For France, Another World Was Possible

Written in the immediate aftermath of the French election’s first round, Andrew P. lays out just how disastrous the election results were and the catastrophe that has overtaken the French left.

In a previous article I wrote that the French left was disunited and in shambles. In it, I lamented the failure of the Primaire Populaire and wrote that France needed a popular front now more than ever. But it all might not have mattered, if not for 420,882 votes.

I spent 10 April in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. Over forty percent of voters in the area, alongside every comrade I spoke to, voted for Mélenchon. None of them were under any illusions, the polls leading up to the election meant that most people were expecting a repeat of 2017, the last poll before election day confirmed the story, Mélenchon was popular, but no more than last time. But, at 8 PM when exit polls were released Mélenchon had outdone all the polls and received 21.95% of the vote! Behind him was the openly fascistic Éric Zemmour with only 7.07%, but it wasn’t enough. Mélenchon was in third place, but still 420,882 votes behind the famous fascist Marine Le Pen. Just 420,882 out of 35,923,727 or 1.17% of the vote. Another 802,588 people (2.28%) voted for the Communsit Party (PCF)’s Fabien Roussel; 616,614 (1.75%) voted for the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo; and a combined 466,106 (1.33%) people voted for the two Trotskyist candidates, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud. Combined, 1,885,278 (5.25%) French voters chose left-wing candidates who were not Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Armed with the knowledge of how close the election was, many comrades became depressed. If any left-wing party had made common cause with Mélenchon he would be in the second round. The PCF endorsed Mélenchon in 2017, but now they refused to vote for a candidate with an identical platform. In the same way that Clinton voters hated the Green Party after 2016, many French leftists are now fed up with the PCF. Indeed, Roussel is now the French Elizabeth Warren. When she supported Bernie in 2016 no one understood how possible victory was until it was too late. In 2020, when we were mobilized under the banner “Not me, us,” the Warren campaign was organizing a campaign that was so unpopular, it seemed as though its goal was to sabotage our truly progressive campaign. Like Bernie, Mélenchon learned from 2017 and even though he lacked the support of the PCF, organized the Union Populaire under a simple slogan: un autre monde est possible (“another world is possible”).

But the French left is not deluded. Pre-election polls showed Macron defeating Mélenchon 60-40 in the second round. The right is always willing to unite when faced with the ‘danger’ that we pose, liberals will always welcome fascists into their ranks if it means their marginal tax rate will be just 1% lower. But those 420,882 votes were proof that, this time around, another world was possible.

But this is a moot point. Mélenchon will not be in the second round. Instead, France is faced with a choice from hell.

It’s a choice that they’ve faced before, but things are different. The morning after the election, I had a horrifying conversation with a comrade from the west of France. The polls for the second round are a closer than last time 一 55-45 in favor of Macron 一 but, like Mélenchon, I have been encouraging a blank vote. I understand the horror of voting for a man who obliterated the pensions of a generation as a way to cut taxes for the very rich. There is no humane choice, so why vote? When I told my comrade that she should abstain she responded bluntly, “Abstention = Macron” and told me that she would be voting Le Pen in the second round. A trans-rights activist, communist, and first round Mélenchon voter is going to vote for the racist, authoritarian, and homophobic Marine Le Pen. I could not understand why until later that same day when I spoke to another comrade who plans to abstain, he told me that, despite abstaining he hopes Le Pen will win. I was shocked, why would a leftist with a black wife want Le Pen to win? Her electoral program includes turning black French people into second class citizens by offering a perverse form of ‘affirmative action’ to their white compatriots, giving them legal priority in housing and employment. When asked, he simply answered: “Things, they cannot go on this way.”

Macron is hated, and his administration has spent the past five years engaging in open class warfare. Now, while campaigning for a second term, Macron has declared his desire to raise the retirement age to 65. Meanwhile, Le Pen intends to lower it to 60. Are we shocked that voters, trapped in neoliberalism’s awful logic, are responding to their material interests?

There is a new sense that Le Pen is not as extreme as she actually is. This campaign, her “most boring,” is also her most effective. This perception is helped by her fascist niece, Marion Maréchal, who joined Zemmour’s campaign instead of her own aunt’s. Her familial betrayal helps explain why Le Pen does not look so extreme this time around.

There is a theory that France, at its core, is divided into two ‘parties:’ those that are for the revolution of 1789 and those that are against it. This divide is symbolized by laïcité – France’s extreme form of separation of church and state. When Le Pen attacks Muslim immigrants for wearing the hijab, she says that they are insufficiently secular. Zemmour and Maréchal, however, are against the revolution, and they therefore oppose the hijab on the grounds of Catholicism, the ‘problem’ is not that they are religious, the problem is that they are not Catholic. France’s revolutionary traditions are broad, and being for the revolution does not mean that one is on the left, but for a certain number of French leftists, Le Pen’s calls for laïcité are evil, but also consistent with France’s secular traditions.

If that is the case, if, like Mélenchon, she believes in earlier retirement, and in a forceful (but extremely different) interpretation of laïcité, why are we shocked that members of the French working class are planning to vote for her? There is a sentiment that no matter how bad Le Pen may be, Macron has made things so bad that she could not make them any worse. The ‘overton window’ has shifted in France, and voters, even leftists, now believe that the daughter of a Holocaust denier whose party was founded by Nazi collaborators and the French Tea Party is less extreme, she is not. Christine Taubira and Fabien Roussel have already endorsed Macron while Philippe Poutou has made it clear, “Marine Le Pen is a FASCIST RACIST accused of diverting public funds. NOT ONE VOTE FOR LE PEN.” With one exception, the left’s party leaders are uniting behind Macron’s ‘Republican Front,’ but voters are different. Among them, there is a belief that something has to change and that is not how we, on the left, are perceived. The left is against racism, against homophobia, against raising the retirement age and cutting pensions, against neoliberalism, and against an unfair world. But if we are against every negative change, we are, in effect, in favor of the status quo. Le Pen is for something, facism, but it is a change that people can imagine.

French voters are forced to ask themselves how Le Pen’s racism would be any different than the racism that already exists throughout France? On the train into Paris, I was stopped by the customs police. With my white skin and French, they asked me a few questions and apologized for interrupting me. The woman that they stopped after me had brown skin and, through no fault of her own, couldn’t speak French. Her ID was checked, her suitcase was opened and the police threw her neatly packed clothes all over the train, looking for smuggled cigarettes. They asked for her life story, everyone she had ever known, and intruded on her personal life so deeply that I was ashamed of listening. There are plenty of worse stories about the abuse that the French police heap upon black communities across France, but this was on election day, and I ask myself the same thing every French voter is asking themselves right now, can things get any worse?