Let them eat steak: French Communists bounce back with recipe for ‘happy days’
Fabien Roussel, the Communist Party candidate for the French presidency, says the left has turned its back on the working class. © Daniel Cole, AP

France’s century-old Communist Party is showing signs of a renaissance in the run-up to April presidential elections, propelled by a charismatic candidate who promises happier days for a famously morose – and nostalgic – nation.

The rise of Fabien Roussel began with a juicy steak, a lump of cheese and a splash of red wine – “the essence of French cuisine”, as the Communist Party leader put it.

The seemingly banal statement, made during an interview on state television on January 9, touched a raw nerve in France, exposing deep fractures on the French left. It reignited a heated controversy between environmental activists, keen on weaning the French off their addiction to meat, and self-proclaimed defenders of French lifestyle.

For Roussel, a little-known candidate from an ailing party that looked consigned to the history books, the polemic was a gift, an easy gateway to the notoriety that had so far eluded him. Sensing an opportunity, he began to pepper his every speech and interview with talk of tasty, grass-fed beef, rigorously made in France. His critics, chief among them the Greens, he exposed as moralizing party poopers bent on eliminating life’s simple pleasures.

“No more coppa, no more panisse [pancakes] in Marseille, no more French fries in the North,” he cried in dismay at a rally earlier this month. “What are we going to eat? Tofu and soy beans? Oh, come on!”

The right’s favorite communist

Roussel’s culinary considerations are part of a broader strategy aimed at carving out a space for his party within a weak and deeply divided left wing. They join a string of topics on which the Communist nominee has been conspicuously at odds with others on the left.

Alone of all left-wing candidates for the presidency, Roussel is a staunch supporter of nuclear energy. He also advocates a stricter reading of France’s rules on secularism, has spoken dismissively of “wokeism”, and has voiced support for hunters and the police, appearing alongside far-right leaders at a controversial protest called by police unions last year. All of which has earned him unwanted plaudits from right-wing politicians and from members of President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Never mind his orthodox plans to boost the minimum wage, nationalize top banks, introduce a steep wealth tax or hire half a million new civil servants; it’s the unorthodox proposals that have caught the public’s eye – chief among them his dining suggestions.

According to his campaign director Ian Brossat, a deputy mayor of Paris, criticism of Roussel has been mostly caricatural.

“If it’s right-wing to say that gastronomy should be available to everyone, then the vast majority of the country is right-wing,” Brossat told FRANCE 24. “I don’t think it is.”

Roussel himself has angrily dismissed his label as the right wing’s pet communist. “When the right wing, the Medef [a business lobby] and Macron take a look at the latest opinion polls and witness our surge, they’ll choke on their croissants while reading the Figaro,” he snapped in an interview on Tuesday, referring to France’s conservative newspaper of record.

Stepping out of Mélenchon’s shadow

There’s another reason for Roussel’s popularity on the right. By running as an independent candidate, he is siphoning votes from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the firebrand leader of leftist party La France insoumise (France Unbowed, LFI), under whose banner the Communists ran in the last two presidential elections, and who narrowly missed out on the second round in 2017.

Roussel, 52, was elected head of the Communist Party the following year, with a specific mandate to carry the party’s colors in future presidential elections – regardless of the pressure to rally behind Mélenchon once again. His mission is to drag the party out of its “electoral irrelevance”, says Roger Martelli, a historian of the Parti communiste français (PCF).

“From the perspective of the Communist Party, the alliance with LFI was a failure, because it cost them seats in subsequent parliamentary elections,” Martelli told FRANCE 24. “The lesson they drew was that to miss out on the presidential election meant weakening the party.”

Judging by voter surveys, the party’s decision to go it alone is starting to pay off. In recent weeks, Roussel has seen his poll numbers crawl up to 5% – still a small share of the vote but a far cry from the 1.9% the PCF won when it last fielded a presidential candidate, in 2007. In a highly symbolic reversal of fortunes, it has overtaken the once mighty Socialist Party, whose beleaguered candidate Anne Hidalgo has seen her support slump.

After decades of lingering in the shadow of larger parties, first as junior partners to the Socialists and then as side-kicks to Mélenchon, the Communists are reveling in their new-found independence. Once again, the media are knocking on the gates of their futuristic Paris headquarters, one of the capital’s great postwar architectural landmarks, which the Communists have held onto – even as the cash-strapped Socialists sold theirs.

“One could be tempted to joke that the Communist Party has finally got its revenge over the Socialists,” said Martelli. “But the satisfaction would necessarily be tempered by the knowledge that this is now a contest between minnows.”

Poaching voters from other left-wing parties is not an objective of the PCF, added Brossat, noting that “they already have so few”. Put together, the many little candidates of the left vying for the French presidency account for just a quarter of the electorate, according to surveys. Only one of them, Mélenchon, has reached double digits.

“Our aim is to broaden the left’s electorate by luring back voters who drifted away from the left in recent years,” said Roussel's campaign manager. “That means reaching out to them and offering solutions to their problems; which is what Fabien Roussel is trying to do.”

The moralising left

Nowhere has the left hemorrhaged supporters in greater numbers than in Roussel’s own northern heartland, once an industrial stronghold of the left and now a bastion of abstention and the far right.

An MP and small-town mayor from the Pas-de-Calais, France’s northernmost département, Roussel has cultivated the image of an affable, straight-talking man-of-the-people who is fond of engaging with his constituents at the market and in bistros. He is known to jot down grievances, ideas and puns on his notebook, perhaps a legacy of his stint as a reporter for the hallowed Communist daily, L’Humanité.

That’s how he came up with the term “roussellement” – a play on “ruissellement”, the French word for trickle-down economics – to describe his own economic platform. A Keynesian proposal to stimulate domestic demand through wage hikes, “roussellement” is hardly a revolutionary idea. But it’s the branding that matters.

As critics have argued, Roussel has proven adept at the art of “dressing up something old as something new”. And for those uncomfortable with the notion of voting for a party once aligned with Stalin’s USSR, he has a simple message: “You don’t need to be a Communist to vote Fabien Roussel.”

His explanation as to why blue-collar voters have turned their backs on the left is equally simple: It was the left that deserted them in the first place, he says, dismissing their concerns, shunning their language and habits, and ceasing to give them hope.

“I’m fed up with a left that makes people feel guilty all the time,” he told French newspaper Libération on Wednesday. “I don’t want the left-wing politics of the Greens, who lecture the French all the time, who make them feel guilty for eating meat, for using their cars, for building their homes in the countryside, for flying the national flag.”

He added: “This left is no longer desirable, it has stopped fighting for the right to happiness.”

Happy Days

To distinguish themselves from rivals on the left, the Communists have picked the most upbeat slogan in the campaign so far: "Happy Days for France" – a reference to a French Resistance manifesto from the end of World War II, when the PCF emerged as France's biggest party.

“The Communists are used to summoning the memory of what Roussel describes as the ‘happy days’, when the working-class movement helped change French society in a positive way,” said Martelli. “We’re in a country where memory plays an important role in shaping popular emotions and the capacity to mobilize.”

It helps that other candidates in this year’s presidential race carry distinctly pessimistic messages, from the warnings of impending climate catastrophe voiced by the Greens to the doom-laden prophecy of racial and cultural “replacement” vented by anti-immigration populist Eric Zemmour.

“France is getting richer and richer, and yet the French people see their quality of life decline and inequalities increase,” said Brossat. “Happy days means implementing policies that improve people’s daily lives instead of making them worse.”

Critics, however, say the Communists are merely distributing empty promises of happiness, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be called upon to deliver in government.

“I don’t try to generate enthusiasm by denying problems, because that is irresponsible,” Yannick Jadot, the Green candidate for the presidency, told BFMTV on Tuesday, in a jab at Roussel. He added: “Instead, I try to find solutions, because the Greens actually want to govern.”

According to Martelli, Roussel is offering a different type of ecology from the Greens, one “based on incentives rather than punishments, and which works hand in hand with social policies” aimed at struggling households. The point is not to place the burden unfairly on those who are already worse off.

“Roussel is looking for a way to ‘reclaim’ the working-class vote,” he said. “Will it work? A historian can’t answer that question. But is it necessary? For sure.”

Getting vegans on board

For the Communists to have any chance of governing in the near future, an understanding with the Greens and others on the left will be equally indispensable – as Roussel himself appeared to acknowledge at a rally in the Paris suburb of Montreuil on Wednesday. He noticeably tempered his earlier culinary provocations, stressing that “good food, be it meat-based, vegetarian or vegan, must be available to everyone and I respect them all.”

In the vast town hall of Montreuil, which the Communist Party reclaimed from the Greens in 2014, the crowd cheered approvingly as Roussel called for a broad alliance of the left to win as many seats as possible in June parliamentary elections. For the presidential contest, however, they backed their candidate’s decision to go it alone.

“There’s no reason to get behind Mélenchon again, it can’t always be ‘me, me, me’,” said 56-year-old civil servant Mohammed Abdoul-Baki. “With Mélenchon, our party and its ideas were simply erased,” added Daniel Duclos, 74, holding the party’s red flag in one hand and the French tricolour in the other. He praised Roussel for embracing the national flag, “a symbol of the French Revolution that must not be surrendered to the far right.”

Among the younger members of the audience, 23-year-old students Nadia and Clara highlighted the words of optimism voiced by Roussel, and his ability to “reach out to those who don’t consider themselves Communists.” Still, others said they may yet cast a ballot for Mélenchon, rather than Roussel, should the former be in a position to qualify for the second round.

As things stand, Roussel’s success is good news for his party but bad news for the left’s already slim chances of reaching the all-important run-off, says Martelli.

“If you add up support for Mélenchon and the Communist candidate, then the second round is, in theory, attainable,” he explained, noting that the right is also divided, thereby lowering the threshold to qualify for the run-off. “In this respect, the end of their alliance is hugely detrimental to the left.”

Either way, this year’s race for the Élysée Palace is already a lost cause, counters Brossat, for whom a left-wing candidate would get pummeled in the second round – “including by the far right”.

“Our problem is not one of arithmetics, it’s political,” said Roussel’s campaign director. “Left-wing ideas have massively retreated in recent years. It is not by rallying behind a self-proclaimed candidate that we will reclaim the ideological ground we lost.”