Monday, March 25, 2024

City attorney, judge joust on Medicare matter - The Chief - March 22, 2024,52150

City attorney, judge joust on Medicare matter


A state appellate judge and a city attorney sparred Thursday about whether assurances made to city workers decades ago regarding their health care were essentially lifelong, unbreakable promises. 

The exchange took place during a hearing by a State Supreme Court Appellate Division panel considering the city’s appeal of a court decision blocking the Adams administration from switching municipal retirees to a private health plan from their government-administered Medicare. 

Just as the city attorney, Richard Dearing, began his statement, Associate Justice Ellen Gesmer interrupted him to ask whether the city disagreed with a former municipal official’s affidavit that the city’s promise of Medicare and a city-paid supplemental plan was an “‘essential recruiting and retention tool.’”

“I didn't see anything in your papers that disputed that that was an essential recruiting and retention tool. Could you show me where, if anywhere, in the record, you refuted that,” Gesmer said to Dearing

“We refute, I think, the premise that that promise was made,” Dearing, the executive assistant corporation counsel for appeals, replied. He suggested that the affidavit, submitted by Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, herself a retired longtime city official who headed several departments, including that charged with personnel, “hinges on a passage” from a summary program description of health benefits offered to municipal employees. 

That did not satisfy Gesmer, who along with three colleagues from the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, First Department, are considering the city’s appeal of a Manhattan Supreme Court justice’s decision that blocked the Adams administration’s plan to usher the retirees into a Medicare Advantage plan. 

“I understood her affidavit to rely on her statement of the city policy with regard to recruiting and retaining employees, not limited to what was in the [summary program description], but rather limited to what it was her policy as director of HRA, among other things, to convey to new employees,” the justice said. 

Dearing said he did not dispute that the city’s promise of free health care into retirement was intended as a recruiting tool. The issue, he said, was whether those assurances met a legal standard. He argued that the city’s guarantees to its employees as outlined in the summary plan description “do not equate to any such promise or to any such clear and unambiguous promise under the court's precedents.” 

Taking up his court colleague’s line of questioning, Justice John R. Higgitt asked Dearing why there was no evidence in the record, such as an affidavit, refuting the promises of lifetime benefits alleged by the retirees and Barrios-Paoli. “There wasn't one individual in city government over that course of 57 years who could say such a promise was not made?” Higgitt asked. 

“I don't think there's not such a person,” the city’s attorney replied. “I think we looked at the record and we concluded that the evidence of that promise, under the standard of New York law, was not sufficient.” 

But the attorney representing the retirees, Jake Gardener, said there was “a very simple answer” to the justice’s question, namely “because no one would say, under penalty of perjury, that there was no promise made, nor would they say that any promise made was unauthorized.” 

Conversely, Gardener said, the hundreds of affidavits from city retirees and others, attest to “the clear and unambiguous promise delivered by city officials in virtually every setting, verbally, in person, and then also in HR documents and [summary program description].”

Adams had disapproved

Gardener also noted that Mayor Eric Adams himself had disapproved of the proposed switch when he was running for office, calling the plan, first put into motion during the de Blasio administration, as a bait-and-switch tactic.

Shifting the retirees to the privately run plan would save the city anywhere from $500 million to $600 million annually, which the retirees have argued would be equal to less than 1 percent of the city’s $107 billion budget this fiscal year.

The city would derive the savings through federal subsidies available to Medicare Advantage plans. The savings would help replenish the city’s Health Stabilization Fund, which supplements employee welfare funds.

The hearing, lasting just under 25 minutes, followed Justice Lyle Frank’s finding last August that switching the retirees to a private plan and stripping them of their no-cost supplemental coverage would in fact break long-ago guarantees the city made to employees.

“The petitioners have shown that numerous promises were made by the City to then New York City employees and future retirees that they would receive a Medicare supplemental plan when they retired, and that their first level of coverage once that retired would [be] Medicare,” he wrote in his five-page decision

Frank dismissed the city’s arguments that the promises “were not definite and were not forward looking,” by noting that “[w]hen words such as ‘will’ are used, that is to this Court a promise that is future looking.”

The decision marked the third time in two years the courts sided with the retirees. Soon afterward, the city said it would appeal his ruling. A decision from the Appellate Division could take anywhere from a few days to as long as several months. 

Marianne Pizzitola, the president of the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees, one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Frank’s decision, called out the city’s tactics. 

“Retirees know what we were promised and that was Medicare and a city supplemental plan when we became Medicare eligible," she said in a statement following the hearing. "A promise made should be a promise kept, and we relied on that when choosing to spend our lifetime working for the city. It is shameful that the mayor’s Office of Labor Relations would encourage unions to sell off retirees for their raises."

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The Next Step: UFT Paras for A Fair Contract launches campaign for A LIVING WAGE and FAIR CONTRACT; seeking paras to run on its election slate

The following is an update from the newly announce UFT Paras For A Fair Contract website:


We want to thank you for supporting the Fix Para Pay petition. The calls for a living wage and fair contract for New York City paras have resonated and they are earth-shattering.

In less than a week, we have surpassed over 1700k signatures — and the totals are still growing strong! Over 65% who have signed on are NYC paras who are struggling to survive in the NYC area without a living wage. Almost every signature is a UFT member who stands with paras in this fight. The others are stakeholders in our public schools.


We need our leadership to hear our voices!

That is why UFT Paras for A Fair Contract will be running a slate of representatives for the citywide UFT Paraprofessional functional chapter election that will be held from May 9th to June 13th.

Our union proud and union strong community of paras and UFT members believes that it’s time to organize for a meaningful change by pressing the issues of a living wage and a fair contract at the collective bargaining table. With rising inflation, skyrocketing costs, and Mulgrew making us pay more for our healthcare plans, we are left no choice.

We are also are committing to further mobilize to ensure the para chapter and our school chapters are strong.

We are resolute in our mission: Fighting for respect and dignity for paras by achieving a living wage and a fair contract for NYC paras.

Lip service, empty promises, political grandstanding, symbolic gestures, luncheons, certificates, digital handbooks, more PDs and CTLE opportunities, will not do.


Are you ready to take back our union? If you are a UFT para and want to run with us in this election, we want to connect with you. There are over 250 para delegate representative seats within the UFT para functional chapter that are open in this election. Learn more here:

We intend to run as many qualified candidates who want to join us in solidarity to organize and bring about the change we sorely need in our beloved union.

We must become the change we all seek by filling those seats with rank and file, hard working members like you.

Our existing team of para leaders and UFT activists is experienced and ready to help. Please submit this form no later than April 2, 2024.

If you interested in joining this slate for meaningful change for paras, complete the form below to connect with us. If you are interested in joining this slate for meaningful change for paras, go to:

Join Our Election Slate


Mulgrew’s Unity caucus, the entrenched, stagnant and establishment union leadership that has had sole control of our union for over 60 years, has rejected our calls for a comprehensive bargaining plan for a living wage and a fair para contract.

They failed to pass all of our proposed resolution, only acknowledging to educate members about pending legislation. They gutted the heart of it at the UFT executive board and delegate assembly by not including the provision to create a comprehensive and robust plan.


We organize, mobilize and educate members. And, we vote them out!

We relentlessly march forward as a member-driven labor movement, together.

As union proud and union strong community of paras and UFT members, we assert that it’s time to organize for a meaningful change by pressing the issue at the collective bargaining table. We also believe we must organize to ensure our para chapter and local school chapters are strong.

We will not stand for the status quo. We soundly reject: sub-inflation pay raises, the further erosion of our healthcare and pension benefits, our rights being trampled, and a tone deaf, current leadership stifling our individual and collective voices.

Let’s stand as ONE to join together to be heard even as those we entrusted at 52 Broadway, UFT headquarters, have become more and more disconnected from those of us working hard in the classroom and school communities.

Get involved, now.

We’re here for you!

Have a question or concern? Email us at



Medicare Advantage gets walloped in the press as the federal government's rate notice looms - Mar. 25, 2024

Medicare Advantage gets walloped in the press as the federal government's rate notice looms

In the next week or so, the federal government will announce a decision that will clue us in on whether big health insurers that run the private Medicare Advantage program will have once again succeeded in browbeating regulators into giving them billions more of our money than they’re lawfully entitled to. 

This is the time of year when the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services makes a final decision on how much of an increase to send to private insurers that now control access to care for more than half of all Medicare beneficiaries. In past years, private insurers’ intense lobbying and intimidation have paid off–to Wall Street’s delight.

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That’s largely because consumer and patient advocacy groups and the media have not paid close enough attention to what has become the biggest source of revenue and profits for many of the country's biggest corporations.

But this year is different, and you’ll see some of the evidence below. 

Here’s what’s happening:

At the end of January, CMS released its “Advance Notice” of proposed payment rates and policy changes for health plans that participate in Medicare Advantage in 2025. The calculations CMS uses are complicated but the bottom line is that the agency proposed a 3.7% average expected increase in revenue for MA plans next year. You can find a good analysis of what’s going on and what’s at stake in last Wednesday’s edition of Health Affairs, written by a team of researchers at Brown University and Georgia State. 

Health plans are insisting, as they did last year and in years past, that what CMS is proposing would actually result in a pay cut, and they warn that it would force them to increase premiums, cut benefits, or both. Usually, the back and forth stays inside the beltway, but last year the fight spilled over into prime time when the industry-funded Better Medicare Alliance spent a fortune on a Super Bowl ad that asked viewers to “tell the White House” not to “cut” Medicare Advantage. 

The Brown and Georgia State researchers set the record straight and, in somewhat restrained academic prose, called BS on the industry:

Indeed, although MA plans and their lobbying organizations have portrayed these proposed payment updates as major cuts, this is not true. To put the 2025 MA rate changes in perspective, the 3.7% increase in revenue is larger than last year’s 1% predicted increase but smaller than previous years’ increases exceeding 7% annually. The extremely high margins made by MA plans will barely be touched by provisions in the Advance Notice. (Emphasis added.)

STAT News’ Bob Herman, was more direct in his reliably engaging newsletter this morning:

Within the next week, we will know how the Biden Administration is approaching next year’s Medicare Advantage plans–and whether it is willing to meet the health insurance industry’s demands and deposit more money into the bank accounts of insurers…Billions of dollars are on the line for a program that still has not saved a dime for taxpayers, despite promises that it would. 

Having been a part of the industry’s propaganda machine, I know how insurers swing into action at the slightest perceived threat to Medicare Advantage profit margins. For years, we organized and financed what we called “granny fly-ins” to Washington to get “regular seniors” to fan out across Capitol Hill to deliver the industry’s talking points directly to members of Congress. We helped thousands of others who couldn’t make the trip to write letters to the President and lawmakers expressing outrage at the very notion of putting insurers’ fattest cash cow on a diet. 

As Herman noted this morning, 42,000 comments have flooded into the federal government on this issue in the weeks since CMS released its Advance Notice.

What has changed this year, though, is that many of those comments are from real people and real organizations representing them, like Public Citizen, the Center for Medicare Advocacy, People’s Action, Be a Hero and many others that have come together to push back against the industry’s tactics and lies. In recent weeks, they’ve landed high-level meetings with Biden Administration officials and members of Congress and have made it clear that they won’t be happy if CMS caves once again to industry pressure. 

In addition, the media is waking up and calling foul on Medicare Advantage. I wouldn’t think of writing this without giving a big shout-out to Fred Schulte at KFF News (and previously at the Center for Public Integrity, where Fred and I were colleagues a decade ago). Fred was among the few in the media at the time whose investigative reporting laid bare the industry’s blatant “money grab.” If you care about how your tax dollars have been used to enrich a few executives and shareholders, you should check out Fred’s series of reports from 2014 to 2017.  

But it would take The New York Times’ Reed Abelson and Margo Sanger-Katz to make the money grab a hot topic in DC and the rest of the media. The headline of their October 22, 2022, front-page story was compelling, to say the least: 

‘The Cash Monster Was Insatiable’” How Insurers Exploited Medicare for Billions. By next year, half of Medicare beneficiaries will have a private Medicare Advantage plan. Most large insurers in the program have been accused in court of fraud.

In the months after that seminal story, dozens of reporters have turned their attention to Medicare Advantage. My team and I have seen most of them and have brought many of them to your attention. But in case you might have missed them, we’ve provided links to a few we think you ought to see. After you read them, we encourage you to “call the White House.”

Here’s a small sampling of some of the stories and commentaries you might have missed:

March 2023

April 2023

May 2023

June 2023

July 2023

August 2023

September 2023

October 2023

November 2023

December 2023

January 2024

February 2024

March 2024

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By Wendell Potter · Hundreds of paid subscribers

Pulling back the curtains on how Big Health is hurting Americans and how we got to this point.


Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Left Behind - Why Power Eludes the French Left - NYT Mag

Why Power Eludes the French Left

France has often been the vanguard of leftist politics — but support in the streets doesn’t always translate to votes at the ballot box.


The signs that a protest is happening in Paris are nearly always the same: the quiet of blocked-off streets; the neat rows of police vans containing the gendarmerie stretching down the boulevard; the sound of drumbeats and whistles and the neon red flares that spit smoke into the sky. For six months last year, those signs were constant and ubiquitous, as furious, sometimes violent marches and general strikes protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms brought Paris to a standstill. Students and activists, public-transit operators, custodial staff, medics, mechanics, teachers, oil-rig workers, writers and celebrities all gathered to rail against Macron’s plan to raise the national retirement age by two years, to 64. 

As transit walkouts snarled traffic and sanitation strikes caused trash to pile up in the streets, the protests were ridiculed abroad. Why must the French, among the best-protected workers in the Western world, make such a racket over two years of work? But for the demonstrators, this missed the point: It is because French workers put up a fight that they are protected. “We actually have laws on our side,” Samira Alaoui, a union representative at Teleperformance, a digital business services company, told me. “We are a model for the world. If we don’t do anything, who will?”

In 2023, France seemed less the exception than the rule. There was a surge in labor activity around the world last year — strikes and victories — as much as or more than any year in decades. This was true in the United States, where the Writers Guild of America, the United Auto Workers and the UPS Teamsters all won significant concessions from executives. In Britain, nurses went on strike to protest staffing shortages and patient backlogs at the National Health Service. Still, it was perhaps in France that labor’s rise was most visible — most combustive and most telling. France has always been a vanguard of leftist politics. Today it is one of the few Western democracies where a far left has managed to survive and even thrive, as it works to invent a new leftist politics that can succeed in a moment of right-wing ascendancy. How it fares says much about where the left may be headed and the headwinds it faces, not just in France but throughout the West.

While once-robust labor unions have seen their numbers decline more drastically in France than in other European countries — around 8 percent of French workers belong to labor unions, compared with 35 percent in Italy or 18 percent in Germany — French unions remain strong. In part this is because recent labor activism has been buoyed by a newly resurgent leftist movement, La France Insoumise (L.F.I.), or “France Unbowed.” At the final pension-reform march in Paris last summer — a defanged one, to be sure, as the measure had already been made law — the area cordoned off for protesters gathering to march down the Boulevard des Invalides was draped with banners for L.F.I. “A different reform is possible, 60!” one proclaimed. Another demanded the founding of a new republic. One protester carried a giant marionette of Macron peeking out of a bright green garbage bin, an allusion to the scandal that followed the arrest of a woman at her home for an online post in which she called Macron “trash.” (The charges were later dropped.)


L.F.I. was founded in 2016 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 72, an unruly populist in the vein of Bernie Sanders with an even more strident rhetorical style, who is widely credited with sustaining leftism in France and with its strong showing in the last two presidential elections. Mélenchon came in third in the 2022 presidential election, with 21.95 percent of the vote, about a point behind Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), who advanced to the final runoff against Macron. By contrast, the progressive left in the United States represents only about 7 percent of registered voters, according to Pew, and though center-left parties are common throughout Western Europe, it is unusual for the far left to capture this much of the vote and come so close to the presidency.

Because of Mélenchon’s performance in the general elections, he was able to form a coalition with other left-leaning parties — the P.C.F. (or French Communist Party), the Socialists and the Greens — each of which garnered only a fraction of the vote. The coalition, known as NUPES, largely adopted L.F.I.’s platform: to tame the chaos of the free market by instituting large tax hikes on the wealthy, increase the minimum wage, renationalize formerly public companies, and fight climate change and racial and gender inequality. This week a bill to enshrine abortion rights in the French Constitution, introduced and promoted by the L.F.I. and the Green Party, became law. The L.F.I. now leads the largest opposition bloc in Parliament, which has some 26 percent of the seats, enough to block Macron from having a controlling majority.

Yet L.F.I. has so far failed to translate its electoral plurality into the kind of consensus and broad-based support that could eventually lead to running the country. Though 62 percent of the French approved of the protests against Macron, polls later showed L.F.I. to be not much stronger than before. By contrast, Marine Le Pen, who offered hardly any public commentary on the pension reforms at all, received a boost in the polls. On many economic matters, “public opinion is largely with the left,” Rémi Lefebvre, a political scientist at the University of Lille, told me. “The French believe that the problems the left wants to address are important, but they don’t believe in their solutions.”

For the French left, as for center-left parties across Western democracies, the path to power is commonly seen to lie in recapturing the (white) working class outside large urban centers, who in recent years have been drawn toward the far right. But if the left has struggled to attract these voters — and to keep them — it is not just for reasons of policy. Profound economic, social and cultural changes — deindustrialization, the loss of secure jobs, the breakdown of unions and party structures — have so remade politics that even policies that should appeal to such voters cannot persuade them on merit alone. While in France, as elsewhere, the left and the far right are often viewed as vying for power over the political center, this narrative glosses over some critical distinctions. “The condition for winning is not at all the same for the extreme right and the left,” says Samuel Hayat, a political scientist specializing in the history of French political thought at the French National Center for Scientific Research. 


Ongoing tensions over immigration and asylum policies, a spate of lethal terrorist attacks and the explosive emotions stoked by the Israel-Hamas war (France has both the largest Jewish and the largest Muslim populations in Europe) create a climate favorable to the far right on social issues. “Immigration is a topic that is difficult for the left to address,” Lefebvre says, not only because many of its constituents are themselves immigrants or the descendants of immigrants but also because leftist ideology, which embraces equality for all, is in many ways antithetical to the harsh enforcement of border laws. This difficulty has been exacerbated by the “droitisation” of French media, or the ubiquity of extreme right figures. Marine Le Pen “doesn’t even need to speak,” Lefebvre says. “The debate has become so right-wing. The other forces do the job for her.”

If the far right has succeeded in “being hegemonic in the way that the media interprets certain questions, such as the question of Islam, the question of immigration,” Hayat says, the left is in the unenviable position of having to offer concrete proposals and persuade people it can implement them. “They have to go and conquer every place, they have to do politics,” he says. “They have to appear as a real force of opposition that will truly change the lives of people if they arrive in power.”

Like many recently birthed political movements, L.F.I. has fashioned itself in and for the era of social media. While its policy platform is largely out of the left-wing playbook, its tactics are aimed at the attention economy. From its inception, L.F.I. has excelled at the optics of protest — what Mélenchon’s opponents call “the decibel left” — theatrical disruptions of power that attack the establishment, especially the media and within Parliament. During the anti-pension-reform marches last spring, its deputies became well known for shouting down Macron’s ministers. In one notorious incident, an L.F.I. representative plastered an effigy of the labor minister’s head onto a soccer ball and posed for a photo with his foot on top of it.

These kinds of actions are not mere provocations. They are seen by L.F.I. as a way to mobilize a new kind of grass-roots populism by engaging voters who have long ceased to participate in politics. Like Chantal Mouffe, a theorist of leftist populism and a friend of Mélenchon’s, Mélenchon believes that voters have become demoralized by a technocratic neoliberal consensus: the primacy of markets and social values that favor individualism over the collective good. The expression of anger is meant to make room for changing course, by solidifying support among the working class and luring voters who might otherwise be tempted by the far right.


In France, as in many Western democracies today, the working class is now in large part nonwhite. The 10th Arrondissement of Paris, where the L.F.I. has its headquarters in an old uniform distribution center, is a mix of immigrant workers (and their descendants) and the bobos, as the French refer to yuppies, who have gentrified the area — the very urban voters who have become Mélenchon’s strongest bloc. His constituency also comprises the academic and activist left, who dominate social-media-driven messaging and give voice to this demographic coupling.

Last summer, I found Mélenchon in his office behind a sunny glassed-in antechamber staffed by older millennials. Warm and extroverted, with a well-deserved reputation as an intellectual, he relayed anecdotes and reflections in an erudite yet idiomatic French that was a notch or two above my nonnative proficiency. On his desk I saw a copy of “The Communist Manifesto,” which I assumed that Mélenchon, a French sovereigntist with a fierce anti-American streak, might have left out as a mild provocation.

Mélenchon was a member of the center-left French Socialist Party until 2008, when he quit to form a separate party because he thought the Socialists had, like their counterparts across Europe and the United States, fallen under the thrall of neoliberalism. “We currently live in a country, France, the seventh economy in the world, with nine million poor people, six million who can’t feed their children,” Mélenchon told me. “This was never France.”

Mélenchon has advocated the founding of a new republic that would change the Constitution to shift power away from the president and toward the people. He described himself to me as “a tribune of the people,” even as he acknowledged that “the people” of the 21st century is not the same as the people of the 20th century or the 19th century. He is nonetheless clearly inspired by the rabble-rousing leftist politics of previous eras. “The tribune was always someone whose body was engaged,” Mélenchon said, as he twisted around in his seat and waved at a photo of Jean Jaurès, one of the founders of the Socialist Party, a diminutive man in a bowler hat, hanging by one hand from a flagpole, the other hand raised toward a sea of people below him. “Conflictuality,” he said, referring to his politics of disruption, “profoundly shocks the mores of the ruling elite.”

Mélenchon never misses an opportunity to apply his rhetorical gifts to challenging those in power. It was to this end that they were deployed last summer when riots exploded across the country after a police officer killed 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in the driver’s seat of his car. (Merzouk was shot during a traffic stop.) As protesters across the Parisian suburbs, known as banlieues, looted stores and set fire to cars, schools, town halls and other state property, leading to thousands of arrests, Mélenchon took to Twitter to call for justice. While leaders in the banlieues praised him for acknowledging the lived experience of their constituents, elsewhere the backlash was vicious. Critics from the center and the right railed that, even as the country burned, Mélenchon hadn’t called for calm. 

The same defiant impulse was on display this fall. After the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, French politicians organized a march against antisemitism. Nearly all major political figures in France, including Marine Le Pen, attended. Mélenchon did not. (He later said this was because of the presence of the far right.) Once Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip began, Mélenchon joined marches calling for a cease-fire, from which he posted pictures. Then he tweeted that the speaker of Parliament, Yaël Braun-Pivet, who is Jewish and was in Israel on a fact-finding visit, was “camping out” in Tel Aviv to “encourage a massacre.” The press, including left-leaning outlets, jumped on Mélenchon’s remarks, calling them antisemitic — one magazine decried them as “vile misjudgments” — while newscasters on centrist or mainstream channels praised Le Pen’s response, creating a media environment in which the left was portrayed as potentially more dangerous to the country than the far right. (Mélenchon later said his remarks were not antisemitic because what he objected to was the unconditional nature of Braun-Pivet’s support for Israel.)

Mélenchon’s critics, including some of L.F.I.’s more mainstream coalition partners, cite such tactics as the reason they think he has hit a ceiling with voters. “There’s an L.F.I. discourse on social networks, saying, Oh, we don’t care, we have to be honest and true, and the way to do it is to be the same in the streets and in Parliament,”’ says Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice, Côte d’Azur. “But we can see that this strategy of L.F.I. to be very violent in Parliament at this point doesn’t work at all. The middle class might be angry, but it doesn’t want angry people to be at the Élysée Palace.”

In the past, unions and party organizations worked together to do both — they mobilized their members to demonstrate and to vote for their candidates. With unions in decline, and with many of the traditional left party structures in France now nonexistent, radical actions, even those that have strong participation across age groups and that enjoy union support, don’t necessarily lead to greater voter turnout. As has been repeatedly demonstrated by social movements over the last decade — Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Yellow Vests in France and Gezi Park in Turkey — impassioned social-media-driven engagement in the streets does not necessarily translate into the kind of engagement required to acquire and sustain power.

An electoral map of France from the 2022 presidential election shows that the L.F.I. won in the immigrant suburbs of northeastern Paris and its environs and did well in many pockets in the south of France and in other major cities. The west of France, once a stronghold of the Socialist Party, went to Macron. The south, which has long been far-right territory, went to Marine Le Pen, as did large swaths of the postindustrial northeast, a region that was once the breeding ground of the French Communist Party. Amid the sea of National Rally victories in northeast France, the left managed to win only a handful of districts.

Historically, the French left operated as a coalition of the French Socialist Party and the P.C.F. Beginning in the 1930s and then again after World War II, that coalition helped establish what many leftists think of when they think of the social welfare state. The P.C.F., which played a paramount role in the French resistance during World War II, operated effectively through already well-established underground networks. It emerged from World War II with a new legitimacy, especially in what had been occupied northern and eastern France. That was also the country’s industrial base; there, wartime destruction created ample opportunity to champion the workers who would rebuild the nation.

As part of coalition governments in the mid-1940s, the P.C.F. fought for and helped put in place the social security system and the pension system — the major pillars of the French welfare state. Though national leaders of the P.C.F. continued to defend Stalin, and Stalinism, even into the 1970s, at the local level, P.C.F. chapters carried out the more practical functions of organizing, representing and offering services to workers. In short, the P.C.F. was part of a historically grounded communal identity. “We built the social model, and we’re proud of that history,” Fabien Roussel, the current head of the P.C.F., told me.

Roussel, an energetic 54-year-old, took over the French Communist Party in 2018. Over Bastille Day last July, I tailed him through St.-Amand-les-Eaux, a quaint spa town named for its healing waters near the Belgian border, in what was once French coal country, as he made his holiday rounds. Roussel greeted constituents at a rock concert, joined a crowd gathered to watch the fireworks, dropped in on a house party and finally, the following morning, marched in a Bastille Day parade in the neighboring town Fresnes-sur-Escaut. There, local officials had assembled in front of an old union hall dedicated to the Martel brothers, “martyrs to the resistance,” according to a plaque on the building: Henri, executed in 1942 at age 22, and Germinal, executed in 1943 at 21.

Today the climate for the P.C.F. is very different than it was in the postwar years. In the ’80s, the P.C.F. began to lose ground, as the industries that fueled the economy (coal, metallurgy, textiles) moved out; the idea of communism, always tainted by its association with the excesses of the Soviet Union, became increasingly untouchable. As industrial jobs vanished and workers ceased to be represented by unions, they became unmoored from the party structures that once granted them political representation and power — not just the formal ones, like unions, but the social clubs and community leisure activities organized by workers who spent their days together. People ceased to think of themselves as part of a “proletariat,” and the idea of collective organizing began to fade.

At the same time, many workers began to experience what is known as déclassement: a halt, or reversal, of improvements to the standard of living. The economic consequences bred social ones. With less to do, people spent more time inside their homes watching TV, where right-wing pundits and ideologues thrived. Soon political protest against the status quo began to shift from an embrace of the far left into support for Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father) and his National Front. By the 1990s, the National Front was using the language of protectionism to pander to discontented workers.

As a result, voters became increasingly unpredictable. “When you had mass political parties, you could have stability in their vote, because the party was an organization that defined important parts of your life,” Hayat, the political scientist, says, “and not just what you voted for every five years.” Now that politics “has been reduced to what ballot you put in the ballot box, well, of course, people can sometimes vote for the left, sometimes not,” he says. Even those who broadly identify with the left do not join parties, Hayat says. This is largely because political identities are now formed and expressed on social media, outside party structures.

This organizational conundrum does not fall on all parties equally. “If you want to create stability in the voting, you need organizations,” Hayat says. That is, a structured, consistent and beneficial presence in communities. In France, the left no longer has this kind of presence. The same is true of Italy, which once had one of the strongest Communist Parties in Europe and which now has a far-right government. And it is also true in the United States, where, until the 1970s and ’80s, New Deal politics kept white working-class voters close to the Democratic Party. In the absence of such structures, Hayat continues, you “need to be the only party that appeals to a certain emotion that is very strong in the electorate, for example, fear.” That, of course, is the strength of the far right.

“They take my exact words,” Roussel said of Marine Le Pen’s party. “Without paying for rights, naturally.” But behind it all, Roussel said, their platform is still neoliberal. “The far-right may talk about raising salaries, but they would also get rid of the employer contributions that help fund the social security system,” he said. “I often say to the workers that I meet: Be wary of the National Rally. It’s like a candy that is very sweet when you put it in your mouth. But when you bite into it, it’s very bitter. And it can make you sick.”

The unemployment rate in St.-Amand now stands, by some calculations, at 23.5 percent. When Roussel took over the P.C.F. five years ago, the party had just won about 1 percent of the vote in the second round of parliamentary elections. He managed to double that figure during the presidential elections in 2022 — to 2.3 percent in the first round. Some 53 percent of those who turned out to vote in St.-Amand voted for Le Pen in the second round of the presidential elections. But they also voted for Roussel against his far-right opponent in the parliamentary elections; Roussel won his seat by nine points. This may be a testament less to the particulars of his policies than to his multigenerational roots in the region — his father was a journalist for a P.C.F. publication — and to his persona and his presence in the community. “Marine Le Pen is against Macron, and I’m against Macron,” Roussel told me. “In the national elections, people are fed up with both left and right, it’s always the same thing, so they vote far right. In local elections, they vote for people they know, whom they like and who treat them well.”

As the traditional party system in France has broken down, and as political figures skirt it to succeed, “there is a cannibalization of politics by personality,” says Martigny, the University of Nice professor. In that sense, the left has mirrored the populist style of the far right, in which personality trumps the traditional party machine. 

Many French leftists dislike Roussel precisely for this reason, arguing that his politics are more a matter of making friends than of fighting for left-wing ideas. Even when it comes to Mélenchon, it is difficult to determine how many people voted for him because they believe in his politics and how many voted in favor of a big personality, with enough charisma and fame to beat out the others in a multicandidate election — what the French call the “vote utile.”

Some politicians on the left have taken this to mean that they should each cultivate their own followings, campaign for the presidency in the next elections, then rally their followers behind whoever makes it to the runoff, in the hope that, at that point, there will be enough votes to form a leftist majority. Vitriolic debates that revolve around questions of what in France is known as le wokisme have become fertile ground for such self-positioning.

As a matter of policy, there is little disagreement within the French left about the importance of feminism, antiracism and other matters of social justice. Even Roussel, who more than anyone on the left might be said to represent the kind of cultural conservatism inherent in the old “white working-class guy” style of politics, largely subscribes to these principles. When I visited him at his office at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, I spotted a poster on his wall that enumerated in Ch’ti, the regional language of northern France, the historic “Droits de l’Homme,” the Rights of Man, the document adopted during the French Revolution that was foundational to democracy. Below it was a poster that enumerated, also in Ch’ti, the Rights of Woman.

What disagreement there is centers on the public messaging around such issues. Roussel has become one of the most popular figures in French politics, in part because of his sometimes unwitting adventures in the culture wars. His main sparring partner is Sandrine Rousseau, an economist and a Green Party member of Parliament who was a leader of the French #MeToo movement. In 2022, Roussel tweeted that he wished every French citizen could enjoy “a good steak, a good wine, a good piece of cheese — that’s la gastronomie française!” In response, Rousseau tweeted a link to an article noting that, in fact, couscous, a North African dish, was most popular among the French. This exchange kicked off a debate as to whether it was still permissible to define French cuisine as wine and cheese. To the delight of many, Roussel insisted that it was.