Europe’s social democratic left is crumbling
Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Insoumise (left); Sahra Wagenknecht formerly of Die Linke (centre); and the French Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel (right). | Graphic: Morning Star

The last few weeks have seen big upsets on the left in France and Germany. The economic crisis that goes with Europe’s submission to the U.S. strategy of tension with Russia—with its openly proclaimed objective of limiting Chinese influence—expresses itself in a political crisis that has inevitably drawn in the left.

Melenchon’s meltdown

In France, the political status of fascistic leader Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (RN) party (formerly known as Front National) has advanced, with a poll conducted last month revealing her as the second-most popular politician in the country.

The poll, commissioned by Libération newspaper, showed RN at 20%, ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, Renaissance, at 15%. The left alliance, New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES, by its French initials), led by Jean Luc Melenchon, showed 14%. The remnants of Gaullism in Les Republicains were at 13%.

But now, NUPES is falling apart.

The French Communist Party (PCF) has concluded that NUPES is at an impasse and has called for the opening of “a new page in the coming together of the left and ecologists.” The objective is to constitute a “new popular front” capable of being in the majority.

Among the factors leading up to the division was the reinstatement in the parliamentary group by La France Insoumise (LFI), the biggest component of NUPES, of deputy Adrien Quatennens, an ally of LFI leader Melenchon, despite his conviction for domestic violence. Melenchon brought him back against the opposition of many, including feminist deputies.

In the labor movement, the LFI in general and Melenchon in particular are criticized for the disrespect they displayed towards the unions during the powerful pension protests which so dramatically weakened Macron’s standing earlier this year.

More immediately, Melenchon’s tone-deaf take on the urban violence which followed the death of teenager Nahel Merzouk—shot by a police officer during a traffic stop—has caused an open breach.

It was serious rioting. Two died; unknown numbers of civilians were injured, as were over 800 police; 1,000 buildings were damaged, and over 5,000 vehicles were torched, with total damage at an estimated €650 million ($686 million USD).

To the protesting youth, Melenchon limited his advice to counseling them not to “touch schools, libraries, and gymnasiums,” which he called “our common property.”

In the judgment of the PCF, this stance failed to connect with the growing sense that people living in working-class neighborhoods were those most affected by the violence.

Underlying this was a clear sense that Melenchon had failed to understand the dangers of allowing the right to own the alarm over breaches in the “republican order.”

In distinction to the call for tranquillity that was the common position of other parties, Melenchon counterposed a call for “justice,” arguing that the police were at fault and that it was the poor who were rioting.

This dichotomy exposed a clear fault line in dominant narratives around race in French society, in which official blindness to monitoring discrimination is dressed up in so-called republican values—to which an important section of the left subscribes.

Equally at fault was Melenchon’s failure to grasp the popular mood allied to his political reflex to search out division.

These tensions were heightened over recent days by divisions connected to the Hamas military assault on the Israeli border settlements and the war against Gaza that followed.

Melenchon’s failure to characterize the Hamas action as terrorism resulted in Green Party leader Marine Tondelier arguing that he had “removed all credibility from the left coalition,” while Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure called for a “break with the Melenchon method.”

In an argument with Communist Party General Secretary Fabien Roussel, Melenchon compared the PCF leader to Jacques Doriot, a pre-war PCF renegade who led a fascist formation. In a social media posting, Melenchon said: “History repeats itself, there is a Doriot in Roussel.”

This calculated insult was designed to precipitate division and proved enough for the PCF to quit the disintegrating alliance.

The NUPES project is not quite in ruins, but the PCF summarized the situation:

“All this prevents us from meeting the challenges. This prevents us from being as strong as the left could be regarding social struggle. This prevents us from fighting effectively against the far right by trivializing Nazism. And it prevents us from building the rallies we need to demand peace in the Middle East. This is why we are calling for a new gathering on the left that is broader, clearer, and more useful to our common struggles.”

Wagenknecht’s withdrawal

A different dynamic is at work in Germany, where the growth of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) threatens to breach the cordon sanitaire around the far right.

Sahra Wagenknecht, former Bundestag leader of Die Linke (The Left), and nine fellow deputies have broken away from the party.

Die Linke is the political formation that brought together East Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism with left-wing social democrats in the West and rose to become the third-biggest party in Germany before entering a sharp decline in recent years.

Capitalizing on Wagenknecht’s great personal popularity in Germany—20% say they would consider voting for a party led by her—the new formation is called the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – For Reason and Fairness (in German: Bundnis Sahra Wagenknecht/BSW – Fur Vernunft und Gerechtigkeit).

With this temporary name, the new initiative aims to formally found the party in January next year. Three regions in eastern Germany that were a part of the old German Democratic Republic are due to hold elections in 2024, and the new party estimates it has a real opportunity there. In addition, the calculation is that the 2024 EU parliamentary elections offer a good opportunity.

The war in Ukraine has brought some of the pre-existing divisions in Die Linke to a head. BSW’s members say they no longer see any place for their political positions in the party.

Referring to the massive February 2023 “Uprising for Peace” rally organized on Wagenknecht’s initiative, they say: “Tens of thousands gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Although and precisely because around half of the population rejected the government’s military course, the country’s entire political establishment resisted and defamed the rally.

“Instead of supporting us in this dispute, the Left party leadership stood shoulder to shoulder with the other parties: They accused the initiators of the rally of being ‘open to the right’ and were thus the keyword for accusations against us.”

Alongside a clear anti-imperialist and anti-war stance, the strategic orientation of the new project is to shape a clear class challenge to the advance of the right-wing AfD, which has grown particularly in the former GDR.

Its opponents, both in the government parties and in Die Linke itself, characterize the new formation as left-wing on economic questions and “conservative” on social questions.

It is true that it takes a detailed class position on the main economic and social questions and is highly critical of what it described as Die Linke’s focus on identity over class, but its position on immigration is more nuanced than its opponents claim.

Set in the context of “an innovative economy with fair competition,” it argues that action should be taken against growing inequality and a reliable welfare state should be created.

The group’s chair, Amira Mohamed Ali, said: “Immigration is an enrichment if the infrastructure is not overwhelmed.”

In dealing with the inner-party conflicts, the new organization said in a statement addressed to its former comrades: “We have repeatedly argued that the wrong priorities and lack of focus on social justice and peace are diluting the party’s profile. We have repeatedly warned that the focus on urban, young, activist milieus is driving away our traditional voters. We have repeatedly tried to halt the party’s decline by changing its political course. We weren’t successful with that—and as a result, the party had less and less success with voters.

“The history of Die Linke since the European elections in 2019 is the history of political failure. The respective party leadership and the officials supporting them at the state level were determined not to discuss this failure critically under any circumstances.

“No responsibility was taken for this, nor were any substantive consequences drawn from it. Rather, those who were critical of the party leadership’s course were identified as culprits for the results and were increasingly marginalized.”

Two cases of alienating the base

In essence, neither of these developments is due to either of the personalities involved alone. In the case of Melenchon, a former member of the ferociously anti-communist Lambertiste Trotskyists, his political approach is notoriously confrontational.

The PCF describes him as “hegemonic,” and the Socialist Party says that where once he was a factor for unity he is now the source of division.

Wagenknecht is a brilliant leader with a real connection to millions of voters, but the source of division in Die Linke was not her personality (although the resentment and envy was palpable). The reality is that Die Linke has been drifting away from its working-class orientation and alienating major sections of its base, particularly in the regions of the former socialist Germany.

At the root of Europe’s present economic and political trauma, and especially the German economic crisis, is the failure of the European elite to resist the drive by U.S. capital to frustrate any challenge to its global position.

For social democracy—competing to manage the system—the crisis is destroying its electoral base.

What distinguishes the Wagenknecht initiative is a willingness to challenge the basis of foreign policy and war while making a direct claim for working-class support on a class basis.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Morning Star. As with all op-eds and news-analytical articles published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

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Nick Wright
Nick Wright

British communist journalist and designer.