The first round of the French presidential election took place a number of weeks ago and the result was that neither candidate from the two main political parties of France- the Socialist Party and Les Républicains- made it into the second round of voting. Instead, former Socialist Party minister and self-declared centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National made it into the second round vote. Left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon narrowly finished fourth with nearly 20% of the vote. Mélenchon was the candidate that I wished to see elected as the French President and but because of the result there have been many questions about who these voters should support. I’m going to argue against some of the nonsense that has been proposed in recent weeks before revealing what I would do.
Firstly there has been an attempt by Macron supporters to woo the Left by referring to his history as a member of the Socialist Party. This is insulting because the entire of his presidential campaign has been a massive exercise in differentiation. He started his own centrist movement and his spokespeople have been in the media extolling the virtues of taking the best policies from the Left and the best from the Right. To try and argue that Macron is secretly quite left-wing, because he know needs the backing of socialists and communists, takes these voters for fools.
Another aspect of the presidential election is how liberal commentators had established a false equivalency between Jean-Luc Mélechon and Marine Le Pen. This is tempting for anyone who is intellectually bankrupt because it is easy to embrace the argument for moderation and write off both sides as equally insane. I don’t want to get too bogged down in this because I think that it is an obvious point to make but I do want to give one specific example.
Mélenchon’s main priorities are improving legal protections for LGBT people, accepting more refugees, and improving social cohesion by investing in French language lessons for new immigrants. Marine Le Pen’s party has placed the scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities at the centre of their platform and want to use secularism to persecute these people. If you are a liberal who values multiculturalism, writing off both candidates as equally unreasonable is ridiculous. Mélenchon promotes the very same liberal social attitudes that Macron does so to argue that Mélenchon and Le Pen are two sides of the same ‘extremist’ coin is ludicrous.
However the most frustrating thing about this situation is how centrist supporters of Macron are now essentially demanding the votes of Mélenchon supporters. Despite implying that the Left were just as unpalatable as the Front National, a party that (just to name one example) is systemically anti-Semitic, these liberals now have the nerve to demand the support from people that fundamentally disagree with Macron’s agenda. The analysis from centrist commentators is incredibly superficial. It is essentially that Macron is more left-wing than Marine Le Pen and therefore you should vote for him.
This is not adequate reason because it implies that political ideology exists on a simple left-right spectrum but it is not that simple. Le Pen is a neo-fascist and should never hold any position of political influence. However, if you are a Mélenchon supporter the choice isn’t between a neo-fascist and a centrist; it is between a neo-fascist and the person who embodies economic orthodoxy that you believe is at the root of society’s ills.
I’ll get onto what I would do in this situation in a second but to say that a communist who refuses to vote for Macron is helping Le Pen is a bad argument. If the situation was inverted, and it was Mélenchon and Le Pen in the second round of voting, I wouldn’t get angry with centrists for refusing to support the communist-backed candidate. I would try to convince them that Mélenchon was a better choice but if someone couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the far-left choice I wouldn’t hold it against them.
Before I say what I would do if I was a French citizen, I’d also like to address an article written in The New York Times by Adam Nossiter. In this article, Nossiter compares Mélenchon to Bernie Sanders, on the grounds that they are both left-wing populists. The only problem with this comparison is that Sanders is, by European standards, a boring centre-left candidate, and Mélenchon is a border-line communist. I do not believe that someone who works for The New York Times would be ignorant of this fact, which shows the true intent of the comparison. In the US ‘communist’ and ‘radical leftist’ are insults and so this comparison is an attempt to smear Sanders as these things. But factually, this is just wrong.
The main premise of the article is complaining that Mélenchon won’t endorse Macron, yet there is also an attempt made to compare Mélenchon to Bernie Sanders. This is odd because I distinctly remember Sanders openly endorsing Clinton, despite the fact he had accurately described her brand of politics as the reason so many people are socio-economically worse off. It’s also worth pointing out that Mélenchon didn’t rule out voting for Macron, he said don’t vote for Le Pen. As Nossiter says:
“his party has announced an internet “consultation” of his followers with three choices offered for the May 7 vote: a blank ballot, a vote for Mr. Macron, or an abstention. A vote for Ms. Le Pen is not one of the choices, and Mr. Mélenchon’s aides insist that is the last things they want”.
This, in and of itself isn’t what annoyed me. It was what followed a few paragraphs later because it revealed how some centrists genuinely cannot see how foolish they look. Four paragraphs further down Nossiter quotes Malek Boutih, a Socialist member of the National Assembly who has endorsed Macron:
“”this gesture of Mélenchon, it’s exactly like the political behaviour of the whole European far left,” added Mr. Boutih, who is part of the centrist bloc Mélenchon despises. “The radical left has a problem with democratic culture. It’s a new force, with old Stalinist ideas”.”
This is a criticism of Boutih and Nossiter. Boutih is arguing that Mélenchon doesn’t like democracy, even though he is canvassing opinion from his supporters when it comes to who he should endorse. That appears to be a very democratic move and illustrates the frenzy that has gripped some French politicians. They are so scared of Marine Le Pen that if you don’t line up in favour of Macron and his policies you are a far-right collaborator. But Nossiter should also not be spared criticism. He wouldn’t have put the quote in the article if he didn’t either agree with what Boutih was saying or thought that it was logically coherent. Either way, it was a terrible piece of journalism.
Finally, in defence of Emmanuel Macron, Macron doesn’t have the same foreign policy hawkishness as Hillary Clinton. Further he is more of an environmentalist than Clinton was. By simply saying that Macron is the centrist and therefor analgous to Clinton is false because the political centre is relative to each society. If you had a society of three people, one of whom was Lenin, one was Stalin, and one was Trotsky, you wouldn’t say that Lenin was the Hillary Clinton of that situation. The comparison between Clinton and Macron is attempt to essentially associate Clinton with policies that are significantly to her left, and thus engage in historical revisionism.
So, after all of that, what would I do? I would vote for Macron in the runoff even though I hate most of his policies because the most important issue is electoral reform and far-right leaders with outwardly authoritarian policies tend not to favour democratic reforms. To be honest, Macron isn’t exactly great on electoral reform either, but there is a possibility that he would support the decentralising power and unshackling France from its Jacobin legacy.
But a key part of that is electing as many leftists to the National Assembly so that Macron’s power is constrained, his pro-corporate policies can be stopped, and this electoral reform can be pushed for. If Macron is given a majority in the National Assembly he will only vote with the Left on social issues and will implement an economic agenda tantamount to a banker’s wet dream.
Some people who are familiar with my work may make a comparison with the US election, during which I said on number of occasions that I would not vote for Hillary Clinton. Aside from the reasons I said above in response to Adam Nossiter’s article, I would like to outline why I would vote for Macron but still wouldn’t support Clinton even though both faced a far-right opponent.
To start with, France is not a two-party system and as such the ask from centrists to the radical Left is not as great. The radical Left can easily vote for candidates in the National Assembly elections that are completely in-keeping with their values. In the US election, it wasn’t enough to vote for Hillary Clinton because in order to enact her agenda she needed Congressional support. Therefore, when people were calling for Clinton to be elected I would also argue that they were tacitly calling for a Democratic majority in Congress.
A communist like myself could always vote for Macron and then vote to radicalise the National Assembly so that the President would have to tack to the left. This would not be the same if Clinton won the election because the only viable party that could limit what her administration would have done would have been the Republicans. The French labour movement does not face the same electoral dichotomy as the American Left did.
A second and related point is that the grassroots campaign of Mélenchon can be used as a blueprint for a new radical party of the Left. The Socialist Party have fallen foul of the same fate as PASOK, PSOE, and the Irish Labour Party. A new organisation needs to be formed to represent the concerns of working people. Unlike in the US, the Left doesn’t need to try and transform an existing political party. Radical leftist parties need to bury the hatchet and unite to oppose Macron on the day after his election as French President. SYRIZA was formed when around 20 separate political parties and campaigning groups united and this needs to be the tactic of the French Left.
Thirdly, the parties that support the far-right candidates in the two elections are very different. The first months of the Trump Presidency in the US has shown that the administration has plenty of opposition within their own party and this has made policy-making difficult. The Front National (FN) is not a broad-based coalition of different strains of conservative thought that the GOP could claim to be. The FN is fairly united in their racism, anti-Semitism, and right-wing nationalism. If the FN acquired political power I believe that they would be incredibly effective in implementing their agenda.
Fourthly, there are significant constitutional ambiguities that exist in France and as a result the checks on the power of the executive are less effective. This is not the case in the United States because of a clear division powers at the federal level, and this has also been articulated in the first few months of Trump’s administration. Congress has been able to prevent the President enacting his agenda and unconstitutional executive orders have been obstructed by federal judges.
Finally, the idea of electoral reform in France is not as far-fetched as in the US. In the US there is an almost fetishisation of the Constitution that does not exist in other countries. In order to fundamentally reform the American political system you would, at some point, require a constitutional amendment and this could only be done through Article V which, although not impossible, is highly difficult and has never been done before. In France tearing up the constitution and starting again is not a novel idea. It’s the very reason why France is officially called the Fifth French Republic.
However, no matter how distasteful the idea of voting for Macron is for a died-in-the-wool leftist, take heart from Mélenchon’s campaign. Thoroughly deconstrucitng Mélenchon’s campaign will demonstrate how the Left can move forward as a political force.
Mélenchon gained international attention from his use of holograms to campaign in multiple locations simultaneously. Although one could argue that there is an element of novelty that would eventually fade, this kind of technological integration can galvanise young people and shake off the perception of the Left being comprised of dinosaurs arguing about Marxism. If the Left is going to be united behind a campaigning party, it needs to be innovative with its messaging. Mélenchon did this with the hologram, but also social media and YouTube. We live in a world where technology is an integral part of our daily lives, so using this tech only makes sense.
It is undeniable that a huge part of La France Insoumise’s attraction was the rhetorical skills of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. His fiery speeches and eloquence energised people in a way that other left-wing candidates could only have dreamt of. But if the Left is to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket, there needs to be a period of training for future leaders. Mélenchon will die one day just like everyone else and as a result we need charismatic people to step forward and be our spokespeople. We need a Mélenchon in Marseille, Lyon, Paris, Calais and so on. We cannot allow the Left to be one person because then it is not a movement.
Another aspect of this next step is radicalising civil society. The trade union movement is primarily about representing the will of working people so they are not oppressed in their workplaces by their employers. However, there is also a proud tradition of trade unions standing up for political causes that matter to working people. I would argue that they newest of these is opposition to the Front National. Many people were drawn to the FN for socio-economic reasons and could therefore also be encouraged by a radical message from the Left.
If the trade unions ended their support for the Socialists and supported a new radical party of the Left, the Socialists’ toxic legacy will be ended and the FN would have to defend themselves from a party that offered the genuine solutions to the problems that they face. Working people line up behind the far-right for the same reasons that the line up behind any party: they think that party will listen to their concerns. The trade union movement can go into these communities with a message of hope for radical change that doesn’t involve the hate-mongering of the FN.
The final aspect is something I’ve already alluded to, and this is a question of unity. On the day of the first round vote, there were four left-of-centre candidates running for the Presidency. Mélenchon was clearly the most likely to get into the second round as polling put his support at around 19%, which he eventually achieved. If however the Left had united behind the most popular candidate, who in this case was Mélenchon, their vote share would have been approximately 27.7%. This not only would have put them in the second round, they would have beaten Macron by nearly 4%.
The Left now finds itself in a catch-22 where they want to vote for neither Macron nor Le Pen. If they decided to unite in the first round, it would have been a straight fight between Mélenchon and Macron. I’m not saying that Mélenchon would have won, because to do so would be to ignore all the polling, but it would have put the Left in contention. In future elections this cannot be allowed to happen again.
To conclude, the Left is at a crossroads where it must decide what to do. I would argue that Macron, despite being the personification of an orthodoxy that I do not care for, would be a much better President for the people of France than neo-fascist. It doesn’t make me any less left-wing to argue support voting for Macron in these circumstances. But as I say this cannot be a one-off action. The National Assembly should be made as left-wing as possible so that Macron’s neoliberal policies do not undermine the gains that working people have made over the years.
However the labour movement also needs to drastically reform itself. The main party of the Left cannot be in a position where it no longer represents the interests of working people and is losing support to the far-right. Mélenchon’s campaign reinvigorated the French Left and now needs to champion the electoral reforms that will prevent the President from being the all-powerful position that de Gaulle made it into. The Left, in my view,should do all it can to prevent Le Pen from attaining power, but it must also engage in some self-reflection to understand what went wrong in the last few years.