The results of the first round of the French presidential election make for grim reading. Ian Birchall looks at some of the lessons of the election, and the future prospects for the left.

‘Le Pen and Macron, the social 3rd round starts now!’ Photo by Colin Falconer

The bleak situation after the first round of the French presidential election faces the left with difficult choices which cannot be resolved by simple slogans.  What follows are a few thoughts and observations on the situation, as a contribution to the discussion that is needed.

The alarming rise of the far right has pulled the whole political debate rightwards. In a sense Le Pen and Zemmour had won even before the votes were cast. The outcome was summed up by a sardonic but perceptive critic on Twitter ‘The problem with constantly making people choose between a crook and a Nazi is that sooner or later not enough people turn up to vote for the crook.’

The most striking aspect of the first-round result was the complete collapse of the mainstream left. For most of the twentieth century the French left was dominated by two parties, occasionally in alliance, more frequently bitterly opposed – the Socialists and the Communists. This essential part of the framework of French political life is now gone for good, and the consequences are still difficult to discern.

In 1981 François Mitterrand won the presidency. His victory aroused genuine enthusiasm and hope; workers took bottles of champagne into the factories to celebrate. After just one year he made a sharp turn, abandoning such radical policies as he had and imposing austerity, with a wage-freeze and spending cuts.

From there on it was downhill all the way, a continuing decline in the prospects for reformist socialism, in which François Hollande’s undistinguished presidency (2012-2017) was just one episode. It was Mitterrand who opened the way for the far right. In 1981 the Front National could not get enough signatures to get on the ballot; by 1985 they were omnipresent.

In the decades after World War II the Communist Party could count on five million votes, over 20% of the electorate. Though excluded from government, their strength lay in the trade unions, the factory committees and local government. They did not launch the general strike in May1968, but they ensured it remained under their control. Their declared aim was to re-establish a Popular Front, but when they achieved their goal in 1981 and entered the government, it was the beginning of the end; they too suffered from Mitterrand’s failure.

The collapse of the USSR compounded their problems; they had always been loyally Stalinist, not even recognising Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin until the 1970s. Over the last decades there has been continual decline. Their candidacy in the 2022 election seems to have been designed, not so much to aim for any positive achievement, as to remind the world that they still existed.

The collapse of the mainstream left created the space for the far right to grow. Zemmour never had any chance of winning, but his presence affected the whole spectrum, making Le Pen seem reasonable in comparison. Mitch Abidor and Miguel Lago have shown that his rhetoric in attacking Muslims derives quite directly from that of the anti-Semites at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.

The one bright spot in a gloomy picture was the very good result for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon ran a vigorous and effective campaign, defending working-class living standards and opposing Islamophobia. His strongest support was among young voters and he got good votes in the Paris suburbs formerly dominated by the Communist Party. It is noteworthy that in the French colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana, where repressive policies against nationalist movements continue, he got over fifty per cent of the vote.

Mélenchon’s support grew rapidly in the days before the election. Clearly many of those who had originally supported the Greens or the Communists decided to switch to Mélenchon in order to use their votes more effectively. If Jadot and Roussel (the Green and Communist candidates) had been prepared to recognise that their campaigns could be no more than publicity exercises, and had called for their supporters to vote for Mélenchon, then the whole campaign might have been transformed. Fewer than half a million more votes and the second round would have been Macron versus Mélenchon – a different political universe.

Like Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, Mélenchon is a radical reformist with positions clearly to the left of mainstream social democracy. In particular he has been firmly anti-racist, and is committed to a range of measures leading to greater equality, notably an increased minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich and a rise in minimum pension rates.  He is a good speaker and ran effective election campaigns in 2012 and 2017. Unlike many politicians who steer well clear of ideas, he reads and writes – he has published several books. His organisation, La France Insoumise (Insubordinate France) has a group of seventeen deputies (MPs), who have been very active using parliament as a platform to propose alternatives to Macron’s policies.

Of course, Mélenchon is open to criticism: for a detailed and balanced account of his strengths and weaknesses, see the article by John Mullen, a member of La France Insoumise, on Counterfire.  He is less than a consistent internationalist, stressing his attachment to patriotism.  He identifies with the republican tradition, especially laïcité[1], which he sees as having a positive value, rather than recognising that from the very beginning it was rooted in the values of French nationalism and imperialism.

Mélenchon’s impressive vote suggests that La France Insoumise may have some success in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. This can only strengthen the left for what looks like a period of bitter struggles. But his success, and the collapse of the mainstream left, calls into question the strategies of the remaining organisations of the revolutionary – especially Trotskyist – left.

Ever since 1969 there have been revolutionary candidates for the presidency, beginning with the late Alain Krivine, who stood in the election after de Gaulle’s resignation. Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière (LO) stood several times and achieved quite good results. In 2002 Trotskyist candidates got over 10% of the vote, and there was a wave of books and articles about alleged Trotskyist influence in French political life.

When there was a substantial mainstream left vote, Laguiller gave leftists the opportunity to express symbolic reservations and adherence to the far left, before voting mainstream left on the second round. This gave LO a certain public profile – Laguiller was probably the best-known Trotskyist in France.

But it did not significantly contribute to building the organisation, since LO maintained very tight organisational standards with no easy recruitment; its members have been described as ‘soldier-monks’. (In 1981 I attended Laguiller’s final rally in a huge tent in Paris. She gave a long speech, then we were urged to vote – but no attempt was made to recruit us, or draw us into closer contact with the organisation; there was not even any serious attempt to sell papers.)

In 2022 LO simply dismissed Mélenchon as just another left candidate from whose promises nothing could be expected.

The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) was formed in 2009 by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire (LCR), in a laudable attempt to broaden the organisation and draw in other anti‑capitalist currents. Yet the organisation does not seem to be significantly bigger than the LCR (which between 1976 and 1979 published a daily paper). In his comment on the results Philippe Poutou, the NPA candidate, urged broad cooperation by the left, but never even mentioned Mélenchon’s name – ignoring his very existence in a peculiar form of sectarianism.

The total vote of the two Trotskyist candidates was 1.33% – better than the 1.06% Krivine got 53 years ago, but small progress for half a century.  The far left which emerged from 1968 in France (and elsewhere) had the goal of ‘building the party’. Half a century on it has clearly failed.

The entire left now faces a grim choice: whether to vote for Macron or to abstain. This takes us beyond the politics of simple formulae and slogans, for at first sight it seems impossible to do either.

Mélenchon has been criticised because, while firmly opposing any support for Le Pen, he has not called for a vote for Macron. Yet there are strong arguments for not doing so. In his five years in power Macron has attacked workers’ living standards.  He has pandered to Islamophobia, banning Muslim organisations and closing mosques. It is Macron himself who has created the situation in which Le Pen has massively increased her support. It is somewhat paradoxical to present Macron as the solution when he is one of the main causes of the problem.

Those who advocate voting for Macron argue that it is the only alternative to fascism. It is important to be careful with the term. In recent years there has been a tendency to attach the label to anything seen as reactionary or repressive. To call Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin ‘fascists’ is to abandon any attempt at political analysis.

Of course, to claim that Le Pen is no longer a fascist is to go along with Le Pen’s own publicity. Le Pen’s history and world-view are rooted in fascism; the changes involved in transforming the Front National into the Rassemblement National (RN) were largely cosmetic and motivated by electoral opportunism. A recent Jacobin article by Jim Wolfreys clearly shows the RN’s origins in fascism.

Nonetheless it is important to be clear about the limits of Le Pen’s position. Trotsky defined fascism as ‘a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers’. Le Pen may have got rid of some of the thuggish street-fighters that her father nourished, but the RN remains a violent party – a protestor who displayed a picture of Le Pen with Putin at a RN rally was beaten up and dragged along the floor.

More important, she lacks the mass base that would be needed for a take-over of French society. Even if she were to win the presidential election, it is unlikely she would win a majority in the National Assembly, and in fact she has promised a government of ‘national unity’. The Fifth Republic constitution (which Mélenchon has pledged to reform) provides for an uneasy balance of power between the presidency and parliament. When Mussolini and Hitler came to power, they were able to take complete control of society and crush all opposition. If Le Pen came to power, it would not be the end of the road, but just the opening of a new period of bitter struggle.

Yet if it seems impossible to call for a vote for Macron, advocacy of abstention looks complacent. Nathalie Arthaud, the LO presidential candidate, assures voters that Macron and Le Pen are both enemies of the working‑class – undoubtedly true – and that the choice is like that between plague and cholera. Things may not look quite like that to French Muslims.

France has a substantial Muslim population, often referred to as immigrants. In fact, some came to France in the 1950s when Algeria was an integral part of French territory and Algerians were encouraged to come because France had a labour shortage. Many more are their descendants. Between 1954 and 1962 Algerians faced police surveillance, jail and torture. In 1961 hundreds were killed for demonstrating on the streets of Paris. France still lives in the shadow of its colonial war in Algeria.

Macron is undoubtedly guilty of Islamophobia. But worse is in store from Le Pen. In particular she proposes to make it illegal to wear the headscarf in public. Muslim women not willing to renounce that expression of their religious faith and their cultural identity would be, at best, condemned to a life of housebound isolation. For most even that choice would not be available, since they have to go to work or take their children to school.

Le Pen’s proposal is directly comparable to the way the Nazi authorities in occupied France in 1942 required Jews to wear yellow stars. When this was imposed some French non-Jews, at great personal risk, also wore stars, sometimes with facetious labels like ‘inhabitant of the Auvergne’. If Le Pen does come to power, perhaps there could be a similar attempt to sabotage the legislation, with non‑Muslims wearing headscarves in public.

In 2002 and 2017 the Front National caused great alarm by coming second – but it had no realistic chance of winning. The far left was able to keep its hands clean by insisting that it would not vote for Chirac or Macron – while hoping that most other people would in fact do so. Today, when Le Pen has a very real chance of a majority, that option no longer exists.

In that situation, it is very difficult to urge people not to vote for Macron. Of course, it is right to argue that what happens on the streets and in the workplaces is more important than the ballot box. It is vital to build demonstrations against racism and the far right.

But most people will not see voting as an alternative. As revolutionaries have often pointed out, voting is a trivial act – a few seconds is sufficient. So many of those who demonstrate against Le Pen will still see it as normal to vote as well. Nothing could be more futile than for the left to get into arguments about whether one should, or should not, put a mark on a piece of paper.

(For those who can’t get through the day without a quote from Lenin: ‘If a socialist believes that the Black-Hundred[2] danger is a real danger to the working class, he will vote for the liberal.’)

Of course, the left should stress that this is a vote against Le Pen, not a vote for Macron. Whatever the election result, the struggle will go on – but a Le Pen victory would be a serious setback for all workers, and especially Muslims.

2022 seems to mark the end of the period that opened up in 1968 with its revolutionary hopes. A new left is needed – economic crisis, racism and climate change make the need urgent. How it will emerge is not yet clear, but La France Insoumise and the gilets jaunes give a glimpse of the possibilities.

[1] The principle of the separation of the state and religion, which dates from the French Revolution, but which is nowadays often used to justify Islamophobic repression.

[2] The Black-Hundreds were an antisemitic and ultra-nationalist party in Tsarist Russia.

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