Last year, following their shared defeats in the presidential election, France’s main left-wing parties accomplished a rare feat. Temporarily laying aside their differences, they formed a coalition – “NUPES” – in order contest the subsequent legislative elections as a single bloc. This unity was a historic achievement, replicated only a few times previously in the history of the French Left. It was also a practical success, allowing the combined Left to more than double its representation.
Last weekend however, the French Communist Party (PCF) announced its intention to “turn the page” on its participation in this alliance. This break, which will likely mark the end of NUPES, has been a long time coming: since last year’s election, barely a week has gone by without some kind of squabble arising between politicians in one or other of NUPES’s component parties – the Socialist Party, the Greens, the Communists, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist La France Insoumise (LFI). In recent months, tensions have been particularly pronounced between LFI and the PCF, with leading figures from the two parties frequently trading insults on social media.
What is notable, however, is the particular verbal straw that appears to have broken this camel’s back: in their statement, the PCF cite “insults from the leaders of LFI, comparing the leadership of the PCF to collaborationist Nazis”. This refers to a Facebook post made last month by Sophia Chikirou – an LFI deputy and close confidant of Mélenchon – in which she equated the leader of the PCF, Fabien Roussel, with the wartime Nazi collaborator Jacques Doriot. Mélenchon himself had raised the same comparison some months back, and following Chikirou’s post other LFI leaders have doubled down on the claim, accusing Roussel of aping far-right rhetoric.
Doriot was not just any Nazi collaborator. In the early 1930s, Doriot had been the Communist mayor of the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, and a rising star within the PCF. It was only after his proposals for a new strategy (ironically enough, an alliance with the other left-wing parties) led to his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1934, that he founded his own party, the PPF. Although initially positioned on the Left, the PPF quickly evolved in a fascist direction; following the conquest and occupation of France by Hitler in 1940, Doriot aligned it with the German occupiers. PPF members participated in some of the worst atrocities of the period, and Doriot himself even joined the SS, fighting alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front. To compare Roussel to Doriot then is not just to associate him with Nazism, but to strike the Communist Party at its most sensitive spot. The PCF is a party that makes much of its history, and in particular its participation in the underground resistance to the Nazis, the legacy of which it claims to embody today. Jacques Doriot is a part of its past that it would much prefer to excise.
That leading figures within LFI have chosen to make such an inflammatory comparison is indicative on a number of levels. On a surface level, it illustrates the abrasive and pugilistic rhetorical style that has become the trademark of Mélenchon and his followers, and the refusal of LFI to accept the legitimacy of its potential rivals. It also reflects substantive divisions within the French Left over the politics of security and identity. Within the NUPES coalition, Mélenchon has led the LFI to take an increasingly progressive approach – for example speaking out against Islamophobia, and frequently criticising the behaviour of the police. Fabien Roussel, by contrast, has led the PCF in the opposite direction. Since becoming leader, he has sought to distance his party from identity politics, “wokism”, and anti-police rhetoric, in an attempt to win “traditional” working class voters back from the far-right. The Greens and Socialists are divided on these questions internally, and have been left sitting awkwardly in the middle.
The recent spat between the PCF and LFI shows how emotive and ideological this division has become. By comparing Roussel to Doriot, LFI leaders are – in the most polemical manner possible – accusing him of engaging in cynical populism, and suggesting that his new rhetorical strategy risks blurring the boundaries between Left and Right by echoing far-right themes. They are also suggesting that the seeds of such politics are latent in the DNA of the Communist Party. Moreover, that the LFI leaders have chosen to make this point with reference to Doriot shows that collaboration continues to be an uncomfortably salient episode in the history of the French Left.
Indeed, Doriot was far from the only political figure from a left-wing background to be implicated in collaboration with the Nazis. In the early months of the Occupation, politicians of all stripes supported the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government – including many progressives, trade unionists, and liberals. While the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact remained in force, even the Communist Party leadership made a brief, abortive effort to officially work with Germans. Perhaps most dramatically, the Socialist Party saw many of its leading cadres embrace an explicitly collaborationist politics, which they defended in socialist terms as a necessary adaptation to circumstance: the former economy minister, Charles Spinasse, believed the Occupation was an opportunity to remodel France from above, ideally along the lines advocated by 19th century utopian socialist thinkers; more prominently, the revisionist intellectual Marcel Déat, who prior to the war had called for Socialists to reject class-based Marxism in favour of a cross-class “neo-socialism”, founded his own collaborationist party. This party progressively adopted Nazi ideology, while consistently claiming to be loyal to Déat’s pre-war socialist vision. It is notable that Mélenchon has also pointed to this history, suggesting that the current Socialist Party’s approach to law-and-order politics risks taking it down the same road as Déat.
Although such collaborationist figures were excluded from the post-war Socialist Party (whose leadership, like that of the Communists, had all been active in the resistance), their memory could not entirely be erased. In the years following the Occupation’s end, the Communist Party delighted in reminding the Socialists of their erstwhile collaborationist comrades, and regularly accused them of embracing “neo-socialist” ideology. Collaboration with Nazism was presented as the abhorrent-but-inevitable outcome of any deviation from left-wing orthodoxy. In response, the Socialists pointed to the Communist Party’s previous support for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but nonetheless became wary of any potentially “neo-socialist” ideological revisionism, and insisted on their own fidelity to Marxism. In the 1990s, the issue emerged once again, following revelations about Socialist President François Mitterrand’s own questionable wartime record.
Today, as the politically marginalised French Left struggles to re-adapt itself, it cannot avoid reckoning with this aspect of its history. Attempts to seek new scripts for left-wing politics in France will continue to be subject to a degree of suspicion, checked against the past, lest a new generation find themselves re-enacting the sinister history of collaboration. As long as this is the case, figures like Doriot and Déat will retain their potency – both as genuine warnings, and as rhetorical weapons with which to attack one’s rivals.
David Klemperer is a PhD candidate in History at Queen Mary University of London, researching the intellectual history of French socialism, and is a contributing editor at Renewal. He provides regular commentary on French and wider European politics for publications including Renewal and the New Statesman.