90 years later, a new Popular Front is born

Leon Blum.
Leon Blum, leader of the Popular Front in the 1930s.

It is exactly ninety years since the French Socialist and Communist parties began to create the Popular Front, which dominated French politics in the mid-1930s. The danger then was the threat of the far Right — a threat which turned into a reality when the German army invaded France in 1940. Some of the same right-wingers who the Popular Front kept out of power returned to rule as minions of the Nazi invaders.

Though an invasion of France by its NATO ally Germany seems rather unlikely at this point, the threat of the far Right has not diminished. As a result, The main parties of the French Left — Socialists, Communists, Greens, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s “La France Insoumise” (LFI) — have come together in a New Popular Front (NFP) aimed at denying power to the National Rally of Marine Le Pen.

Some polls show that the New Popular Front may win as many votes in the legislative elections at the end of this month as Le Pen’s party. If that happens, a government of the centre-left becomes not only possible, but likely.

But what kind of Left?

Mélenchon is as unpopular as Le Pen among many French voters. He has been accused of being pro-Putin, which he denies, and of supporting Hamas. As Politico reported last October, Mélenchon’s “reluctance to condemn Hamas despite the scale of the attack against Israel, and the brutality of the violence inflicted on civilians, is seen as crossing a red line for many in France.”

Until recently his LFI was the largest party on the French Left, but the recent European elections have changed all that. A resurgent democratic Left led by the charismatic Raphaël Glucksmann, is now at the centre of the NFP — and it’s having an effect on what the new bloc stands for.

At the end of negotiations to draft the party program, Glucksmann summed up what had happened with these words: “It’s been hard, but what we’ve obtained is a very clear commitment on support for Ukraine … and that the attacks of October 7 be described as ‘terrorist’.”

Mélenchon had taken a step away from the limelight, and the new platform reflects that. Nevertheless, his LFI is being given the largest number of candidates for the legislative elections, though it is not clear how many of them will be elected.

The NFP position on Hamas sounds surprisingly reasonable. If elected, they are committed to “act for the release of hostages held since the terrorist massacres of Hamas, whose theocratic project we reject” — in other words, Hamas are in fact terrorists and theocrats.

On Ukraine the platform calls the Russian invasion an act of aggression and demands that Putin answer for his crimes. The NFP calls upon France and the West do more to support Ukraine, with specific measures including ramping up weapons deliveries, cancellation of Ukraine’s foreign debt, and seizure of assets of Russian oligarchs who support Putin and his war.

The NFP has also identified the rise of antisemitism in France as a specific problem that needs to be addressed by the incoming government. “All those who spread hatred of Jews must
be fought,” they say. “We will propose an interministerial plan to analyze, prevent and fight against anti-Semitism in France.”

Glucksmann was himself the victim of antisemitic attacks — as was Leon Blum, the Jewish leader of the original Popular Front, decades ago. Mélenchon had insisted “that French antisemitism was merely ‘residual’,” according to Art Goldhammer, who writes about French politics. Glucksmann’s view prevailed on this too.

The NFP, thanks to Glucksmann and his allies, sounds a lot more like Keir Starmer than Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or Jeremy Corbyn, and that is a very good thing. The further Mélenchon and his toxic ideas fade in the background, the better for the French Left and for France.

In adopting a clear position supporting Ukraine and rejecting Hamas, the NFP has passed a litmus test for political decency that many parties and leaders on the Left have failed in recent years. The success of the NFP — and its creation is already a success story — may lead other Lefts in other countries to rethink their own views.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.