Left-Wing New Popular Front Scored Big in France’s Vote. Who Are Its Members?

The night President Emmanuel Macron announced a snap election for France’s National Assembly last month, two words began to buzz around the internet and the media: Popular Front.

It was a reference to the left-wing alliance formed in the 1930s to resist rising fascism in Europe and at home. Now, a group of France’s main left-wing parties have banded together to fight what they see as a new danger: Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, which is closer to taking power than ever before.

That left-wing alliance called itself the New Popular Front.

“For the first time since the Vichy regime, the extreme right could prevail again in France,” the Socialist leader Olivier Faure recently told a large crowd, referencing the French government during World War II that collaborated with the Nazi occupiers.

Mr. Macron decided to force the election for the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, because of an embarrassing defeat last month to Ms. Le Pen’s party in a European parliamentary election.

The left-wing group of parties, which had only broken up months before over personal and policy disagreements, responded by reuniting. Despite its rushed beginnings, the New Popular Front came in second in the first round of voting. The front was just five percentage points behind the National Rally and its allies, while Mr. Macron’s centrist Renaissance party and its allies came a distant third.

Since then, the New Popular Front has made it harder for the far right to take over. It has built what in France is known as a “Republican front,” or “dam,” asking their candidates from three-way races to drop out to reduce the likelihood of a National Rally victory in this Sunday’s runoff. More than 130 of its candidates withdrew, along with some 80 in Mr. Macron’s party, according to the French media.

The latest polls predict that the strategy might work. The National Rally is still in a good position to win the most seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, but now it might fall short of the 289 needed for an absolute majority.

“Historically, when there is a threat from the extreme right, the left always unifies,” said Rémi Lefebvre, a professor of political science at the University of Lille. “That’s been the reflex since the 1930s.”

But many in France fear elements of the left as well, particularly because the largest party in the alliance, France Unbowed, is known for its incendiary far-left politics. Some members are also accused of antisemitism, particularly the pugnacious and divisive Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a longtime leftist leader and the founder of France Unbowed.

“They want to be a dam to block the National Rally. But beyond that, what will happen?” said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist who teaches at Sciences Po University in Paris. “They are asking people to take a big jump into the unknown.”

Once powerful in the country under a strong Socialist party, the French left in recent years has been reduced to a fractious alliance between four parties: communists, socialists, the greens and France Unbowed. The coalition was first formed in 2022 and was dominated by Mr. Mélenchon’s France Unbowed.

A three-time presidential candidate and former Trotskyist, Mr. Mélenchon has been sidelined into a non-leadership role in the new alliance, according to other members of the group.

Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Mr. Mélenchon has unabashedly expressed pro-Palestinian views, refused to call Hamas a terrorist organization and vehemently denounced Israel’s military operation in Gaza as “genocide.” He labeled a large demonstration against antisemitism, attended by two former French presidents, a rendezvous for “the friends of unconditional support of the massacre.”

At a time when attacks on and threats against French Jews have spiked, Mr. Mélenchon has been repeatedly accused of fanning the growing flames of antisemitism.

The alliance, already fraught with internal conflict, fell apart.

The weaving back together took place over four frenzied days and nights. “We didn’t sleep,” said Pierre Jouvet, secretary general of the Socialist party and one of the main negotiators. “It was a bit like what sailors do on long crossings, we took micro-naps of a half-hour or 40 minutes, and we drank a lot of coffee.”

Although fear of the far right played its part in the shotgun political marriage, so did pragmatism. Given the trajectory of the far-right, if the left didn’t work as a unit, it was likely to lose many of its seats, said Frédéric Sawicki, a political science professor at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

On the fifth day, they came out with a hefty platform, thick with promises and evident compromises for a group that has fundamental disagreements on everything from involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Gaza to nuclear power.

The New Popular Front is campaigning on a platform that would raise France’s monthly minimum wage, lower the legal retirement age to 60 and freeze the price of basic necessities including food, energy and gas. Instead of drastically cutting immigration, as the far right has promised, the coalition pledged to make the asylum process more generous and smooth.

The group would also push for a cease-fire in Gaza and the liberation of hostages, and “immediately recognize” a Palestinian state. It vowed also to develop government plans to fight both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

A victory by the New Popular Front, if it was ever likely, is less so now that so many of its candidates dropped out.

Still, the left could gain enough votes to be influential, especially if a coalition government is formed.

The group’s hope is not just to beat back the far right, but to pick up some of the mantle of the original Popular Front, a real touchstone for the left in France. It was the high-water mark for many, of what they could do, but also for their valiant staring down of fascism.

The original Popular Front formed a government under Léon Blum, who in 1936 became the country’s first Socialist and Jewish premier. The day after taking office, he introduced a slew of laws that drastically changed life for French workers, including two weeks of annual paid vacation and a 40-hour workweek.

The government lasted just two years. In 1943, under the Vichy collaborationist government, Mr. Blum was sent to Buchenwald, where he lived in a house outside the concentration camp.

“The government of the Popular Front didn’t last long,” said Jean Vigreux, a history professor at the university of Burgundy in Dijon, who has written two books on the Popular Front, “but it changed life.”

Mr. Macron, who abhorred the far left well before the front trounced his party in last Sunday’s vote, was unsparing in his reaction to the formation of the New Popular Front, saying Mr. Blum “must have been turning in his grave.”

He cast the front as the “extreme left,” given its inclusion of France Unbowed, and said that the party was equally dangerous to the French republic as the far right. Many voters agree. In the last two annual polls of French sentiments, done annually by Ipsos-Sopra Steria, 57 percent of people considered the party a “danger to democracy” — more than the National Rally.

The New Popular Front has refused to name a leader who would be prime minister if they won a majority or became part of a coalition government. But many leaders in the alliance have repeated forcefully that it would not be Mr. Mélenchon. He, however, has refused to disqualify himself, stating repeatedly that he is “capable” of the job.

The National Rally is still expected to win the most seats, but the resistance could block it from the absolute majority it covets.

It could also confuse the public after months of name-calling among those on the left and centrists, causing some voters to abstain.

“It will be difficult for voters to understand they need to vote for people that just a few days earlier were described as odious,” said Mr. Lefebvre, the political science professor.

Jordan Bardella, the National Rally president, has criticized the New Popular Front, saying its attempts to keep the right from power are undemocratic. “You believe that honors politics, to do everything to stop a movement I lead, that represents millions of French people?” he said in television interview this week.

New Popular Front leaders dismiss that assertion.

“It’s not a rejection of democracy. It’s an fierce desire to block the arrival of the extreme right in France,” said Mr. Jouvet, “because we consider the extreme right and Jordan Bardella dangerous for France.”

Still, if successful, some analysts fear the “Republican front” will compound the sense of abandonment described by many far-right supporters who feel Mr. Macron’s government does not hear their concerns.

“That’s the perverse effect of this,” said Ms. Bacharan, the political scientist. “Far right voters hear ‘Power has to be kept away from us.’”

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Paris

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