Prisoners of the Political Merry-Go-Round

It Takes A Lot to Run, It Takes an Ally To Tear Your Eyes Out

A reader tries to make sense of the infighting. April 2021

You heard the one about the three leftwing conspirators checking into a hotel room for a clandestine meeting ?  

On Saturday morning last week, ecologists, socialists, members of France Insoumis, communists and former members of Macron’s LREM sat around the same table to discuss the future. The future ! You know, that thing that’s still out there once you finish settling scores ? «After weeks, not to say months or even years of insults, stagey disputes and real disagreements, of promises made one day only to be forgotten the next, the left found themselves face to face. Finally,» as Rachid Laïrache put it in Libération

The meeting was held in Paris near the canal at la Villette and no one was pitched into the pool. The only item on the agenda was the possibility of an alliance that insures a leftwing candidate makes it to the second round of voting in next year’s presidential election. 

The approach was tried in last September’s mayoral races with spectacular results for the Greens, winning town halls in Lyon, Tours, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Marseille, Poitiers, Annecy and elsewhere. That the present meeting was held at all is a testament to Yannick Jadot of the Ecologists (EELV, Europe Ecologie Les Verts). 

Macron resembles a playboy stranded on the side of the road the morning after the banker’s fête, his thumb out, willing to take a ride with anyone who’ll slow down for him. Populist or police, doesn’t matter. He plays well to foreigners who find him crisp and smart in comparison to what they have. The French know better. How many times has he announced the end of the Covid tunnel ? His imperial management style has been outfoxed by a relentless virus while his love affair with the police has won him friends he doesn’t really need. What does he have to show the moderate young who rallied around four years ago ? Marine Le Pen has followed the wisest course, becoming the silent Sibyll of Calais over the course of the pandemic, with high poll numbers, all of them meaningless at this point but good for scaring the daylights out of respectable, bien-pensant French and Guardian writers. Are we really going to be sentenced to sit through a replay of 2017 in ’22, handing Macron the Presidency for five more years ? All because the left can’t ever agree on anything and can’t overcome their savage cults of would-be Caesars ? Villified at the outset by the intelligentsia as right-wing yahoos, les Gilet Jaunes have had more effect on political dynamics in French society than all current left parties put together, including the Greens with their horrible Ikea-style plant pots in Paris and their dreams of re-decorating the cities, as if that solved capitalism’s savage inequalities. 

I’ll do my best to make nice, as maybe a few of the participants did inside the meeting at La Villette.  

Present were Jadot (rep at the European Parliament for the West of France since 2009) and Julien Bayou, the party’s national secretary, as well as two presidential candidates from the Greens, Eric Piolle and Sandrine Rousseau. Heard of them ? I didn’t think so. The Socialists were represented by Olivier Faure, the party’s secretary and Anne Hidalgo, who dreams of a magic Socialist-Green fusion that will carry her from Paris City Hall to Clemenceau and the Elysées. The Communists were represented by Ian Brossat and Pierre Lacaze. France Insoumis showed, minus their leader and eminence gris, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, currently touring Latin America. He sent regards and a few pointed questions. If the rumor mill is right, Mélenchon is negotiating with the Cubans about sharing vaccines with France. (That would be Cuba 2 vaccines developed, France 0.) No word yet on whether he’s succeeded but the symbolism is perfect.  

A few brief reflections.

If, in 2017, Benoit Hamon, head of the Socialist-splinter group Generation.s and present at the meeting, had partnered with Mélenchon in the first round of presidential voting (something they talked about), their combined percentage would have been 26%, more than enough to see their ticket into the second round. It didn’t happen. 

A former Greenpeace worker in the European Parliament, Jadot is the breakaway horse, the candidate who represents an opportunity for the Greens to overcome suburban cult status. He’s gone out on a limb by calling this meeting. He isn’t the EELV candidate for president yet, something they don’t decide until September at their congress. His action is both admirable and a spotlight for his wider aspirations.  

Covid, having smashed society into a million brittle pieces, has also brought the old political game to a halt. That faint whispering noise you hear is politicians praying and asking, What the hell do I do next ? For now pols are married to crisis management. But after ? What program can they possibly put forward ? A few questions : What if the Gilets Jaunes come back in force before next year’s election ? How can Macron justify austerity after Covid ? Where is France’s vaccine ? Cuba has two, and more on the way. What exactly has Macron done for the credulous young, who so believed him last time around ? If a week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson observed, what about five years ? Macron’s cool, brainy, banker-knows-best style looks wildly passé. Still, with a Le Pen presidency staring the French in the face, all bets are off.

(With a plump majority in the Assembly, Macron can still have his way over some things, or looked at from the other angle, Insoumis, Socialists and Greens couldn’t figure out how to throw sand in the gears of the detested Global Security law, which passed on April 15th. The bill was crammed with even more goodies for the police (such as admissability of drone footage) than when it was first proposed in November.)

The world has changed drastically since 2017, but the old models continue to putter on. Politicians are always the last to know their going the wrong way. 2016 stands out as a referendum on our ability to imagine a different politics entering the mainstream. Trump threw the GOP model out the window and strod off with the prize, while Sanders, if he’d dared, could have won as an independent. In 2017, Macron proved it could be done in France while Mélenchon and Hamon showed they couldn’t agree to agree. So does France just carry on, admonished that There Is No Alternative ? Does the French left continue its reliably brilliant bickering for the next twelve months ? It isn’t exactly in a party apparatchik’s interest to stop. Consensus threatens his livelihood. And yet the alliance approach could offer candidates a decent shot, especially in the municipalities. It would make Left parties viable, even if only temporarily. They can go back to bickering after…

Communists love a large round table in a big hall. It is convivial, positions are taken openly and for a brief moment, everyone is on equal footing. The big table where participants lose the straitjackets of their social standing is an intimate part of the culture here. The New York Times loves to mock the Labor Code, all 3,000 pages of it, but it’s the hours spent in discussions that would drive a world-conquering American executive up the wall. Far too fraternal for his taste. In any case, the Communists came prepared, ready to protect their faded turf, advising Jadot that his dream of a grand left primary before the presidential election was dead in the water. Having backed Mélenchon the last two times around, the Comunists are determined to field their own candidate for the first round in March 2022. «There are different sensibilities within the left,» their statement went. «There is a revolutionary left, a populist left, and a liberal left. In regard to the current situation, they must know how to speak with one voice, at least during battle. That in no way prevents different candidates from standing for president.» The Communists face a crisis on the order of What am I doing here exactly ? Rumor has it that they are open to alliances for the June departmental and regional elections but won’t be pushed further. The break with Mélenchon was acrimonous and decisive, stopping just short of hairpulling scenes in the street in front of headquarters at Colonel Fabien.

The Communists having their way with Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Coco, the cartoonist, has just come over to Libération from Charlie Hebdo.

Which brings us, by circuitous route, to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Insoumis, who are already gearing up furiously for battles ahead, Mélenchon having surpassed the number of signatures required to participate in the presidential race more than a year in advance. What exactly, he wanted to know, was it all about ? « I agree to the Insoumis participating in the meeting, » Mélenchon said, «But I’d like to know what we’re talking about. The presidential election or something else ? Yannick Jadot is doing everything in his power to shape his party’s primary. He’s brave but there’s a limit. We won’t let ourselves be used as baggage in his internal battles.» Shades of the bad break-up with the Communists ? While arguing that all parties should sign a «cease-fire» as a way of avoiding mutual destruction, the Insoumis are said not to believe in the Green-Socialist marriage of convenience. Division is their forte, based on their belief that in the long run, Mélenchon is the only candidate with visibility and a national organization. A quick glance around the table at Jadot, Hamon, Hidalgo and the others makes that call hard to argue with. Pretenders the lot.            


So Saturday’s meeting was that ceasefire, tentative and continuing into May. It’s still early. Even so, the Socialists, stripped of their hegemony, couldn’t resist a little upmanship. Everyone was all smiles coming out of the meeting, another round of talks on the agenda. Jadot seemed to be floating on a cloud before Faure stole the spotlight. The worst was over, he announced. Socialists, ecologists, radicals and the small Generation.s group had come to terms, he said racing right along, hoping that perhaps no one would notice that he’d put the Socialists, a party on life support, at the head of the list. Within a year, there would be a common candidate for the presidential election. Participants stopped smiling and started texting “Quoi ????” to allies across the room. The rep from France Insoumise exchanged looks with Benoît Hamon and Bayou of the EELV. No one remembered agreeing to that but maybe Faure believed it, or maybe he attended a fictive meeting where the Socialist Party is still King of the Hill. It was The Trick in a single, neat gesture : the pol believes what he wants to and projects that belief onto the public, just to see who goes along.

At least no actual shots were fired. 

That joke ? You still want the punchline ? When three leftwing conspirators check into a hotel room for a secret meeting and two come out alive, the meeting was a success. So it goes. 

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