The French left must overcome its panic and maintain its opposition to the dysfunctional capitalist establishment, argues Paul Demarty
It is safe to say that the French bourgeoisie has almost the best election before it that could be expected, barring the ‘dream ticket’ of a showdown between the technocratic creep, Emmanuel Macron, and the ultra-Thatcherite Gaullist, François Fillon.
Macron - by strained contemporary standards a safe pair of hands - instead faces off against Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, as she attempts to achieve what her father, the even more vile Jean-Marie, who was defeated in a shock second-round square-off with Jacques Chirac in 2002. Nobody much can be shocked to see Marine get that far this year: there have been times, in the last year or two, when it looked basically inevitable, the question being which candidate would be put up by the Gaullist party, les Républicains, to face her. The surprise was rather that events should have turned the first round into a knife-edge, four-way contest, with Macron overtaking the flamboyantly corrupt Fillon as the establishment’s last best hope and, more encouragingly, the late surge of support for leftwinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
A Mélenchon-le Pen decider, obviously, would have been the French establishment’s worst nightmare - and indeed not only the French: Mélenchon shares a Eurosceptic outlook, if nothing else, with the FN, and both promised a referendum on ‘Frexit’. Severe political convulsions, whether of socialist or ultra-nationalist origin, would have brought turmoil upon the European Union economy, and drastically undermined the 27 countries’ negotiating position with Britain - and, indeed, with anyone else who needed negotiating with. A final round with Mélenchon facing off against an establishment candidate was perhaps manageable, but still presented risks: how would FN voters react? Would their hatred of the left overcome their hatred of the decrepit, discredited centre?
In the case of the scenario that actually transpired, after all, there is prior art: le Pen père’s second-round drubbing at the hands of Chirac. At that time, disaffection with the course of the Socialist-led ‘plural left’ government led to an unexpected spike in support for the far left, with two Trotskyist candidates - Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière - beating Robert Hue of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) in the first round. The left, therefore, was sufficiently divided to allow Jean-Marie le Pen to slip through. Faced with the prospect of this ogre, who founded his party with veterans of the Organisation Armée Secrète fascist paramilitary group and Vichy nostalgists, much of the French left rallied reluctantly to Chirac - “better the crook than the fascist” went the popular refrain presently enjoying a revival.
In the end, France voted more than four to one for Chirac - a margin unparalleled in the entire history of the Fifth Republic, with the exception of Charles de Gaulle’s victory in the first presidential poll (and that was conducted by electoral college, not direct election, under extraordinary circumstances). A repeat on that scale is unlikely this time around, with the FN brand far more extensively detoxified by Marine le Pen than her father ever managed, and the French political scene correspondingly more poisoned by chauvinism. Still, opinion polls have Macron in the lead by a pretty regular 60-or-so percent against 40. Barring another of this electoral cycle’s characteristic surprises, he will be the next president of this most monarchical of republics.
Thanks to the left
He owes this favour, overwhelmingly, to the left, broadly defined. The polls, again, are most interesting in this regard. The Socialist Benoît Hamon’s votes, such as they are, are transferring in their vast majority to Macron, with low abstention rates; no huge surprises there. By contrast, a steady 25%-30% of Fillon’s supporters look to be transferring into le Pen’s column.
It is Mélenchon’s votes which interest us most, however. A significant minority of 30%-40% are leaning towards boycott and abstention - by far the highest of the significant first-round losers. A lukewarm plurality of 40%-45% is generally found for Macron. (In contrast to the vacuous analyses of various bourgeois ideologues, who have scurrilously portrayed Mélenchon and le Pen as representing essentially the same constituency of alienated grumblers, only a small fraction of the former’s votes are heading the way of the latter.)
This picture is ultimately a consequence of the political leadership offered by the organisations of the left to their members and voters. To be sure, some have resisted the temptation to come out for Macron. The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, successor to the LCR of 2002, whose statement in response to the first-round result comes out strongly “against the FN” and “all neoliberal policies”:
We understand the youth and workers who want to vote for Macron to block the Front National. But Macron represents the neoliberal policies of the last 30 years ... His programme? To abolish the 35-hour week, break up social security, sack civil servants and do even more damage to labour rights.1
Into this column, we must also place Mélenchon, who to his credit - and despite ambiguities - has refused to cave in to overwhelming pressure to back Macron. He is not a guru, apparently; he will not tell anyone how to vote, or not to vote (he was not very long ago telling people to vote for him, but very well).
This puts him at odds with his closest and most significant political supporters in the PCF, who have taken their usual panicked fright at the possibility of a far-right victory. Its national council declared: “The French Communist Party takes seriously the risk of the election of Marine Le Pen and calls unambiguously to prevent it on May 7.” Of course, the comrades “in no way support the policy of Emmanuel Macron: we fought him as a minister, then as a candidate, in the streets and in parliament ... We will prevent Emmanuel Macron from making out his second-round vote is support for his programme.”2
There is a peculiar desperation to the PCF line, detectable for all the defiant rhetoric in which it is wrapped. It is clear also from the Morning Star, which editorialised presumably in line with the position of the Communist Party of Britain when it told its readers, so far as they had influence on May 7’s poll, “better a neoliberal than a fascist” - “although Macron’s policies are likely to increase the populist appeal of the far right as well as of the real left”.3 We must vote for Macron, apparently, even though his victory is, down the line, almost guaranteed to increase the vote for le Pen or someone like her (perhaps that charming niece of hers will be next?)
At issue here is what securocrats would call an inappropriate threat model. It is inappropriate in two ways - one very obvious, and one more subtle. The first problem is that the left seems unable to deal with the fact that the FN is no longer a fascist organisation, or even close to it. It is a deeply unpleasant organisation, of course; it is a contemporary representative of the ‘other France’, Catholic France, the France of the anti-Dreyfusards and of Poujade and Pétain. Yet there are those on the left who happily call Marine le Pen a “Nazi”, who “channelled Nazi-style biological racism by pledging to ‘eradicate bacterial immigration’ by refugees with ‘non-European diseases’”.
It should surprise nobody that these particular pearls of wisdom come from our own Socialist Worker,4 but the same difficulty bedevils the reluctant Macronistes of France. A le Pen victory, in their minds, would not simply be another step in the rightward ratchet of global politics, but a 1933 scenario, and before long the Paris vélo will again be packed by thugs with desperate, doomed humanity. We would urge the former interpretation, which is not at all to be blasé about the way things are going. We must face the enemies actually before us, however, not the forms we project onto those enemies in pursuit of the sharpest moral distinction between us.
This leads us to the second problem. We saw above that the Morning Star acknowledged that the right would benefit from the policies of a Macron administration, just as much as “the real left”. Fair enough, one might think, except that it is not the whole story. For if that self-same Macron government exists in part because of the votes of the left, then disaffection will be manifestly more likely to go to the right than the left. The left will be discredited. It provides yet more evidence for the claim, made by every rightist demagogue, that the left is merely part of a vast liberal elite that despises the common run of people.
The PCF, and likeminded people, are so overawed by Marine le Pen that they are entirely blind to this insidious and, ultimately, far more dangerous threat. Because it is unable to countenance militant opposition to a hypothetical le Pen government, its claim to leadership of opposition to the far more likely Macron government is undermined. By such means does the left present the right with the opportunity to dominate opposition to the depredations of dysfunctioning contemporary capitalism.
We urge our French readers to reject the policy of despair, and boycott this choice between butchers.
3. Morning Star April 25 - our emphasis.
4. Socialist Worker April 11. It should be said that the Socialist Workers Party and its allies do not call for a Macron vote in the second round, although on their own account it is quite unfathomable why not.