Three blocs have emerged from the political rubble. Right, far right and radical left. Kevin Ovenden argues that the radical left can play the decisive role
"Madame Le Pen has been beaten. France has clearly refused to entrust its future to her, and this is very good news for the unity of our people.
"However, Emmanuel Macron has become the most poorly elected president of the Fifth Republic. His victory is floating in an ocean of abstentions and spoiled ballots.”
Those words by radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who narrowly missed beating the fascist Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election two weeks ago, capture something of the increasing crisis of the French political system even though Macron beat Le Pen by 58.5 to 41.5 percent.
There was relief among mainstream European leaders and commentators last night. Five years ago, when Macron was first elected there was jubilation and predictions that the dashing liberal moderniser would break the mould of politics and slay the threat of “populism” from left and right – not just in France, but across Europe.
Now they are just thankful he has held on. Instead of rapture there is some belated and meagre recognition of the scale of the social and political crisis the country faces.
There is genuine relief among all those who have in practice opposed not just Le Pen but her racism and authoritarianism, which the Macron government has aped. There is also great popular concern at her continuing rise.
Then there is working-class recognition of what Mélenchon achieved with 7.7 million votes in the first round and his rallying cry to build on that to win many more seats in the parliamentary elections in June.
Some commentators who have spent five years pretending that the radical left does not exist are now at least having to mention it.
Macron: 18,779,641 - 58.54 percent (of valid vote)
Le Pen: 13,297,760 - 41.46 percent (of valid vote)
Not voting: 13,655,960 - 28.01 percent
Blanc ballots: 2,228,012 - 6.35 percent
Spoilt ballots: 790,987 - 2.25 - percent
Turnout: 71.99 percent
These results and those of the first round give a snapshot of a deeper reality. Macron lost about two million votes compared with 2017, Le Pen gained over two million.
Despite polling which often showed a narrower gap, more people abstained or cast a blank/spoiled ballot than last time and they again numbered more than Le Pen's vote. Most of Macron's vote, according to several studies, was delivered to stop Le Pen rather than a positive choice for him. But efforts to stampede others equally opposed to Le Pen to vote Macron ran up against a lot of people recalling that they did so in 2017 only to face five years of major assaults on workers' rights. This was a social phenomenon that cannot be explained by what one or other socialist group said.
It is not just the imposition of “neo-liberal reforms” by a former banker and outright elitist – and his promise of more to come. Those economic attacks have come in an iron state glove. Macron's government directed authoritarianism and violence at the gilets jaunes protest movement that began in 2018 over planned tax rises on energy and fuel and then drew in all sorts of other discontents.
To add insult to countless police-inflicted bodily injuries, Macron's ministers and supporters tried to smear the variegated protests and participants as instead simply driven by fascists. It was a gift to the opportunist Le Pen.
During this period the European Commission frequently denounced the rising authoritarianism under hard-right governments in Poland and Hungary. The authoritarianism of the French state, which has given the police and intelligence services extraordinary powers, is comparable but never condemned.
It is unsurprising, then, that two gilets jaunes spokespeople who are part of a network that explicitly condemns Le Pen told journalists that while there should be no vote for Le Pen they were not in favour of voting for Macron either.
That was also the opinion of many of France's Muslim and immigrant communities who had voted Macron in the second round in 2017. In the first round the largest proportion – 40 percent – had chosen Mélenchon. As a reward they have seen over 700 mosques closed down as Macron went on a crusade against what he termed "Islamic separatism". That was the guise for bringing in the racist “anti-separatism” legislation which meant outlawing not violent extremism but Muslim civic and political engagement that was not under the authority of the state and that allowed Muslims to come together as Muslims.
These laws further legitimised racism and therefore Le Pen. At one point she felt able to criticise a suite of government measures as racist! Meanwhile she tried with some success in the last year to pose as the voice of the kind of ordinary France that took part in the gilets jaunes or felt that the government just had no idea about their lives. Her vote is concentrated in the hard-up, hard-pressed towns.
Another boost for her has come from Macron himself. He and his camp made clear that he preferred to face Le Pen rather than any other candidate in the second round. Partly, it was the crassest electoralism. It was only by facing Le Pen that he could drive his own vote up by exploiting people's still strong anti-fascist sentiments. If not, he risked the fate of being another one-term president.
The other reason is that he shares from the opposite direction Le Pen's deep electoral strategy. He sees politics as no longer divided by left and right, and she also wants to destroy the old left-right poles – most especially the left pole of organised working-class politics. She is a contemporary fascist. He is in favour of authoritarian revamped neoliberalism. She is in favour of something nastier.
We see this reflected in the more serious media coverage of the election result with the analysis that politics is now divided between “anti-globalisation populists and nationalists” and global modernising internationalists. Similar words were used five years ago.
They reflect some truth, but obscure much more.
The truth: the hollowing out of official politics and the consensus around the “extreme centre” from the 1990s onwards has produced a division between technocratic governments and popular feeling, expressed in all sorts of ways in the last 15 years since the global economic crisis.
Not only that, the Covid catastrophe is the latest crisis to reveal the precariousness of the globalised economy that was meant to bring a new era of prosperity. There has been a reaction. But it is not as simple as “globaliser” versus “national populist”. For a start, apparent “globalists” such as Macron have been pursuing policies that are very much France First when it comes to strategic industries and rejuvenating French imperialist influence in Africa and the Mediterranean. As for Le Pen, the closer she has got to actual power the more she has gone out of her way to reassure big business – the elite she rails against – over issues such as her economic programme and relations with the EU.
More significantly, it suits those committed to the capitalist status quo to claim that the old left-right divisions are out, replaced by the rational, technocratic centre, and an inchoate anti-elitism which at its heart is reactionary.
So you find articles that say that the danger in France stems from 61 percent of votes in the first round going to "anti-elitist candidates".
That does reflect the extraordinary collapse of the mainstream parties and the stalling of Macron's. But it also obscures the fact that at least 25 percentage points of that went to the radical left.
It may suit defenders of the failing centre to lump Mélenchon in with Le Pen, but he is the first French politician to call her a fascist, to join a major demonstration against Islamophobia and to unite anti-fascists in calling for no vote for Le Pen. Of those who voted, 70 percent of Muslims chose Mélenchon in the first round.
There is a left and right. There is an internationalist anti-racism among those enraged at the system and there is a pool of racist ideas generated from the centre that leaves equally enraged people susceptible to the far and fascist right.
In fact, what the French elections confirm is a deepening left/right polarisation taking place on the rubble of the party political system of the last half century.
For 50 years party politics in France meant one big party on each of the left and right. The Socialist Party and a centre-right Gaullist party that went through various forms. Orbiting them were one or more smaller parties that thanks to the two round election system for president and parliament could seek to get representation and profile through horsetrading and local deals while remaining part of the organising establishment poles of French political life.
That has been breaking down for years, and not only in France. This month it suffered another blow.
The Socialists, who held the presidency just 10 years ago, got 1.8 percent. The historic party of De Gaulle got 4.8 percent. In failing to get 5 percent neither party can claim any expenses from the state and face financial crises.
A new configuration of national politics has emerged. It is not just the elitist centre versus the anti-elitists.
It is a conservative-liberal bloc led by Macron; a far-right bloc (with actual fascists in it) led by Le Pen; and a radical left bloc represented by Mélenchon. We have seen a similar tendency elsewhere in Europe, though France has gone the furthest. (Ironically, the strong victory of the Socialist Party's François Hollande in 2012 was meant to make France an exception from this kind of development.)
A word of caution, though. Some people thought in 2015 that the radical left's advances in Greece and Spain would automatically lead to the end of Labourism and social democracy and the left occupying all that old space. In fact, partly due to the weaknesses and mistakes of the radical left, social democracy in both countries has recovered significantly. And the radical left in Germany is in severe retreat.
It is conceivable that could happen in France. In the immediacy a lot will depend on the results of the parliamentary elections in June. Mélenchon has issued a call to rally the forces of the left and a bold slogan that the answer to Macron's weakened presidency is to vote to make Mélenchon leader in the National Assembly.
The two-round system plus the presence of a stronger base of support for the fascists and far right makes this easier said than done. The far right are divided but Le Pen is trying to find a concordat with the extreme right and obsessive Islamophobe Eric Zemmour, who got 2.5 million votes in the first presidential round.
There are appeals for unity on the left. But a major complication is that “left unity” at the parliamentary elections has for decades depended on deal-making between the rounds by what were once major parties but are now almost legacies.
Mélenchon 's vote – and its demographic profile – revealed a huge desire for truly radical change. That he and his organisation La France Insoumise have built upon an already great result five years ago despite demonisation and delegitimisation by the political class is enormously significant. He has faced the same smears over antisemitism as Jeremy Corbyn has in Britain. Some of those who smeared him now cry unity so as to preserve their noses in the trough of parliamentary politics.
Of course, people want unity on the left. But a lot of people also do not want another lease of life for the old, dying and frankly corrupt Labour-type politics that has been part of alienating so many. Whatever unity in the parliamentary elections may be achieved, it is critical that the radical left pole in this now three-way division of French politics is maintained and built, not reabsorbed into the failing old order. Keep radical - keep left.
For there are going to be big social and political clashes in coming months as Macron, like governments everywhere, grapples with the impact of the cost of living crisis, rising rage at the base of society, one international crisis after another – and all with him elected with the support of 38 percent of the electorate in France.
Le Pen, or others such as her ambitious niece who may seek to replace her, will try to get first to those who feel they are sinking under the weight of debt, inflation and hardship. The radical left has to try to be there before, and not only in France. We must not be frightened that some expressions of anger will, like the gilets jeunes, be politically conflicted rather than a straightforward strike (which we need more of everywhere). We should try instead to take initiatives that allow people to come together to fight on a clearer basis.
And this extends to uniting the left as much as possible to go beyond ourselves to build a truly mass anti-fascist movement rather than having people's finest sentiments over opposing racism abused every five years in the way Macron tried to do. A key part of that message is that Le Pen and her like are imposters who are every bit as much part of the capitalist system as those she rails against.
That she is, in the words of La France Insoumise National Assembly deputy Daniele Obono, capitalism's “life insurance policy”. Something to turn to when popular insurgency takes a clearly anti-capitalist form and really threatens the elites.
We must hope that it does in France and we should work towards that where we are also.
For now, instead of the French election providing a new stability for the EU and its governments as the Establishment said in 2017, it is pulsing out a renewed wave of conflict and crisis.
In that, all of us on the left should be clear: the rising far right in France is a threat and requires a specific, fighting response. But the radical left has also made a big advance, has held together and can play the decisive role in this deepening crisis.
Pro-system media and politicians will not talk about that. So we must.
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Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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