France: some points on the second round, the far-right and the role of the Left

Marina Kontara

To the relief of many, Emmanuel Macron scored a victory against Le Pen in the second round of the French Presidential elections on April 24. This time it was a tighter race, with Macron getting 58.5% of the vote, down from 66.1% in 2017. The mainstream media portrayed this as a “victory for democracy”, that can now be safe, because the far-right did not manage to enter the Elysée. Is that so indeed?

The far-right in France has a long history, and they have managed to be in the spotlight in three presidential races. The first time was in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, had also achieved to pass through to the second round. Then, in 2017, Marine Le Pen was in the second round, as also happened in 2022. 

Le Pen’s facelift 

Rassemblement National (RN) is the party that Marine Le Pen inherited from her father (then called Front National). The fact is though, that significant differences between their policies can be noted. It is also a fact that RN has changed since 2017. Marine Le Pen had started adopting more moderate positions even before Eric Zemour’s sudden entry to the presidential race. This unexpected candidate accelerated this process. Yet, despite the new name and the superficially milder rhetoric, Marine Le Pen is still a classical representative of the European far-right: apart from the nationalist “objections” to the EU and the preservation of conservative values in social matters (gay mariage, abortion), the party is clearly hostile towards migrants and even second generation French people. It is also using the real problems of working people to disseminate division and hostility among them. Despite adopting some ambiguity on issues like the death penalty, abortion, and same-sex marriage by refusing to take a clear stance, noone is convinced that Le Pen would support progressive positions in these or any other issues.

Yet, Le Pen managed to get 2.5 millions more votes than in 2017. This does by no means indicate that the French people have substantially moved towards the far-right ideology. It clearly means though that the French people are rejecting Macron’s neoliberal and conservative policy (notably, Macron lost 2 million votes compared to the 2017 second round). His 5-year legacy meant nothing but impoverishment and violence. He implemented policies in favour of the rich, which further deepened the social and financial gap between the lower and the higher layers of society. He did nothing but attack workers’ rights -and is promising to keep following this path. He deliberately chose to use extreme violence and brutally oppress all social movements of resistance, be it strikes or the massive mobilisations of the “Gilets jaunes”. 

Macron rejected

Macron’s policies are actually the reason for Le Pen’s success. This is pretty clear if we take a look at the results of the overseas regions: these regions’ population is racially mixed, so they would be among the first ones to be attacked by the far-right. They massively voted for Mélenchon in the first round and for Le Pen in the second. They practically would vote for anybody but Macron. 

It makes sense. During his five years in office, Macron has adopted all kinds of anti-popular measures and violent attitudes. His legacy is one more proof that the traditional right is moving more to the right of the political spectrum, in both principles and policies, all over Europe. In many cases, traditional right parties have adopted some of the far-right’s positions and in this way these positions have been normalised. It has become acceptable to say or do things that would stand out as too radical in the past. And while the traditional right is in government, applying all kinds of antipopular policies, the far-right becomes a tangible option worth giving them a chance to take office. 

So, in essence, Macron is to blame for de-demonising and mainstreaming the far-right, with the policies he has implemented. On the other hand, Zemour’s rhetoric is also showing the same thing: his positions, comments and speeches were even more radical than Le Pen’s, yet he managed to achieve a 7% of the votes in the first round. Le Pen herself has managed to increase her votes in both numbers and percentage in the second round. They both benefited from people’s disappointment in Macron, but they also seemed to be less dangerous than before.

The abstention rate is another interesting figure. Twenty-eight percent of the French people chose not to vote and that is the highest rate since 1969. It is very difficult to identify the wide variety of reasons that can lead people to make this choice. Yet, we can easily consider that for mass layers of the population, it made no difference which of the two candidates would finally win, very probably because they believe that none of them would apply policies in their favour and solve their problems. 

June legislative elections: the third round

This is not the last election happening in France this year. Legislative elections are scheduled for June 12 and 19. According to some analysts, Macron is actually faced with the risk of not having a safe majority in the National Assembly and therefore possibly having one of his two rivals as a Prime Minister. Indeed polls are indicating that both Mélenchon and Le Pen will see their percentages rise, compared to 2017. This will create important obstacles for Macron to implement his agenda. With social problems piling up (price increases, frozen wages, energy crisis), imposing further austerity and increasing the pension age will not be an easy task for him. 

It remains to be seen what Le Pen and Mélenchon will score in June. Yet, it is safe to conclude that the far-right is still representing a considerable danger, not only in view of the June election, but also looking further to the next Presidential election in five years. The general political landscape in Europe is constantly bearing opportunities that the far-right takes advantage of. Le Pen has stated that she might not be a candidate in 2027, but other candidates or even parties may come to the spotlight, as long as the traditional right-wing is attacking the working people’s rights and living standards and as long as the Left has no convincing project to suggest. 

The tasks of the Left

With a programme promising to stop prices rising, increase salaries and pensions, a high budget to tackle violence against women, free water and energy for a minimum level of consumption and 100% reimbursement for medical expenses, Melanchon got more than 20% in the first round and challenged Le Pen’s passing to the second round. Mélanchon’s programme went down as a basic answer to the population’s problems. But he fails to give a convincing answer about how his government will be able to implement all these measures and how he will react if the French bourgeoisie will impede him from doing so. 

The latest news is that Mélenchon has correctly addressed a concrete call to all the French Left for a joint slate. Until now, the Greens, the Communist party and other smaller left organisations joined this coalition. Today, May 4, the Socialist Party also announced that there was agreement and they will join in. Of course, the SP joining is not indeed a positive development if we are talking about a radical coalition targeted towards the movements. Their legacy is the one of a bourgeois party. 

The Trotskyist NPA is also openly discussing joining such a common block, while the also Trotskyist LO has rejected it. 

The exact outlook of the coalition is yet to be judged in the coming period, and will be very much depend on the internal balance of forces.

A common electoral block of the Left would of course be generally a very positive step, as this long-standing fragmentation has been a big disappointment for many people until now. A unified Left electoral list would certainly attract more votes than the total sum of the votes to the different parties, as such a coalition creates a rather optimistic dynamic in society. The results of the first round, matched with a joint slate in the coming elections, pose the issue of the possibility of a Melenchon government on the table. This prospect can mobilise support in French society and can shake the country’s political establishment. It can also lead to important developments on a European level.

At the same time, the workers’ movement and a united front of the Left are the only possible barriers to counter the rise of the far-right. 

In order for this project to be successful though, some aspects have to be taken into account, based on the experience of the workers movement in other countries:

  • The involvement of forces that have been in capitalist governments implementing anti-worker policies, as long as they still defend this as being correct, will only politically damage such a project. In this sense, the participation of the SP and the CP in a joint list, if not accompanied but an open rejection of their policies, will create suspicion and confusion. 
  • An electoral alliance that does not involve rank-and-file people, giving them the chance to be democratically engaged in making decisions will not only be short of the dynamic it can have, but it will also be more prone to bureaucratisation and lack of control. It is of crucial importance that such a block can have some kind of structures for the people to participate. 
  • The experience of Left governments that took power and implemented neoliberal policies, betraying the aspirations of the working people, has to be openly discussed. A left-wing government in France that will take this road again, will eventually strengthen both Macron and Le Pen. A debate on how this can be avoided has to open inside the Left and in society.

People all over Europe are closely watching the developments in the Left in France. A victory for them, breaking the French establishment, will have wider repercussions. A repeat of a SYRIZA-type project though, will be a defeat for all.

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