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Relief, anti-climax, and glimmers of hope

French elections, 2022

Sylvestre Jaffard analyses last month’s election results in the French presidential election, including the prospects for a rejuvenated Left challenge in the June legislative vote.

Like most re-elections, Emmanuel Macron’s felt like an anti-climax: it was after all the result that countless polls had predicted for over a year, with his adversary in the second round being Marine Le Pen, a rematch from 2017. But beyond this final result, the election showed how the political dynamics in France are being reshaped, in particular the surge of a new Left as embodied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s result in the first round. Traditional parties of government—the social-democratic Parti Socialiste, and the mainstream right Les Républicains (LR)—have collapsed. The political landscape of France now consists of three blocs: a center-right bloc around Macron, the far-right bloc around Le Pen, and the radical reformist Left around Mélenchon.

Macron rode the wave

Macron’s reelection itself was far from a foregone conclusion. Since he was first elected in 2017 on a “both right and left” platform, it has become clear the balance was decisively tilted towards the right. Tax cuts for the rich, the relaxation of labor laws, the toughening of access to benefits, and the underfunding of public services did nothing to improve the condition of working-class people. Macron could however count on the political Left being widely discredited by the experience of the Hollande presidency (2012-2017), and trade unions were not able to put up effective resistance to Macron’s attacks at first.

This led to resistance springing up in 2018-2019 in the most unexpected form: the Yellow Vests. A movement born out of social network groups opposed to a new tax on gas, it spread throughout the country, in particular in the countryside and small towns. Many of these places had seen workplaces and public services disappear. Reliance on cars for driving to work, or other aspects of life, meant any further increase in fuel costs was going to be felt more heavily on people living outside the cities. As the movement developed and took on a more insurrectionist character, the fuel tax question was soon overtaken by a more general protest at the cost of living, and a questioning of the whole functioning of French democracy. As clashes with the police became more frequent, some links were forged with movements protesting racist police violence. The development of the movement along with the intervention within it of Left and trade union activists led to a shift of its general consciousness away from conspiracy theories and the influence of far-right opportunists.

Pro-Yellow Vest/Gilet Jaune propaganda, April 2019. Reading: “Profits ‘trickle-down’ from bottom to top”, and quoting Macron from 2017 saying, “I don’t believe in French jealousy towards the rich.” Image by Citoyen Chouette.

The yellow vests were effectively defeated through a mix of concessions and, more importantly, repression. Thousands were arrested, thousands more were injured, amongst whom eleven lost an eye and five lost a hand. The bitterness remained and hardened as the movement ebbed. While some who had taken part were now firmly on the Left, many demoralized participants fell prey to conspiracy theories. This became particularly clear when Macron’s government used a heavy-handed approach of tough lockdown measures and compulsory vaccination during the COVID-19 crisis. The anti-vaccine pass movement which spread last summer became an important opening for the far-right to rebuild its presence in the street. Those marches were markedly less working-class than the yellow vest movement, but a number of yellow vest activists took part or were sympathetic to them, as were sections of the Left, which led to an increase in political confusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic had come in the middle of a major confrontation. Macron had launched a wide reform of the pension system which would have led to an important reduction in pension payments, a dismantling of the special conditions a number of workers benefit from, and a general raising of the pension age. Massive strikes erupted, in particular in the transportation system. Macron made some minor concessions while insisting on pushing through most of his reform. This is when the pandemic hit in March 2020, and a general lockdown was imposed. At this point, Macron decided to shelve his pension plans until the COVID-19 health crisis had passed.

While there were important policy failures at various points, Macron managed to navigate the COVID-19 crisis relatively unscathed. Massive state support meant there was not a huge increase in unemployment, poverty, or the number of bankruptcies. The vaccine campaign was also globally successful. On the minus side, the crisis highlighted the damage done to the public health service by Macron’s neoliberal policies. The stop-and-go character and heavy-handedness of lockdowns, school closures, and mask mandates, also increased distrust towards the state.

His mandate has also seen a shift to the right in terms of civil liberties. The liberal anti-racist values he was putting forward in 2017 were replaced by government campaigns against “wokism” and “islamo-leftism”. Reactionary police union protests were attended by ministers, and several Muslim NGOs were banned, including the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, which researched instances of islamophobia and defended its victims in court.

All in all, Macron has managed to consolidate the massive support he gets from the ruling class while keeping the approval of the middle layers and enough of the working class to come top of the first round with 28 percent. But a big part of the population, especially within the working class, has built up massive resentment against him and everything he stands for.

Le Pen, fascist media darling

This created an opening for Marine Le Pen. Since succeeding her father in 2011, she has emphasized the “dédiabolisation” or “undemonizing” of the Front National, in order to try and make it look like a respectable political force. Changing the name of the party to the less martial Rassemblement National (RN) (“National Rally”) was a part of this strategy, as was breaking publicly with her father Jean-Marie, who had founded the Front National. But she also carried on his strategy of presenting herself as a champion of the lower classes against a global elitist cabal.

The media happily played along, emphasizing how different the RN was now, making Marine Le Pen into a tabloid celebrity, inviting her to appear on countless talk shows to speak about her new passion for raising cats, the difficulties of daughter-father relationships, life after divorce, etc.

Macron’s Islamophobic policies have made her own look acceptable if not mainstream, and the Minister of the Interior Darmanin even called her “soft” on political Islam. During the Yellow Vests movement, she made sympathetic noises, while staying at a distance from the movement itself. During her campaign she emphasized questions around the cost of living, with a measure of success – this was listed as the number one priority among her voters, with immigration and law and order coming second and third, respectively. The emergence of fascist TV host Eric Zemmour—who openly called for preparations to be made for civil war against Muslims, and was for a while the darling of the media—also helped her look tame in comparison.

Yet the name “Le Pen” remains what it has been since her father first made electoral headway in the 1980s: a rallying point for racists. In a climate where racism is encouraged daily by the government’s policies, this was enough to advance to the second round. It also stands for undefined anger at the status quo, as could be seen in certain sections of working-class voters in the second round: those for whom the overriding consideration was “anyone but Macron”, including a number of Yellow Vests. Remarkably, a sizable number of voters in the Antilles who had voted for Mélenchon in the first round voted for Le Pen in the second round. Most analyses agree that this was due to Macron’s typically colonial repression of protests against his COVID-19 policy. Half of Le Pen’s voters in the second round chose her to stop a second Macron term rather than out of agreement with her policies – nearly the same proportion of Macron voters had blocking Le Pen as their priority.

But Le Pen’s RN remains at its core a fascist party: all the toning down of rhetoric can’t hide its authoritarian racist project. This was made clearer during the period between the two rounds of voting: Le Pen’s program included banning Muslim women from wearing a hijab in public, blocking foreigners and even those French citizens who have another citizenship from access to housing, jobs, and benefits. Plans were afoot for going around the lack of a majority in parliament, in the shape of rule by referendum, a reshaping of the electoral law to suit the RN, etc. Zemmour’s party as well as the various fascist groups naturally supported Le Pen in the second round.

The fact that over 13 million voters cast a Le Pen ballot is yet another warning that fascism is a real and present danger in France today, one that no left-wing force can ignore.

Mélenchon: reformism reborn

The dissatisfaction with both Macron and Le Pen found its clearest expression in the very high vote total for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. He missed advancing instead of Le Pen only by a slim margin (21.95 percent to her 23.15 percent). This was all the more impressive as the landscape on the Left had seemed dire only a few months before, with various attempts to find a unifying figure.

In the event, the formerly hegemonic Parti Socialiste reached its absolute nadir with the candidacy of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (1.75 percent). In order to differentiate himself from Mélenchon, Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel waged a very right-wing campaign, echoing reactionary views against “wokism”, defending the police, and standing alongside islamophobic pundits. The plaudits this earned him from the media didn’t translate into votes, however (he got 2.28 percent). The Green candidate Yannick Jadot also tacked right, with marginally better results (4.63 percent).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 2022. Photo by Thomas Bresson.

Undoubtedly the notion that Mélenchon was the only Left candidate with a chance of making it to the second round convinced many voters who hadn’t intended to vote for him at first. But he has also managed to give expression to a coherent radical reformist outlook, which attracted votes from all sectors of the working class, with a high degree of active approval for his program. His confronting racism and islamophobia head-on was particularly impressive in the current climate, as was his denouncing of police violence and the influence of far-right police unions. In working-class towns around major cities, where many racialized workers live, his vote often went above 50 percent. Together with a detailed program for environmental planning, improved benefits and pensions, and an energetic campaign lasting over more than a year he has managed to beat the previous record of a candidate to the left of social-democracy (1969 again, when Jacques Duclos managed to get 21.3 percent)

What now?

Mélenchon and his team have decided to seize the moment and call for unity for the upcoming parliamentary elections (June 12 and 19). Without a majority in the national assembly, the French president cannot appoint a government of his own choosing and Mélenchon has boldly put himself forward as a “candidate for prime minister” before the presidential election’s second round had even taken place. Talks have just been concluded with the Communist Party, the Greens, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) and even the Parti Socialiste. The positive side is that this has led to a united strategy which maximizes the chances of victory for the left, or at least of gaining a substantial number of seats. However this has been achieved at the cost of concessions to the Parti Socialiste, and a softening of the program. The NPA ended up being offered only a desultory place in the coalition and has decided not to be a part of it, while calling to vote for it. The desire for unity is strong and it is clear a sizable left contingent around Mélenchon’s organization would signal the rebirth of a radical reformist Left at a level not seen since the 1970s.

It is also clear that Macron will face opposition in the streets, sooner rather than later. There has been no major social movement since the battle over pensions in 2019-2020, but a new move on this front is bound to encounter a similar level of resistance. The question of racism and police violence is also unlikely to go away—and directly linked to it is the question of the fight against racism more broadly, and against the far-right specifically. Finally, the climate crisis has motivated hundreds of thousands of mostly young people to take to the streets in the past few years: Macron’s solution is to rely on an expansion of nuclear power—but this poses other grave environmental hazards.

On all these fronts Mélenchon’s Union Populaire advocates clearly progressive policies, including on racism where massive progress has been made when one bears in mind the more restrictive positions Mélenchon was holding some years ago. However, it remains a reformist force. One fundamental aspect of this is its attachment to the national state, including its army. Its criticism of French imperialist policies in Africa and elsewhere are too often non-existent or abstract. In organizational terms, the Union Populaire’s weakness is its narrow focus on elections: in many areas, its activists are either entirely absent from struggles or present only as members of trade unions or other groups. One unfortunate line from Mélenchon during the campaign was that electing him would make it possible to do without strikes and protests. These negative tendencies are naturally made stronger by the formation of a coalition with the more right-wing Greens and Parti Socialiste.

A note on the revolutionary Left: the two candidates from a Trotskyist background obtained paltry votes (0.6 percent for Lutte Ouvrière’s Nathalie Arthaud and 0.8 percent for the NPA’s Philippe Poutou). The latter has however attracted widespread sympathy for putting forward uncompromising positions on racism, the redistribution of wealth, police violence, LGBTIphobia, etc. A common refrain during the last days of the campaign was “we love you, but we’ll vote for Mélenchon in order to keep Le Pen out of the second round”. A symptom of the NPA’s radical yet non-sectarian reputation is the fact that Mélenchon’s Union Populaire had addressed it as a possible partner for the parliamentary elections and a potential government – although, as mentioned above, this turned out to be a mainly symbolic gesture. It is clear revolutionary socialists in France must address the desire for a fighting unity on the Left, while defending our specific analyses and our focus on struggles from below.

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Sylvestre Jaffard View All

Sylvestre Jaffard is an activist in Paris and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).