BY now, beleaguered French president Emmanuel Macron may take little comfort in victory.

As demonstrated by the polarised context and historically low turnout of his re-election in April, Macron’s Ensemble party may prevail, but his critics handily outnumber his supporters.

During the uncertainty which reigned between the first and second rounds of the presidential election, there was much speculation about whether those critics might, out of frustration with Macron and the establishment which he oversees, unite around the candidacy of Marine Le Pen (below). Unsurprisingly, few if any on the French left abandoned their principles and voted for the stalwart of the nation’s far-right.

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Today, however, with French voters heading to the polls for the second round of the National Assembly elections, all those who invested their hopes in the left-wing veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon will once more have the opportunity to make a choice that does not require holding their nose.

Mélenchon rises again

Since splitting from the Socialist Party in 2008, Mélenchon has established himself as one of the most visible left-wing politicians in Europe, a status that was only entrenched by his performance in the 2022 presidential election. Despite coming in a narrow third behind Macron and Le Pen, Mélenchon’s France Insoumise/Union Populaire platform performed dramatically better than prior polling had suggested; had the Communist Party not split the French left and taken 800,000 votes, many believe he might have made it into the second round.

It is a lesson Mélenchon appears to have taken to heart in the formation of his latest electoral vehicle, the coalition NUPES (New Ecological and Social Popular Union), which alongside France Insoumise comprises of the Socialists, the Communists and France’s largest Green Party. The alliance is running on a simple slogan: “Mélenchon: prime minister.”

Mélenchon declared his intention following the presidential election, arguing that if NUPES could win an outright majority, then Macron would have no choice but to name him as prime minister or resign. While Macron has hit back that “no political party can force a name on a president”, but should he be robbed of a majority, it remains to be seen whether he will stick to his guns.

This uncertainty only grew after the first round of the Assembly elections last week, which saw NUPES win 25.7% of the vote, compared to Ensemble’s 25.8% – a gap of only 21,359.

Most analysts are doubtful that NUPES will achieve Mélenchon’s stated goal of an outright majority, but the possibility remains strong that the left-wing alliance could reduce Ensemble from their current 345 seats (out of a total of 577) to less than the 289 necessary to constitute a majority, leaving Macron’s government severely weakened.

The French left united

In defiance of cliches concerning left-wing fractiousness, NUPES’s success thus far demonstrates how quickly and effectively it has united the French left, and upended the received wisdom of French politics as a result. By contrast, Le Pen’s National Rally party has refused to ally with Eric Zemmour’s similarly far-right Reconquête, leaving both outfits isolated and significantly depowered on the electoral stage.

Despite their unity, however, there are significant divergences of opinion within NUPES, particularly between the Communists and France Insoumise, and the more moderate Socialists and Greens on issues such as the European Union. Even on emotive topics such as this, however, NUPES has found compromise, and as a result displayed remarkable discipline. Whilst not being explicitly opposed to EU membership, the alliance has stated its intent to reform the union from a “liberal and productivist” project to one “in the service of … ecology and solidarity”. Any NUPES members elected to the Assembly have committed to jointly supporting 95% of the coalition’s policies, while enjoying independence on the remaining 5%.

The National: Emmanuel Macron recently won a second term as French presidentEmmanuel Macron recently won a second term as French president

Lessons from the past

Nevertheless, NUPES is not entirely without precedent. In 1997, the Gauche Plurielle (Plural Left) – an alliance which contained many of constituent parties now rallying behind Mélenchon – achieved what NUPES now strives for, ie cohabitation, where the president (at the time, Jacques Chirac) is forced to accept a prime minister outside of his party (Lionel Jospin), who then went on to form a government.

However, it was short-lived. The Gauche Plurielle lasted until 2002, when it fell short of its prior electoral success and was replaced by a conservative government – a result which was preceded by much internal squabbling and disappointment from some of its base over its apparent moderation.

Few of his critics, excitable as they are, ever accused Mélenchon of being excessively moderate – more often he is portrayed by his enemies as a dangerous and demagogic radical. Yet that perceived radicalism is arguably what got NUPES this far. If Mélenchon hopes to keep the French left united, he will not just have to bring it success, but embody a radicalism which justifies it.