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A Cynical Unity

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Share the post "A Cynical Unity" L’unité fait la force, as the saying goes. Has Jean-Luc Mélenchon achieved the impossible, unifying the fractious French left as never before? Has he single-handedly revived the hope of a left alternative to Macron? In politics, a lot can be done with smoke and mirrors. Macron’s meteoric rise is an example. He started with very little and ended with everything. I don’t think Mélenchon can match this feat, but for the moment he has the attention of the media and the benefit of novelty, which invites writers to speculate and creates uncertainty in the absence of polling precedents. To be sure, the unification of the parties is not complete. The Greens have kissed the Mélenchon ring, the Communists are on the verge of doing so, and the

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L’unité fait la force, as the saying goes. Has Jean-Luc Mélenchon achieved the impossible, unifying the fractious French left as never before? Has he single-handedly revived the hope of a left alternative to Macron? In politics, a lot can be done with smoke and mirrors. Macron’s meteoric rise is an example. He started with very little and ended with everything. I don’t think Mélenchon can match this feat, but for the moment he has the attention of the media and the benefit of novelty, which invites writers to speculate and creates uncertainty in the absence of polling precedents.

To be sure, the unification of the parties is not complete. The Greens have kissed the Mélenchon ring, the Communists are on the verge of doing so, and the Socialists, as is their wont, are tergiversating. Even the NPA is considering a jump onto the bandwagon.

The meaning of “unity” remains tenuous, however. Does it extend beyond a certain divvying up of circumscriptions? Does “the left” now really stand for “maximal Mélenchonism,” meaning the right to disobey EU directives at will, retirement at age 60, universal income support for young people, distance from “the West,” and a radical stance on laïcité? Contrary statements abound. Listening this morning to Pierre Jouvet, who is leading the Socialist team negotiating with LFI, I had to wonder if he even cared whether what he said made any sense.

Coalitions by definition consist of factions that do not agree on every point, but it was hard to discern whether today’s Socialists agree with anything that LFI stands for other than opposition to Macron, with whom they would seem on the face of it to have much more in common. But a party facing extinction is unlikely to think clearly, especially when it has spent the past five years avoiding thinking at all.

Assuming that the longed-for unity of the left is achieved, what then? Does Mélenchon stand a chance of being “elected” prime minister? Can he really hope for a majority strong enough to oblige Macron to choose a politician who loathes him and who opposes him tooth and nail on nearly every issue? I don’t think so, but the present configuration is really unprecedented.

My guess at this point–and it’s a very wild guess–is that the Union Populaire will get no more than 100 seats, if that many. Readers of this column will know that I believe Mélenchon’s first-round score seriously exaggerated his actual appeal. An agreement of party apparatuses engages only its signatories; voters are not guaranteed to follow, and my gut feeling is that many voters who identify as “left” will nevertheless be repelled by Mélenchon’s bid for utter hegemony and will prefer to bolster the president rather than further embolden his challenger.

Nevertheless, I am aware that my analysis ignores the fact that a substantial majority of the French say that they would prefer cohabitation to another unchecked Macron presidency. Yes, but more than half of that majority consists of voters who identify as “right” or “far right,” and surely they will be more frightened of a left completely dominated by Mélenchon than of another LREM quinquennat. I really don’t see it, but no doubt my lack of sympathy with the LFI version of the left is not helping me to see clearly.

The most hopeful analysis I can manage is that the unification of the left under the LFI aegis will be a prelude to a top-to-bottom reconstruction on new foundations. The disintegration is not yet complete, and the papering-over of deep differences will not be enough to halt the decline. Unity in this case will yield not force but cynicism.

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Art Goldhammer
Writer, translator, scholar, blogger on French Politics, affiliate of Harvard's Center for European Studies, writes for The American Prospect, The Nation, etc.

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