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France and the exciting prospect of advance for the left

With the tantalising prospect of Melenchon’s left alliance winning a majority in the national assembly, KEVIN OVENDEN takes a look at the shifting French political forces where, for the left, there’s all to play for

FIVE years ago there was jubilation among the liberal-capitalist centre that Emmanuel Macron had not only won the presidency but had then secured a solid majority in the separate national assembly elections with 350 seats out of 577.

That euphoria and almost erotic investment in the dashing, young, liberal moderniser have today given way to a dose of reality. 

His majority in April’s presidential election narrowed compared to 2017. He lost two million votes. His second-round opponent Marine Le Pen, heading the far right, gained over two million.

Then last Sunday in the first round of the assembly elections his bloc of candidates was neck and neck with the left/centre-left bloc headed by the radical left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon. 

There were only a few thousand votes in it. The left Nupes coalition probably won. There is uncertainty due to some dispute about allocating the votes of individual candidates to the electoral coalition’s overall total.

Le Pen’s far-right bloc improved on its vote of five years ago, crushed a rival slate by the virulent racist TV personality Eric Zemmour, but came a distant third. 

The complexities of the national assembly election system make accurate seat projections very difficult. There may be three candidates, not just two, in the run-offs in many constituencies on Sunday.

It isn’t even clear where the votes of defeated candidates will go. Some 65 per cent of voters say they do not want Macron to have another assembly majority. Some may accordingly vote tactically. Abstention last Sunday was 52 per cent. No-one knows if more will be encouraged to vote this coming Sunday when most actual seats will be decided.

It is certainly possible that Macron will be deprived of the 289 seats he needs for a majority. And it seems certain that the Nupes bloc will be at least second and therefore that the left/centre-left rather than the traditional right will be the official opposition if Macron does scrape through.

The left is by all accounts conducting a vigorous and imaginative campaign in the teeth of what is nothing short of a full-blown witch-hunt by the state and the political centre. They are accusing Melenchon of being “pro-Putin,” soft on “Islamic separatism” and a danger to France.

Whatever the final results, one thing is already for sure. None of this ought to be happening according to the exaggerated predictions of most commentators five years ago or if you followed only the coverage of the corporate media since then.

For them Macron in 2017 was meant to be the liberal-centre’s champion who would put an end to what they saw as a dangerous “populist tide” that threatened the hold of technocratic, modernising governments of the Blair-Clinton-Obama stripe on both sides of the Atlantic.

The term “populism” was inflated way beyond any use it had had in looking at various historical movements or political techniques, above all in late 19th-century America. 

Into it were thrown radically different and opposed political shocks from the left and from the right.

The idea was to replace the left/right division with one between the rational centre and the supposedly irrational populist “extremes.” 

So the election of Donald Trump and the advance of the far and fascist right in France were just a variant of the election to government of the radical left Syriza in Greece or of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. 

Macron’s win in France was to be the liberal riposte to Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US. He was to become the anti-Trump, rolling back the populist tide not only in France but rallying the centre to do so everywhere.

Though he of course opposed Le Pen, they both shared, from different directions and their own end goals, a common aim to reshape French politics. For him: “liberal rational v irrational populist.” Her version: “globaliser elite v patriotic popular.”

Shared was the total marginalisation of the radical left and left overall, and with them the working-class movement. To achieve, in other words, what previous right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy said was his aim in 2007 — to erase from French politics and history 1968 and its legacies.

There was a stubborn obstacle to this five years ago even if the world’s leading capitalist papers refused to mention it, positing instead that politics in France was simply Macron v Le Pen.

The reality was that Melenchon had won seven million votes in the first round, just 700,000 short of beating Le Pen into the run-off. The radical and anti-capitalist left vote as a whole was bigger than hers. 

Further, despite the obstacles of turning that into assembly seats two months later, Melenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) was able to form a group with 17 deputies. Le Pen’s National Rally fell short of the threshold with only eight seats and behind the Communist Party. 

That meant that despite efforts to marginalise and destroy the radical left — through squeezing it between Macron and Le Pen — there was a national presence that could make itself politically relevant. 

It proved crucial as Macron’s presidency quickly unravelled. Modernisation meant neoliberal attacks on union and workers’ rights, welfare and regulation. 

A purported commitment to environmentalism which had been attractive to young voters turned mainly into higher taxes on ordinary car users, hitting especially depressed small towns in rural France. That provoked the yellow vests revolt.

A brutal state clampdown and a vast extension of police powers alienated sincere civil libertarians. A nasty Islamophobic turn led to the closure of 700 mosques and measures that Le Pen opportunistically denounced as racist.

Assaulting worker organisation, authoritarianism and yet more racism could all be expected to boost Le Pen and the far right. They did. Her vote increased and the traditional right collapsed.

But hers was not the only gain. Melenchon and the LFI also advanced. He was just 400,000 votes behind Le Pen this April.

The radical left has also strengthened its active support and more clearly taken up some crucial issues in French politics. Melenchon and LFI deputies joined a demonstration in 2019 with Muslim organisations and the far left against Islamophobia. He was attacked by the political Establishment, including social democrats.

Now the same political forces are attacking him for running an insurgent campaign — alongside the Communist Party, Socialist Party and Greens — which sets out to win the support of the enraged and alienated, so many of whom have abstained in recent elections. 

He has directly addressed that considerable part of the 13.3 million voters who chose Le Pen in April not out of positive support for her but out of rage against Macron and his elitist politics and style.

For aiming to achieve what anti-fascism in France needs to do, that is to break up Le Pen’s support, not accept it as inevitable, he was smeared as seeking an alliance with the fascists. An “Islamic separatist” AND a French fascist?

The truth is a political force that won the support of 70 per cent of Muslims who voted in the first presidential round and that has considerable support in many larger provincial cities, giving it a potential springboard into left-behind nearby towns.  

Some of those trying to smear all this refused to say at the start of this week whether they would endorse radical left candidates where they were in a run-off with the far right on Sunday. 

Communist Party leader Fabian Roussel asked Macron whether he had abandoned the policy of the “Republican Front” of backing any candidate against the far right in a run-off. 

The response from a government minister was to acknowledge that Roussel had backed Macron in April’s contest and to say that he and the Communists were still “considered part of the [democratic] front.” But that was not extended to more radical candidates, who it seems will be judged on a “case by case basis.”

So much for the sincerity of liberal anti-fascism. It gives way to stopping the most radical of the left and to trying to divide the left for base political gain.

Le Pen has her own dilemma. There are many run-offs where it is Melenchon’s bloc versus Macron’s. She has falsely claimed to be the anti-systemic force in France and thus the “anti-Macron” who can save the country from his “globalism.”

But she calls for an abstention in those seats. That is to help Macron, who she says she despises, to secure a majority. Her policy has allowed militants of the left to make principled arguments to some of those conned previously into voting for Le Pen that in reality she is a tool of the Establishment. That’s why she prefers to prop up Macron than to support the truly insurgent, outsider force. 

We shall see over the next few days, but the exciting prospect is an advance for the left and a blow struck to what has become normalised as permanent growth of the far right.

A lot can happen in the next four days. Seven years ago the 61 per cent No vote in the Greek austerity referendum was built in effectively five days against ferocious capitalist opposition. That vote was a left vote. But it was even more widely an angry working-class and plebeian vote led by the left. 

Whatever Sunday brings, France is telling us that an anti-systemic and anti-racist radical-left approach is not dead. Good luck to the French left. You are already inspiring the rest of us after so many setbacks in recent years.

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