Skip to main content
opinion

Gustavo Petro, left, celebrates with former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, after winning a runoff presidential election in Bogota on June 19.Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press

In 1789, the French legislature devised a novel seating plan. Those who favoured tradition, established authority and religion sat to the right of the head of state. The rising group who preferred equality, trade and labour sat to the left.

This week, the Bourbon Palace rearranged its seats. It was considered a big deal on Sunday when, in a parliamentary election, the current head of state, President Emmanuel Macron, found himself deprived of a friendly majority to his immediate right.

Considered moderately conservative by French standards, Mr. Macron no longer has his own party controlling a majority, a big share of which was seized by a new bloc of left-leaning parties, ranging from outright communists to greens to social democrats, with the perpetually angry far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon nominally at its helm.

This wasn’t the only country to move leftward Sunday. There was also a shift in Colombia, governed for decades by conservatives and moderate liberals, with the left often taking the form of violent guerrilla armies. The new president-elect, Gustavo Petro, spent his youth as a member of one of them, later going on to become a well-regarded mayor of Bogota. His messages of racial equality and relief from economic devastation proved popular in this hard-hit country.

These victories have led many to declare a worldwide resurgence of left-wing politics – one that some hope might mark an end to the ascent of far-right populist governments that has shaken the world since 2016.

After all, Mr. Petro’s victory follows the recent ascent of leftist leaders in Chile, Honduras, Peru and Mexico, with Brazil potentially poised to return the left-leaning Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to power in October. Europe has experienced a similar wave, with Germany’s recently elected left-Green coalition joining similar social-democratic governments in Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark.

But this isn’t quite the reddish-tinted wave it appears to be.

The core problem might be most visible in Paris, where that bloc of left-leaning parties appeared to disintegrate just a day after the election, with the two green parties and the once-mighty social-democratic Parti Socialiste strongly suggesting that they would not be willing to continue in an opposition coalition with Mr. Mélenchon’s far-left party. Mr. Macron may be able to govern by striking bill-by-bill deals with individual parties, as Canadian minority governments often do.

The reason should be evident to anyone who followed the election: Mr. Mélenchon’s positions, particularly on international matters, are antithetical to those of the less angry parties of the left. He opposes France’s membership in the European Union, which he sees as a force of capitalism. And most divisively, he has often taken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. For the 2022 election, he became more critical of Russia’s latest invasion, but continued to insist that NATO should be disbanded and that France provide no aid to Ukraine’s defence.

This puts him deeply at odds with the mainstream social-democratic European left, which has generally led the defence of Ukraine. And it shows how the Russian invasion has turned the ancient schism between social democrats and outright socialists into a far deeper existential crisis.

That’s visible in the Americas, where left-wing leaders have fallen out over the war. Some, such as Chile’s youthful new president Gabriel Boric, have been outspoken in support of sanctions against Russia and arms for Ukraine. (Tellingly, Mr. Boric has also denounced the authoritarian-left regimes of Venezuela and Cuba). Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been all over the map, with his left-wing party often echoing Russian propaganda. Mr. Petro, who has strong allegiances with Havana and Caracas, has also generally taken Moscow’s line on the war.

The pro-Putin turn among far-left politicians is not one of history’s more obvious developments. After all, Mr. Putin is a far-right leader, both in his domestic policies and in his support for parties and candidates in the West, from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump. The far left tends to call itself “anti-imperialist” – and Mr. Putin’s invasions are the very definition of imperialism.

If you read their tracts and speeches and newspapers, you realize that the Maduros and Mélenchons and many of their far-left supporters are not motivated by ideology so much as by a tribalism in which anti-Americanism is the defining faith and an anti-American bloc of dictatorships, including Cuba and Venezuela but also incorporating Iran, Syria and Russia, are the preferred vehicles of solidarity. Moscow, in this bizarrely anachronistic view, is once again the centre of the struggle against global capital.

If the pink tide comes to be dominated by this angrier left, it is unlikely that it will bring an end to the right-populist crisis of the last half-decade – because, at root, it delivers the same message: one that is not at all progressive.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.