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France’s New Popular Front: Block, Build, and Win?

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Two posters side by side. Both have bold graphics and lettering in French for the New Popular Front.

A credible threat of a far-right victory in France’s hastily called elections catalyzed the New Popular Front. Left parties, labor unions, social movement organizations, and thousands of newly mobilized folks have generated a storm of activity—and the first hope of victory in many years.

Listen to our interview with Clémant Petitjean after the NPF's July 7 victory here.

“I’ve been planning this for weeks, and I’m thrilled. I pulled the pin and I threw the grenade in their legs. Now let’s see how they cope!” Contrary to what you might expect, these words were pronounced by French President Emmanuel Macron the day after he announced the dissolution of the National Assembly. But also contrary to expectations, Macron’s explosive announcement opened a road to Left revitalization.

Macron threw his grenade on Sunday, June 9 at 9 pm, only an hour after the official results from the European Parliament elections came in. (Even if the Parliament plays a subordinate role within the system of EU institutions, it is the only institution whose members are directly chosen by European electorates, country by country.) With 7.7 million votes (31.4%, 30 seats), France’s main Far Right party, Rassemblement National (RN/ National Rally), far outpaced its opponents, winning twice as many seats as Macron’s party and the center-left slate (led by Place Publique and the Parti Socialiste), who each polled at around 14%. Further to the Left, the France Insoumise slate garnered almost 10% of the votes, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s towering, if not overbearing, presence has made it the dominant player within the French Left for the past seven years. The Greens (Les Écologistes) barely reached the 5% threshold (an eight-point drop compared with the 2019 EU elections). On the Right Les Républicains (LR), once a prominent political player but one that Macron’s 2017 surprise victory trapped between the Macronist devil and the neo-fascist deep blue sea, continued on its path to implosion.

These results had been expected for weeks, if not months, but they still came as a shock: the RN won 2.5 million votes more than in the last EU elections, in 2019. And even if the French slate led by 28-year-old Jordan Bardella didn’t break the record set by Marine Le Pen in the 2022 presidential elections in terms of ballots, the June 9 results marked yet another step in the Far Right’s seemingly irresistible rise to power and its normalization as a legitimate, respectable political actor.

Then only an hour after the official results came in, Macron pulled the pin. If the EU election results were a shock, this was a hell of a sucker punch to basically everyone in the country. (Until the evening announcement, only a chosen few knew of his plans: a handful of very close political consultants and spin doctors, a far-right media pundit—but not even his own Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal.) The snap legislative elections would take place only three weeks later, on June 30 and July 7, leaving very little time for proper campaigning, from slating candidates to hatching policy proposals and designing platforms to actually hitting the road, organizing public meetings, handing out leaflets, hitting the doors and the phones, and so on.

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Most accounts of Macron’s secret decision agree that catching his opponents off guard to try and redesign the political chessboard was exactly his plan. Ever since Macron was unexpectedly voted into the highest office in 2017, the former banker and Minister of the Economy under President François Hollande (2014-2016) has dreamed of a fundamental realignment of French politics around a new “progressives vs populists” axis, which would do away with the antiquated Left-Right divide and pitch the side of reason and progress against the so-called and always ill-defined “extremes” (the plural is key here). After the June 9 defeat, he decided to go all in and gambled the country’s fate.

To a certain extent, his plan bore fruit. Several days after he announced the dissolution, Éric Ciotti, the president of Les Républicains, crossed the Rubicon and called for an alliance with the Rassemblement National. These last few years, a growing number of LR officials had taken up more and more Far-Right buzzwords, policy demands, and ideological framings, making it very difficult for the Right to make a convincing case that it was different from the RN. But no elected official of national standing had yet torn apart the historic “cordon sanitaire” which kept the anti-republican Far Right forces at arm’s length and inhibited electoral alliances with the RN (or the Front National as it was called until its 2018 rebrand).

Once the bitter internecine struggles triggered by Ciotti’s move are over, it’s very unlikely that LR as a party will be around for long. Given how much sway the mainstream right-wing party has had over French politics since at least 2002, when the newly created Union pour un movement Populaire (UMP) aimed at bringing all right-wing currents into a broad tent, this development would have far-reaching political and social consequences. In a scenario not so different from that facing the US Republican Party, right-wing elected officials and voters will have to choose between jumping on the neo-fascist bandwagon or joining Macron’s extreme center—or whatever’s left of it.

Unintended consequences

Macron’s suicidal gambit has also produced other developments that didn’t exactly go his way, to say the least. For one thing, people from his own side have started distancing themselves from him. Édouard Philippe, his former Prime Minister (2017-2020) and the mayor of Le Havre, publicly stated that Macron “killed the presidential majority,” insisting that he understood why the French were so angry at the dissolution, and adding that he hoped he could build a new majority. In their campaign materials, most incumbent Macronist ministers and candidates have chosen not to include a picture of their leader, in a stark contrast with the 2017 and 2022 presidential and legislative elections.

But the most crucial development is of course the formation of a New Popular Front. Macron hoped his grenade would deepen the long-standing divisions on the Left, which the EU elections put on full display. While the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES) was created in 2022 as a coalition bringing together the four main parties on the Left (La France Insoumise (LFI), Europe Écologie Les Verts, now renamed Les Écologistes, the Parti Socialiste, and the Communist Party) to form a united front against Macron’s second term in office, it was always difficult to find balance within the coalition. Matters came to a head first in Summer 2023 when the ecologists decided that they would go it alone in the EU elections rather than participate in coalition slates. Then in the wake of the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas and Israel’s genocidal response, most prominent LFI voices took pro-Palestinian stances and refused to characterize October 7 as terrorism, which other coalition members disagreed with.

Against such odds, however, in a matter of days the various components of the political Left achieved what many thought impossible. Within minutes of Macron’s dissolution and for the next couple of days that followed, left-wing politicians, labor leaders, community groups, scholars, artists, and regular citizens multiplied their calls and demands for unity of the Left. On Monday, June 10, the leaders of five of the largest union federations issued a call for a “social and democratic awakening” and for mass demonstrations against the Far Right over the weekend. The same day, the leaders of the four main left-wing parties proclaimed they would create “a new popular front.” Four days later, on Thursday, June 13, they announced they had reached an alliance agreement, with a single New Popular Front candidate in France’s 577 districts for June 30. They also laid out an ambitious platform that gathered 150 measures to break with the status quo, change direction and transform French society in a matter of 100 days (“rupture, bifurcation, transformation”).

Unity from above, mobilization from below

Created by a convergence of unity from above and mobilization from below, the New Popular Front is an explicit reference to the Popular Front formed in February 1934 by the Communists, the Socialists and the center-left Radicals as a response to a failed coup and the looming fascist threat. The newly formed front was voted into office in Spring 1936. Jewish Socialist Léon Blum became Prime Minister and his government soon passed key social legislation, such as wage increases, worktime reduction, and 15 days of paid vacation. While the Popular Front still holds a prominent place in the mythology of the French Left, it’s important to remember that many of those victories were not initially part of the candidates’ platforms, but were won thanks to the mass strikes that the Front’s electoral victory unleashed in May and June 1936.

The current campaign for the New Popular Front bears little resemblance to the original Popular Front. For one thing, even if there were recent purges within LFI’s ranks that cast a worrying shadow over the front’s future, there was much more bad blood between the Communists and the Socialists back then than there is now between New Popular Front components. So far, there hasn’t been much labor action on the shopfloor in the guise of strikes or walkouts. The demonstrations that were organized on June 15 and June 23 across the country against the Far Right did bring out hundreds of thousands, but those numbers came nowhere near the millions that flooded the streets in April 2002 when, for the first time, the National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s infamous father), made it to the run-off. The tent that is the NFP is also particularly broad, running from Trotskyist candidate Philippe Poutou to François Hollande and the former chief-of-staff to former Macronist Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, which raises legitimate questions about common policy initiatives if the NFP managed to win the elections.

But it is undeniable that the current campaign, despite its quick start, has created huge and unprecedented momentum. First, it has taken down some of the symbolic boundaries around the realm of electoral politics that keep other social actors from engaging with political topics. Several labor federations like the iconic CGT have, significantly, broken with their long-standing non-partisan stance and have endorsed the NFP, calling on their members to cast their votes for them. Many nonprofits and associations, like Greenpeace, Planning Familial and tens of feminist organizations, have followed suit. Prominent media personalities like influencers and content creators on YouTube and Instagram, who boast millions of followers, as well as famous soccer players, have called on voters to block the Far Right from winning the elections. Conversely, the fact that the NFP platform took up many of the demands that were formulated by labor unions on June 10, and especially the demand to repeal the pension reform law that the government passed despite a historic mobilization in 2023, is both a testament to the legacy of that movement and a sign that political leaders are willing to take some of their cues from labor.

Second, and contrary to previous political campaigns, the current campaign for the NFP has managed to broaden its scope beyond the politicized (but exhausted and dwindling) choir and include people who are getting involved for the first time. A slew of initiatives led by civil society organizations and individuals and blending tried-and-tested routines as well as more innovative actions have popped up across the country to support the New Popular Front.

Refreshingly creative posters that anyone can print and reuse, mass online phone-banking sessions in “swing districts” (yes, we’ve borrowed the US terminology), scores of decentralized WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram groups gathering tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people that share information and resources, volunteer canvass operations, outdoor community dinners, makeshift solidarity concerts, “victory convoys” that send groups of volunteers to “swing districts” for backup, as well as the good old wheat-pasting of posters in the streets and handing out of leaflets: there’s a multiplicity of opportunities for people to join in. People try to convince their friends and relatives, their work colleagues, their neighbors, that voting NFP is the only effective way to block the Far Right and that the Left genuinely has a chance of winning.

As of this writing, more than 1.8 million people have registered to vote by proxy in less than two weeks, which is six times the rate over the same timespan in 2022. (There are approximately 48 million voters in France.) It’s hard to assess how much of this proliferation is driven by seasoned, full-time activists and organizers, but there definitely is a feeling of energy and dynamism and democratic participation that transcends what US organizers would perceive as staff-driven organizing work.

Of course, it is impossible to know what will come out of the June 30 and July 7 elections. It’s absolutely unclear how many seats the NFP will win. It’s equally unclear how big the RN will be, but it’s worth remembering that in 2017, the Front National held eight seats, and that five years later that number increased tenfold. And it’s even more unclear whether a governing majority can come out of this political sequence.

Of course, this is an uphill battle, and pushback has already started in full force. Every media cycle reminds us that growing sectors of the elites are far more comfortable with the prospect of having a Rassemblement National Prime Minister than an NFP government. Macronist officials and many media pundits focus all their campaign efforts on demonizing the Left and weaponizing charges of anti-Semitism against the NFP, while feigning to forget that the Front National was founded in 1972 by genuine Nazis and collaborationists.

“Better Hitler than Blum,” a common wish among the French bourgeoisie in the late 1930s, has been given a new lease on life. (In that regard, it is worth noting the macabre symbolism of where Macron allegedly made his “grenade” remark to a businessman: in the town of Oradour-sur-Glane, in west central France, where, 80 years ago, during the Second World War, members of a Waffen-SS unit massacred 642 civilians.) The EU election victory and the years of rightward shift and complacency towards the Far Right in many mainstream media outlets have also emboldened those holding racist sentiments, so feelings turn into words and deeds. On a daily basis, news stories and posts on social media report blatantly racist acts targeting people of color, anti-LGBTQ violence, as well as verbal and physical abuse against NFP candidates and volunteers.

And of course, regardless of the results on June 30 and July 7, a three-week campaign will not be enough to rebuild a vibrant Left with deep roots in multiracial working-class communities, in both towns and cities, the vibrant Left that we desperately need not just to block fascists but to fight the climate crisis and build a better future. But the intense politicization at play has centered key strategic questions that the French social and political Left has sidelined for too long: How to build counter-institutions that can defeat fascism and pave the way for emancipation? How to connect beyond the current base of support to work alongside the marginalized, the oppressed, and the subaltern? How to effectively improve their living conditions and restore their dignity?

The current situation has generated a deep sense of terror and horror at the abyss that the country is facing and the potential domino effect at the international level. But it has also released something that hadn’t been in the air for a long, long time: the hope that we can win.


Featured image: Two of the many New Popular Front posters available for people to download and use.






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