Former banker Emmanuel Macron, who left the ruling so-called Socialist Party to form his own centrist movement, won the first round of the French presidential election April 23. A strong campaign by leftist leader Jean-Luc Melanchon was sabotaged by the refusal of the Socialist Party to withdraw its candidate who attracted very little support, but that was nonetheless more than enough to have advanced Melanchon to the second round. As a result, the working class in France finds itself in a highly troubling situation in which Macron’s challenger in the May 7 run-off will be Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Front.
The National Front (FN) is a racist, anti-immigrant party that it steeped in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic ideology. It is the standard bearer of the French far right, which held power in the south of the country in alliance with the Nazi invaders in the early 1940s.
The bigoted program of the National Front is combined with anti-globalization rhetoric to demagogically present the FN as the defender of the French working class. It demands a referendum on France’s European Union membership.
Emmanuel Macron, as a former minister under the current and highly unpopular president Francois Hollande, has demonstrated his hostility to the working class by pushing for “reforms” that would roll back the rights of labor and line the pockets of French capitalists. He is perhaps the worst imaginable leader for the majority of people in France who reject the reactionary politics of the National Front.
Socialist Party betrays left, paves way for Le Pen
In the first round, Macron received 24 percent of the vote, and Le Pen won just over 21 percent. The party of the establishment right wing, Francois Fillon, and Melanchon, whose political movement is called Unsubmissive France, both received approximately 20 percent.
The extremely unfavorable Macron vs. Le Pen scenario could have been avoided had the Socialist Party’s candidate, Benoit Hamon, dropped out and endorsed Melanchon. Instead, Hamon stayed in the race and was handed a historic defeat, ending up with barely more than six percent of the vote. The Socialist Party, once one of the two main parties in French politics, has been decimated due to its long-standing embrace of anti-worker policies.
Hamon’s decision to stay in the race, disastrous as it was, is not surprising given the history of the Socialist Party. It is socialist in name only and is firmly loyal to the ruling class, functioning as the center-left of bourgeois politics similar to the Labour Party in Britain or the Democratic Party in the United States. Its base among the working class has evaporated as it helped implement the austerity measures that have driven down living standards over the past several decades, and especially since the 2008 crisis.
In addition, if the vote totals of Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, respectively the candidates of the small Trotskyist organizations New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) and Workers Struggle (LO), are added to Melanchon’s, Melanchon narrowly defeats Le Pen and advances to the second round. While almost all of Poutou and Arthaud’s voters would have had to vote for Melanchon, the momentum generated from the unification of political forces to the left of the Socialist Party could well have been enough to put him over the top. The NPA received 1.1 percent of the vote, LO received 0.6 percent, and Le Pen advanced to the second round.
Fillon and Hamon immediately endorsed Macron for the second round of voting. Melanchon, however, has so far refused endorse anyone while maintaining a strong position in opposition to the National Front. Had Melanchon endorsed Macron, it would likely have bolstered the far right by strengthening Le Pen’s narrative that the FN alone was standing up to the political establishment.
Alexis Corbiere, a spokesperson for the Melanchon campaign, explained their position, “Not a single vote should go to the FN … Our friends who want to vote Macron will vote Macron and those who want to vote blank will vote blank. That’s it. But nobody should vote FN.”
Melanchon and others on the left are rightfully concerned that too supportive a posture towards Macron in the second round would undercut the next stage of struggle in France, which in all likelihood will be against a President Macron and his neoliberal agenda. A Le Pen presidency would of course be a grave threat to all working class and oppressed people in France, but so too would a situation in which the National Front can position itself as the main opposition to the system and set up for a victory in the next election.
Macron stumbles: Hillary Clinton all over again?
All the major opinion polls show Macron with a double-digit lead over Marine Le Pen in the second round, which will be held May 7. However, Macron is in many ways an ideal opponent as his brand of elite centrist, establishment politics stands in stark contrast to the National Front’s populism.
Macron’s weakness was on display when both he and Le Pen made campaign stops at the Whirlpool appliance factory in Macron’s home town, Amiens. The Amiens Whirlpool factory is threatened by outsourcing.
Le Pen was given a warm welcome, while Macron was booed and heckled by workers as he attempted to address them. The embarrassing failure of the Democratic Party to defeat Trump in the 2016 election shows how dangerous it is when the alternative to the far right is an obvious representative of the wealthy elite.
Even if Macron prevails as opinion polls predict, French politics will be irreparably changed and the far right will have achieved unprecedented success. But the strong showing for Melanchon, despite disunity on the left, shows that it is possible to put forward an alternative to both the capitalist establishment and the far right with a vision of fundamental change in the interests of poor and working people.