In 2017, the once-mighty French left appeared to have reached its nadir. Having held the presidency for the previous five years, the Socialist Party's François Hollande was so unpopular that he opted not even to seek a second term. His replacement on the party ticket won just 6 per cent of the vote, a historic rout. The rest of the left-wing vote split five ways, resulting in a run-off between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right.
Five years on, things could yet get worse for the left. It has learned none of the lessons of 2017. Just over two months from the first round of voting in the presidential election, the political tradition that has done so much to shape modern French – and European – politics is struggling to be heard. The Socialist Party candidate, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, is languishing at three per cent in opinion polls. The firebrand ex-Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Green candidate Yannick Jadot are faring better, but on current poll numbers neither has a chance of making the second round. At least four other left-wing candidates are likely to be in the field, and efforts to forge unity around a single name – most recently with a "popular primary", the result of which most candidates said they would ignore – have come to nothing.
Broader trends in French society should be working in the left’s favour. The pandemic has forced the government, with overwhelming public approval, to embark on huge public spending financed by debt, and to shore up essential services such as healthcare and reassert the role of the state. Public consciousness of the green agenda has never been higher. But whereas these shifts have enabled the centre-left to make a comeback in other countries, the French left, owing to its chronic propensity for internal division, its poor candidate choices and its inability to make its case on the fraught terrain of immigration and social integration, has failed to take advantage. That has allowed the far-right set the agenda and cleared a path for Macron, who campaigns on “neither right nor left”, to offer himself as the only bulwark against the extreme right.