French Presidential Election – Left divided and on back foot

Dave Kellaway looks at the French presidential elections with the first round starting on 10 April 2022.


They do politics a bit differently in France. In a general election, tens of thousands of people go to political meetings. Some political rallies can draw between 50,000 and 100,000 people. During the official campaign every candidate, even when they have no parliamentary representation, gets equal time on the media. Their election statements are distributed free to every household in France. All your election expenses are reimbursed if you win 5% or more of the votes. Activists for the different candidates spend countless hours putting up their posters and often covering up their opponents. Militants work the markets and some workplaces,  however door to door canvassing, as we know it here, is not so common. Voting takes place in two rounds unless one candidate gets 50% or more on the first one. In ten days we will see the first round of this year’s French presidential elections. It is the most important election in France where the President holds all the key powers.

This year the usual frenzy has been muted to a degree by the Covid pandemic and the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Abstention is projected to be the highest ever at around 30% of the electorate. A sense that the political establishment does not really change anything fundamental in favour of working people, which already existed pre-pandemic, is still very strong. It was reflected somewhat in the spontaneous uprising of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) which emerged outside of all political parties and was located often away from the big cities. 

At the same time, the seeming inevitability of a repeat of the second round run-off that took place last time between Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen has taken away some of the political energy and encourages non-participation. Many of the parties are more focused on the likely political re-composition that will take place both on the right and left following the election. Positioning your party to save or increase your seats in the parliamentary elections in June is high on everybody’s political agenda.

Is Macron heading for a second term?

In the opinion polls, the mainstream right (Pecresse) combined with the hard-right/neo-fascists (Le Pen and Zemmour respectively) are at around 43%. The mainstream right is winning only a quarter of that. On paper, the right should be in a good position to win the second round but the neo-liberal centrist, Macron, can rely on both the moderate and more radical left to hold their noses to block the hard right and keep him in power. He would become the first two-term president since Chirac was elected in 1995. 

Macron has benefited from being the president/candidate at one and the same time, being in the game but above the game, projecting himself as an international mediator in the Ukrainian war. His popularity had been waning as he had failed to carry through many of his key reforms and done little to help working people. He has a buffer of 7% in the polls above Le Pen but the gap has decreased. Big payments to the McKinsey consultancy company for services during the pandemic have become a talking point. Some projections for the second round have Le Pen at 47%, last time Macron won 66% of the vote. Macron’s allies like the ex-prime minister Phillipe, have raised the growing Le Pen threat today but it could be tactically as much about mobilising the vote from the first round rather than accepting that there is a real risk that Macron will lose. Paradoxically the Zemmour project might have helped Le Pen. Far from crushing her movement, he has faltered on about 10%. His more extreme policies, like a ‘re-migration’ ministry to send migrants back or banning Muslim names make Le Pen a bit more respectable. Like UKIP/Brexit party, his party might deliver some extra votes to Le Pen in the second round.

The steady advance of the tortoise

Here we want to concentrate on the left political forces. The big talking point over the last few days has been the steady advance of Melenchon who has got up to 14.7% in third position, only 6 points behind Le Pen. Trying to shed a somewhat explosive image he has compared his campaign to the tortoise against the hare. He needs to peel off votes from the Ecologists and other left candidates as well as pick up votes from those thinking of abstaining. His team has reportedly already offered Jadot, the ecologist leader, a deal where they could have a third of the seats on a common slate for the June parliamentary elections if they would open up to supporting him. Melenchon’s manifesto has better ecological content than in previous elections. 

A more difficult problem is Roussel, the candidate of the Communist Party which supported Melenchon from the start in 2017. Party activists revolted against a rerun of the partnership this time, correctly recognising that being a subordinate partner was eroding their electoral base. Roussel is running at 3.3% in the polls, better than expected, and has firmly rejected any idea of standing down. He has run a type of blue labour campaign – marching with reactionary police organisations, making jokes against so-called woke politics, defending existing hunting laws and reasserting the traditional French diet of good beef, wine and cheese against the alleged attacks of the Greens.

The Communist Party is facing an existential crisis and needs to defend its dwindling number of MPs and councillors. Projecting its identity in this election is seen to be the best preparation for the parliamentary elections where it will deal as much with the Socialist Party (PS) as with Melenchon.

Looking for cross over votes from those supporters of the PS candidate, Hidalgo, will not be very fruitful given her score is not a great deal more than the combined polling scores of the revolutionary Marxist candidates, Poutou and Arthaud of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and Lutte Ouvriere (LO, Workers Fight). Both Jadot and Hidalgo have launched vitriolic attacks on Melenchon for his attitude to Putin. He is for leaving NATO  – although he supports the French nuclear deterrent – and he does err towards the campist view of international politics, broadly supporting Putin’s intervention in Syria. This may hold off some desertion of their voters.

Should the left rally around Melenchon in the first round?

Nevertheless, the relative success of the campaign so far means that Melenchon’s call for a tactical vote for him as the ‘leader’ of the left, will have some traction. It would be more coherent if his whole approach since 2017, where he missed getting into the second round by just a few percentage points, had been based on a democratic construction of a left electoral coalition going from the revolutionary left, the Communist Party and sectors splitting from the PS. Calling supporters of the PC, NPA or LO to ‘vote usefully’ or tactically (vote utile) from the first round tends to disrespect these parties’ own projects and commitments. For example, Poutou for the NPA says a vote for him will strengthen that section of the left that understands the need for building the struggles, developing working-class self-organisation and going beyond electoral politics.

At the end of the day if Melenchon believes he can win support to be president he needs to be able to do better than the 20% the hard-right Le Pen is projected to get. In any case, even if he got to the second round nobody gives him any chance of defeating Macron so the other left currents cannot be accused of stopping a left presidency. Certainly, the NPA and the PC would call for a clear vote for Melenchon against Macron in a hypothetical second-round matchup.

Looking at the maths, with the left in its broadest sense at 25% Melenchon would have to win moderate progressives from Macron and big numbers of deserters from the right. An additional problem for him is that there are signs that the Zemmour vote is softer than thought. If it looked like a Melenchon surge would pip Le Pen into the second round you could see far-right and even mainstream right supporters voting tactically for Le Pen to stop Melenchon.

Melenchon and the other new left parties

La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) is the latest incarnation of the movement led by Melenchon after he split from the PS in 2008. Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in the Spanish State, Rifondazione in Italy, the Bloco in Portugal or even Corbynism here in England, his split was caused by the crisis of the reformist Social democrats or Communist parties in the context of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the post-war settlement.  Social democratic parties faced with austerity measures or the 2008 economic crash aligned themselves with neo-liberal solutions. In some cases, the movements came from a split inside reformist parties like in France or Italy or an ‘internal’ split that captured the leadership as in Britain (England and Wales). In other cases, revolutionary Marxists were influential in the very establishment of such currents as in Portgual or the Spanish state.

Overall these currents had a positive impact on the class struggle and the fight for a socialist alternative. Some have degenerated (Syrizia), realigned with reformism (Podemos) or left the scene (Rifondazione).  Today in France it is a good thing that possibly between 15 and 20% will vote for a programme more radical than Corbyn’s which directly challenges capitalist interests. The policies on the minimum wage and the pension age reduction are radical alternatives to Macron and defend working people’s living standards. A call for a constituent assembly to draw up a much more democratic Sixth Republic opposed to the authoritarian Presidential one is also a radical move all the left should support. 

Enthusiastic crowds of tens of thousands have attended the meetings. Young people, ethnic minorities and working-class people are supporting his campaign. Whatever happens in the election this is an asset on which to build an opposition to the probable Macron government which will continue to carry out a neoliberal restructuring of the economy and society. Increasing the pension age and increasing workfare for benefits are just two of his regressive policies.

A left critique of Melenchon

Criticism from the left – from both the NPA and LO candidates – is not so much about the policies being put forward, although differences do exist, but rather of method and strategy.  As we have seen with the other new left parties there has been a drift into a populist strategy, downplaying class differences in favour of slogans like ‘citizens against the caste’ or ‘neither right nor left’. Electoral work became the dominant activity rather than building a local network of activists focused on building self-organisation in the workplaces and communities. This was often linked to the projection of a national leader embodying the ideals of the movement – such as Iglesias in the Spanish State or Melenchon in France.

This would not be so bad – given how the mass media operates in our societies – if the leader is held accountable and the movement is democratically organised. Social media networks were often substituted for building a vibrant party democracy allowing a leader like Melenchon or Iglesias to set up consultations or referendums rather than argue their political line through internal debate. Such developments have meant that the relationship between the revolutionary left and these parties has evolved over time as their initial radicalism changed. For a period the PC and the NPA shared some common initiatives with Melenchon but these have mostly finished.

Even with these criticisms, a party like the NPA has not found it easy to relate to Melenchon’s movement. The growth of the NPA to over 9000 members then came up against the pull of the Left Party, as Melenchon’s movement was then called. A minority of the NPA  leadership split and took some of the membership with them into the Left Front. 

Subsequent developments provide arguments for both sides of the debate. According to Poutou, the current membership of the NPA is under 2000. Those NPA comrades who formed Ensemble supporting the Left Party have criticised some of Melenchon’s policies  – e.g. his turn to flying the national flag at rallies, singing the anthem, anti-German diatribes and his notorious remarks about foreign workers taking bread from the French. Their current does not appear to have done any better than the NPA in terms of recruitment or influence.

How to build the left after the election

After his last campaign, Melenchon’s vote in the parliamentary elections was almost halved to 11% with 17 MPs. In this sense, he failed to draw together a united left opposition to Macron even if the LFI have been active in campaigns against Macron’s policies. The question that the NPA raises is will it be any different this time. How can the first-round vote for Melenchon – and the other left candidates – be built on to create effective opposition to Macron. How can the left lead the opposition to increasing the pension age for example or for increased military spending? 

The debacle of the PS campaign and the failure of the Ecologists to build on local election success will mean there will be plenty of new political initiatives and new regroupings underway. The left needs to put forward a bold project that is both anti-capitalist and ecologically radical. Organising the struggles goes hand in hand with the political debate. It is a mistake to crudely counter-pose struggles to political processes.

His third campaign, particularly if he fails to reach the second round, will perhaps mean Melenchon’s position changing in the leadership of the LFI – either through stepping back or an eventual challenge. Results in the parliamentary elections may be a factor here. Could this help progress towards new political realignments or will the LFI be satisfied by asserting its leadership of the left in the same way as before?

For the NPA participating in the elections means the voice of the class struggle left, as opposed to the institutional left, as it labels the LFI, is heard. Poutou, its candidate, has been crisscrossing the county attracting good numbers to his meetings, particularly younger people and local activists. His campaign will be an opportunity to strengthen the NPA and increase the audience for anti-capitalist ideas. The enthusiasm shown in his meetings can link up with the support for Melenchon and help build the struggle against the government emerging from these elections.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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