By Fabien Escalona
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s followers barely had time to appreciate their champion’s progress in April’s presidential election before François Ruffin sounded the alarm in Libération: “Peripheral France, the France of the small towns, does not appear to be a priority. And when we look at the vote numbers, that’s where we’re losing.”
Ruffin — an MP for France Insoumise, representing a constituency in the Northern département of La Somme — reiterated the charge in Mediapart ahead of June’s legislative elections: “We’re hurting in the former industrial basins of the North and East, in once-red areas where the Left has fallen very low.” After his reelection with 61 percent of the vote, he hammered the point home in L’Obs: “Are we acknowledging, without saying it, that we are becoming the Left of Île-de-France [the region around Paris] and the metropolises?”
These interventions are reminiscent of now old controversies. First, the one stemming from a blog post published in 2011 by the think tank Terra Nova. It called for the Left to make up for its losses among working-class voters by seeking to pick up support among the middle classes and a series of social categories that supposedly share progressive cultural values. At the time, many intellectuals and political leaders were up in arms, criticizing the analytical errors and “class contempt” that shined through from the text.
At the end of the decade, it was the notion of peripheral France — sometimes associated with the idea of “cultural insecurity” — that aroused controversy. The essayist Christophe Guilluy, in particular, popularized the thesis of two communities of fate: the France of the big cities, the winners of globalization, and its peripheral counterpart, home to a white middle class in the process of material and symbolic decline. Guilluy was criticized, in scholarly terms, for advancing an excessively schematic vision, and suspected of feeding nationalist resentment on the political level.
While these precedents still loom large in public debate, it would be wrong to conclude that the strategic debate on the Left — and in particular within its main force, France Insoumise — is simply going round in circles.
In reality, everyone is avoiding being their own caricature. François Ruffin is now careful to put “peripheral France” in the plural, thus acknowledging its lack of homogeneity. Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself added some nuance to Ruffin’s observations, insisting on the need to avoid “social or geographical reductionism,” but recognizing that “we must be attentive to the characteristics of the places that need conquering and not rest on our laurels.” Moreover, Mélenchon has repeatedly referred to his own bid to speak to the “fâchés pas fachos” — people who are fed up, not fascists.
The electoral balance of forces demands that all sensibilities show some nuance. On the one hand, it is clear that the strategy of Communist presidential candidate Fabien Roussel — who has exhibited certain affinities with Ruffin’s approach — has failed.
During his campaign, Roussel constantly distanced himself from the positions typically defended by the Greens, associated with a city-dwelling, well-heeled left, whether over food, energy, or secularism. Roussel, also an MP for a Northern constituency, insisted, “We must go beyond la péripherique [the ring roads around Paris and other cities], speak to all French people, both those in large urban centres and those in rural areas,” he recently commented in Libération, before telling BFMTV that it was “unacceptable” for Mélenchon to use the words “the police kill.”
In the end, however, his electoral score was only one-tenth of what Mélenchon achieved. “Roussel’s is the strategy of the Left that does not want to annoy people on the Right,” says economist Stefano Palombarini, a member of the parliament of activists and personalities created by the Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologiqueet Sociale (NUPES) alliance. “You can’t start a strategy of broadening social alliances by risking disgusting left-wing voters who don’t see themselves in its approach,” he warns.
On the other hand, Mélenchon’s performance was insufficient to reach the runoff of the presidential election, while NUPES lost most of its second-round duels in the parliamentary elections, whatever the matchup in question. The electoral base of this camp still appears too narrow, both in its size and in its composition.
“A whole part of France escapes the Left’s reach,” says political scientist Rémi Lefebvre. “The Left’s sociology is very metropolitan, and this can be seen in the profile of its elected officials. Given the weight of the latter, there is a risk of reinforcing this logic.” The geographer Jean Rivière, for his part, is keen to emphasize that the electoral base Mélenchon has brought together “is indeed inter-classist.” However, he admits that the vote in his favour has tended to become polarized.
“Between 2017 and 2022,” explains this lecturer at the University of Nantes, “we observe a consolidation of strong bases, which are located, more than elsewhere, in the gentrified city districts at the top of the urban hierarchy, and in the racialized fractions of the working classes. Conversely, Mélenchon’s base is declining where it was already less strong, in certain rural parts of the North and East.”
In fact, the discussion that is opening up within France Insoumise and NUPES is about refining this diagnosis, and about concrete ways to seek a wider electoral audience. According to the information we have received, work in this direction has also been initiated by Intérêt Général — an independent think tank close to the orbit of France Insoumise — which is preparing to put politicians, geographers, and statisticians to work on this issue after the summer break.
In the meantime, many voices stress the importance of preserving both the coherence of the current political line and the components of the electoral base already acquired.
Clémentine Autain, a France Insoumise MP for Seine-Saint-Denis, believes, for example, that “we can still look for abstentionists in the sectors where we are strong already.” There are also other disappointing performances to interrogate, such as the very clear underrepresentation of the Left among the over-sixties.
According to Autain, we must not ignore the areas where the Left is struggling to win cultural hegemony over both liberal and identitarian right-wing forces. But rather than turning everything upside down, at the risk of straying from a course that has worked thus far, the challenge is to “articulate a narrative” that better echoes the expectations of a currently disaffected electorate. “But the conclusion cannot be to stop denouncing police violence,” she warns.
It wasn’t just Roussel: Mélenchon’s comment that “the police kill” was also criticized by Ruffin, who explained that it had “caused offense” in his constituency. He had himself written a long Facebook post to call for action over the day-to-day antisocial behaviour that causes a stink in the lives of residents of working-class neighbourhoods. “Denouncing police violence is one thing, making it such a prominent part of our discourse is quite another,” says a member of Intérêt Général. “This fight remains within the logic of political minorities, whereas we are in search of a majority logic, to win.”
Some of them, who have simply moved from the right to the far right, are hardly reachable. On the other hand, in deindustrialized areas that were once favourable to the Left, there are people who are not out of reach. These are the ones who Ruffin rather more has in mind. Then, among those who have already voted for the far right, things will be more difficult if they’ve already repeated that vote till it leads to a sense of political belonging.
In any case, says the professor at the University of Paris 8, “doing electoral marketing by changing what you say according to this or that segment of the population would be counterproductive. The real issue is to convince people that NUPES’s program of rupture is realistic, and could be applied.” And for that, there is nothing like a militant effort of building roots on the ground, allowing the Left to reach people atomized in their work, those who have less educational qualifications, and who mainly get their information through the mass media.”
This concern over France Insoumise’s presence on the ground is something that can unite all its sensibilities. In a blog for Mediapart, Clementine Autain MP writes that “the job to be done” to secure NUPES’s future “is obviously also about militant work, local rootedness, building a presence everywhere.” François Ruffin speaks of “bastions” to be built in society.
However, this problem surely is worth reflecting on. Researching social democratic parties, academics Björn Bremer and Line Rennwald have shown that their decline could be aggravated by a lack of “emotional” connection with a significant part of their electorate. In other words, it is risky to be satisfied with an electorate that has an only weak identification with the political force for which it votes: over time, their loyalty could prove fragile. (IPA Service)