What’s really occupying our thinking now are other questions: How are we going to govern together? How will we lead the parliamentary battle together, if we are not in the majority?
But beyond just trust and the fact of our governing agreement, there are other things that will help preserve unity. The results are one big deterrent. We’ll be able to say: here we are in the middle of the game. We’re betting on each other’s political intelligence. On the disagreements that exist, there are many ways to debate things while remaining within the unity framework of the NUPES agreement. There are also factors such as the extraparliamentary balance of power, which can also help us to continue along the path that has been traced. We need to be in sync with forces outside Parliament like social movements.