Le Pen down but not out

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The French presidential run-off last month saw fascist Marine Le Pen roundly defeated, but the 10.6 million votes she won, plus the high level of spoiled ballots and abstention, suggest that the winning candidate, neoliberal Emmanuel Macron, is not a solution, writes Sheila McGregor.

There was great relief at the outcome of the French presidential run-off. For the second time in 15 years the election of a fascist president had been blocked. The main traditional parties, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, might have been excluded from the second round of voting, but as far as Europe’s rulers were concerned the election of Emmanuel Macron, a pro-EU economic and social liberal, by 66 percent to Marine Le Pen’s 34 percent had broken the rise of the “populist right”.

But the reality underlying the outcome reveals a more complex picture. Marine Le Pen succeeded in doubling her father Jean-Marie’s 5.5 million votes in 2002 to 10.6 million this time, and in gaining 3 million votes between the first and second rounds. Unlike 2002, when conservative Jacques Chirac refused to debate with Jean-Marie Le Pen, Macron debated with Marine Le Pen over three hours on the Wednesday before the final round. This was the last element in the “normalisation” of the neo-fascist party the Front National in French politics, something Marine has been working hard to achieve since she took over as leader in 2011.

The shock which accompanied the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 was absent this time. Only Philippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), succeeded in puncturing her presentation as the anti-establishment candidate during the debates in the first round.

Many observers thought Marine Le Pen lost ground badly with her aggressive stance in the final debate with Macron. The Front National itself expected a better vote. Marion Marechal Le Pen, the granddaughter and close co-thinker of Jean Marie le Pen, has announced retirement from political life aged 27 after five years as a deputy.

From the point of view of anti-racists, anti-fascists and the left, the progress of the Front National is a matter of huge concern and the election of Macron can only give some slight respite. The Front National is hoping to become the key opposition party in the legislative elections in June. And it remains to be seen how Macron’s new party, En Marche! (On the move!), will fare and whether he will achieve a majority or instead become dependent on the Republicans.

The capitalist crisis which has led to the collapse of traditional parties in Europe is ongoing. It provided the backcloth to the emergence of President Trump in the United States. In the first round of the French presidential election the centre-left Socialist Party saw its vote collapse on a scale comparable to the routing of governing party PASOK in Greece in 2012.

The collapse of the centre-left in France generated space for the rise of a left wing candidate in the first round of the elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. His anti-austerity programme won him 7 million votes and saw tens of thousands attending rallies around the country.

Macron, who resigned from Hollande’s government because he did not think Hollande pursued neoliberal policies hard enough, has made it clear that he intends to pursue an assault on workers’ rights, pensions and benefits, and cut jobs in the public sector. He has promised to move straight away on measures weakening workers’ protection.

Small wonder 4 million people who did not want to vote for the bosses or the fascists spoiled their ballots, and the level of abstention in the second round was 24 percent.

Consequences

Macron’s first government, announced in mid-May, was a statement of intent. A right winger, Edouard Philippe, was appointed prime minister. Bruno Le Maire, who had been a minister under right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, was named economy minister along with Gérald Darmanin, another Sarkozy ally, in charge of public finances.

The consequences, if Macron is successful, would feed through into lower wages, a delay in the pensionable age, and greater precariousness with weaker benefits. In turn this would feed into the misery and anger of those who Le Pen has been courting assiduously and with some success.

According to some analyses of the first round, Le Pen won more than a third of manual workers compared with a quarter for Mélenchon. Those living on less than 1,200 euros a month split along similar lines, with those “struggling at the end of the month” splitting 43 percent to Le Pen and 22 percent to Mélenchon. Interestingly, among the unemployed, Mélenchon won 36 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 21 percent.

Macron was attractive essentially to those feeling confident about their future. Geographically, it appears Le Pen has managed to consolidate the grip of the Front National in northern and eastern France as well as around the Mediterranean, focusing on “La France profonde”, the more remote countryside areas of France often without jobs and doctors. The implantation in areas around the Mediterranean is more to do with the unchallenged racism of the “Pieds noirs”, the white settlers who moved to France after Algerian independence in 1962.

The picture in France can seem quite daunting for those who want to challenge the growth of Le Pen’s fascist party. However, there are two crucial factors which can give a more hopeful picture: the vote in urban areas and the strength of Mélenchon’s campaign.

The towns and cities, particularly Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Grenoble, Besancon, Limoges and Clermont Ferrand, voted overwhelmingly against Le Pen in the second round.

Toulon, one of the towns which elected a Front National mayor 20 years ago, only saw 22 percent for Le Pen this time. So the towns and cities provide an enormous reservoir of strength from which to go out and campaign against the fascists in the surrounding countryside.

Strength

The second factor is the strength of Mélenchon’s vote in the first round. It is worth looking at some figures. In Perpignan, Le Pen got 40 percent against Macron in the run-off, yet in the first round Mélenchon was just three percentage points behind Le Pen. In Nimes, Mélenchon beat Le Pen in the first round. In Dreux, formerly a base of the Front National, Le Pen won just a quarter of the second round vote, and in the first round Mélenchon had won almost double Le Pen’s vote. In Calais, where Le Pen topped the poll, in the first round Mélenchon was ahead of Macron. In both Boulogne-sur-mer and Dunkirk Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s first round votes were extremely close, while in the second round Macron only beat Le Pen by a few percentage points.

Polls suggest that of those who voted Mélenchon in the first round, only 10 percent switched to Le Pen, with half voting for Macron and 40 percent abstaining. So in many places where Le Pen did well in the final round against Macron, the left has a strong base from which to challenge the fascists. There is clearly an audience for left reformist if not revolutionary solutions to the crisis facing workers.

Had the left united around one candidate, Mélenchon, in the first round and campaigned together against the fascist threat of Le Pen and for anti-capitalist solutions to the crisis, it would have transformed the election. There might well have then been a run-off between Macron and Mélenchon, which would have been a quite different story. As it is, Mélenchon’s mass rallies had a huge impact in invigorating the opposition.

There is one additional caveat. The Front National, whether Jean-Marie Le Pen’s version or Marine Le Pen’s version, is not simply an extreme right wing nationalist parliamentary party; it is a neo-fascist party. It has a fascist cadre at its core, kept on the leash while Marine Le Pen aims to gain state power through elections.

Millions voted Macron to stop Le Pen because they instinctively understand that. But the left must articulate that understanding, spell it out and start to challenge the Front National’s right to be treated as a normal party. The left has a responsibility to adopt the strategy articulated by Leon Trotsky for Germany in the 1930s of building a united front to fight the fascists. The longer this is not done, the harder it will be to implement.

Sheila McGregor will be speaking at Marxism 2017.
Go to marxismfestival.org.uk