Jean-Luc Mélenchon: in the colours of France

Hold the line

The left in France should not be panicked into voting for Emmanuel Macron, writes Paul Demarty

For those who had not followed closely the first round of France’s presidential elections, almost the least surprising thing about it would be the identity of the two candidates going through to the second.

It is, after all, an exact repeat of last time. Coming in second this time round with 23% was Marine le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (RN) - under its current and previous names long the largest party of the far right. In front of her, on just under 28%, there was the sitting president, Emmanuel Macron - formerly a neoliberal minister of François Hollande’s Socialist government, who launched his own party in order to run in 2017. Macron stood then as a Bonapartist of the centre and, between that and his technocratic background, it was hardly a surprise that he should once again face his most serious opposition from the ‘anti-establishment’ parties, when what popularity he had rapidly dried up in the long, slow grind of bourgeois politics.

It is unsurprising, then, that both Valérie Pécresse of the Gaullist Republicains and especially Anne Hidalgo of the Parti Socialiste did dreadfully. For decades up to Hollande’s election in 2012, with one notorious exception, the second round was contested between the candidates of these parties (under various names). Neither candidate this time breached 5% of the vote - Hidalgo got less than 2%!

This background, on the other hand, was catnip to le Pen. That said, she has had a rough ride. The RN has seen a series of damaging splits, and for a time all the talk was of Éric Zemmour, a long-time journalist of the far right, who ran a prominent campaign and who looked for a time on course to run le Pen close. Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, sprung for Zemmour - appropriately, given his notoriously rosy view of the reign of that most famous maréchal, Philippe Pétain. In the end, the gap between them widened, and Zemmour came fourth, on 7%.

Between the two of them was the chief candidate of the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran le Pen agonisingly close, getting 22%. Opinion polls considerably underestimated the level of his support - support, that is, for a candidate who proposes French withdrawal from Nato, the refoundation of the European Union on an admittedly vague leftwing basis, and a new French constitution, among the usual bread-and-butter left demands. It is to a large extent on his voters - the only bloc other than supporters of Macron and le Pen to win a double-digit percentage in the first round - that the second round depends. And opinion polling so far suggests that his voters are sharply divided.

Mélenchon himself, for what it is worth, has urged only that people do not switch to le Pen. That is something of a dodge. It is true that the data suggests that many of his voters are considering switching to her: they prefer an ‘anti-establishment’ candidate - of the left if possible, of the right if necessary. Those he is most likely to reach, however, face the other choice: to vote for Macron or to boycott the second round? On that front, Mélenchon offers them nothing.

New normal?

What seems clear, at least, is that the dominant picture of presidential elections in the history of the Fifth Republic - with the Gaullist right fighting the social democratic left for control of the presidency, in the context of large votes for the Parti Communiste Français and then, from the 1990s, for the far right - is utterly dead. Macron, more than his own party, represents a uniparty of the centre - those who support broadly the continuation of France’s present system of international alliances and domestic political structures. Though le Pen has faced Macron in the run-off twice now, both times Mélenchon has been breathing down her neck; so it seems to be a three-way contest for the time being (and for the time being Gaullists and socialists continue to return substantial delegations to the national assembly).

It is now 20 years since the first time a le Pen contested the second round of a French presidential election - Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, who led the first effort to create a viable ‘right-populist’ electoral party from the various contingents of the French far right, but who remained wedded to the deeply-ingrained anti-Semitism of his milieu. On that occasion, there was shock, in France and internationally. The left resolved, on the whole, to vote for the corrupt conservative, Jacques Chirac - ‘Vote for the crook, not the fascist’ went the slogan of the day. This vote and the last, however, must prove the futility of this policy. So long as the left votes for ‘crooks’, there will always be fascists lying in wait.

In those two decades, the ideas of the far right have continued to penetrate the conservative intelligentsia - a process already intelligible in the days of Nicolas Sarkozy, the last president of the Gaullist right, but which intensified over the last 10 years. That happened first in response to Hollande’s legalisation of gay marriage (which prompted large mass demonstrations); and then following a grisly series of terrorist attacks - most notoriously the massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists and at the Bataclan music venue. The word on the lips of mainstream right commentators these last few years has been islamo-gauchisme - ‘Islamo-leftism’ - purporting to name an unholy alliance of Islamist mass murderers and their liberal, multiculturalist enablers. (The latter is principally understood as an American import, which is ironic, since the American conservative equivalents tend to blame Frenchmen like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida for substantially identical ideas that are in currency stateside.)

The various ‘crooks’ have had little enough to offer in return - except, naturally, stealing le Pens’ clothes at their own leisure. Sarkozy won in 2007 on a ‘clean the streets’ law-and-order platform, with extensive riots in the poor banlieue to the north of Paris fresh in the collective memory. Under Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, the government responded to the various terror attacks with the usual repression and harassment of Muslims - no islamo-gauchisme on their watch - and Macron’s government has largely followed suit, enthusiastically shoring up its right flank by means of anti-Islamic tough talk and a renewed assertion of laïcité (secularism).

The bourgeois political alternative to le Pen and Zemmour (and Mélenchon) is simple: more of the same in terms of actual policy, combined with insubstantial rhetoric designed to defuse support for parties outside the ‘acceptable’ range. This sort of politics can seem impermeable, but in fact is subject to a secular decay, as indeed demonstrated by the ‘new broom’, Macron, humiliating the old establishment parties twice on the trot (even Sarkozy, on the ‘rats and sinking ships’ principle, has all but defected to Macron’s party).

Sooner or later, it becomes impossible for any voters who had believed the promises of the centre to clean things up and restore order to do so any further. The message from the far right - those people are lying to you; those people are traitors - is more readily accepted. The victory of a Marine le Pen cannot happen - until, all of a sudden, it actually does. The left, in France as it is elsewhere, is wedded to ‘anti-fascist’ politics, whereby the duty to keep the ‘fascist’ candidate out overrides all other concerns; but in France more obviously than many other places, the empirical result is the steady spread of far-right ideology, fascist or otherwise.

Pros and cons

For all the problems with the Mélenchon phenomenon (which we will get to), it has at least the virtue of detaching left politics from this morbid consensus (for the duration of a first-round vote, at least). Nothing shows up the phoniness of liberal-conservative divisions - never mind the bizarre struggle between le Pen’s racist populism and Macron’s presidential technocracy - like a third option that gets mass votes.

Indeed, there was some promise of that 20 years ago, the year le Pen père got through, when there was also a spike in the vote for two Trotskyist candidates - Lutte Ouvriere and the Mandelite Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, which was enough to at least provoke talk of unity between them (together they got 10% of the vote). In the end the only result was a slightly-expanded LCR, under the new name, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste; but when Mélenchon resigned from the Parti Socialiste, the rapid result was the Front de Gauche alliance between him, the PCF, and a rightwing split from the NPA; from then on, Mélenchon was a perennial candidate.

The last two presidential elections have seen the PCF abandon Mélenchon, who now trades under the name La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). That would not necessarily be a problem, were it standing on an open communist programme; but, of course, the PCF has not been that sort of ‘communist party’ for a very long time indeed. PCF candidate Fabien Roussel’s proposals were largely economistic, with some green stuff thrown in. At least at the level of high politics, his platform was less radical than Mélenchon’s. We are inclined, therefore, to look unfavourably on the circumstance that, if you add Roussel’s vote to Mélenchon’s, the latter would have beaten le Pen into third.

The problems, however, remain. Mélenchon’s LFI party has more than a little in common with Macron’s. There is the stilted slogan-style name, the ambiguity of organisational structure and, above all, the presence of a ‘great man on horseback’ at the centre of the whole thing - “bringing rain and sunshine from above”, as Marx put it in relation to the original Bonapartist, Louis Napoleon III.

The LFI is, in other words, very much a product of the wave of ‘new’ left parties that sold themselves to the wider movement largely through the negative image of what they were to replace - to wit, the ‘old’ left, the left social democrats, such ‘official communist’ parties as remained serious groups, and beyond them the fissile Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist sects. Thus, in Spain, Podemos; and, in Britain, Momentum. Both proposed - as an alternative to the deliberative democratic structures of congresses and conferences, election to leading committees, and so on - that there would be extensive use of online plebiscites as a form of ‘direct’ democracy. In both cases, of course, it was a con: as with all referenda. the power remained in the hands of those who proposed the question (who were, invariably, the same people who would have to implement any decision, and therefore best placed to kick things into the long grass).

We cannot, however, talk of the LFI in the past tense in the same way. It has not cataclysmically failed in its tasks, like Momentum; nor has it utterly wilted into coalitionism with social liberals, like Podemos … yet. We confidently predict the same kind of outcome, however. The PCF has the usual bureaucratic defects of traditional ‘official communist’ parties, of course; the NPA has a slightly more open internal regime, but a political programme that more or less guarantees opportunist splits. Its organisational structures are a funhouse-mirror version of true democracy (meaning, here, democratic centralism); but the plebiscitary personality cults of Podemos, the LFI and so on are worse: a crude negation of democracy.

What is the point of maintaining democratic-centralist norms at the level of a party (never mind a tiny organisation like the CPGB)? There are pragmatic and political reasons. Pragmatically, democratic norms allow agonistic contestation of rival programmes and personalities, and can contain even very bitter disputes within a single organisation without sacrificing unity in action. It does not always turn out like that, of course, but you get at least a fighting chance. Suppose, however, that some secondary leading figure in the LFI thinks they could do a better job than Mélenchon in a presidential election. To which body may they propose their candidacy? The question answers itself - either they must put up with their role in the shadow of the big man, or split and form their own clone of the LFI to bootstrap their own candidacy.

The political benefit is that democratic party functioning is, as it were, ‘propaganda of the deed’ for democratic functioning of society at large. Mélenchon proposes substantial democratisation of French society, and that is all to the good; but his faith in the popular will is rather belied by the fact that he runs his own organisation as a personality cult. It is a regime even more presidentialist than the Fifth Republic he proposes to replace. The same Fifth Republic which once again offers voters the choice of technocratic and ultra-reactionary ‘monarchs’ - a choice which, once more, the French left must be brave enough to refuse.