By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor
The first round of the French presidential election is on Sunday, April 10th; the two leading candidates meet in a run-off a week later.
The latest opinion polls show that only Jean-Luc Mélenchon can prevent the second round from being a reactionary contest between President Macron and Marine Le Pen to see who can best exploit the whipping up of racism and Islamophobia. 80% of the population refuses to accept this impossible choice.
Over the last few weeks, Mélenchon has been third in the polls. His ratings have been slowly rising since the beginning of February and more since the start of the war in Ukraine. President Macron continues to lead the polls, benefiting initially from a ‘flag effect’ growing from 23-26% to 30% when the Ukrainian war began. However, the latest polls show Macron losing votes in response to the new wave of attacks he is proposing on the population. By contrast, Pecresse, from the right-wing LR party, has been losing ground directly to Macron. As for Zemmour, his score has been going down to the benefit of Marine Le Pen. She has been gaining on Macron in projections for a second round between them.
The evolution of the right and the extreme-right
If there was any doubt at the time of his election as President, it is now clear that Macron must be included in the right-wing forces of French politics. Although unfortunately, some ex-Socialist party people like Chevènement continue to believe he is in the ‘centre’. Before 2017, Macron had no party and no followers. In the presidential contest, he appeared like the man of providence in a situation where the SP had collapsed after their five years in office. The Right lacked any political orientation or perspective to get out of the economic crisis, except by increasing the rate of exploitation. However you dress it up, such policies are not attractive to voters.
What is the balance sheet of Macron’s five-year reign? He has destroyed as much as he could of the social gains of the working class and exempted the richest from taxes. He has also shut down any opposition with utter repression, notably, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ spontaneous revolt of non-organised layers who had suffered years of declining living standards to the point of survival for some. The result was four hands and thirty eyes mutilated, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and put in custody with a complete disdain for their demands.
Macron’s response to the covid crisis was a constant oscillation between letting it spread and lockdowns in the most incoherent way, with wards and hospital beds continuing to be closed in the middle of the crisis. Finally, France faced racist rhetoric coming from the top, coupled with authoritarian and racist legislation.
Consequently, Macron’s electoral strategy in the current election has been simple: to avoid talking about his past five years, to avoid conducting a campaign at all and to behave as if he was going to be tacitly reelected anyway. He refused to participate in political debates on TV with other candidates. His cabinet said he was too busy with the Ukraine crisis as he is in charge of the European Commission for six months. At first, his strategy seemed to have worked, as historical experience shows that in times of war with its bellicose propaganda, the country unites around its leader. Hence his earlier rise from around 25% to 30% in the polls.
But in the absence of any political campaign, for which he has been much criticised, the President was finally obliged to present his program. In a four-hour public speech, he threatened even more destructive and socially violent measures than those he has taken in his present mandate. For example, in 2019, he proposed that people should retire at 62, with the ‘système à points’ (nobody can know in advance how much money one would get as ‘le point’ would depend on the global budget at the time when one retires). His program now talks about a pension at 65. He has not learned from the massive mobilisations against his previous pension scheme, which had to stop because of the covid lockdown.
Macron is proposing that in the future, the RSA work welfare benefit will only be paid if people work 20 hours a week. Currently, it is an allowance of 500€ per month, which an individual gets after the unemployment benefits have ended (after 2 or 3 years of unemployment). As a result, his poll ratings have declined.
Zemmour’s emergence onto the political scene was well orchestrated by the big-business media. He openly expressed fascist views on migrants, Muslims, and other oppressed people. He was able to drag the whole political spectrum to the right.
The LR (the main bourgeois party) candidate Valérie Pécresse tried to copy him but in such a blatant manner that she lost all credibility and her support decreased in the polls to the benefit of Macron.
Zemmour’s support has gone down, possibly because his rejection of Ukrainian refugees was completely against the tide in the population and unacceptable to many of his followers. He was also undermined by Marine Le Pen’s articulation of a fake ‘social’ program. However, by contrast, his platform revolves around the clash of civilisations, and he is pretty silent on all other matters. Zemmour’s breakthrough has also had a positive effect on Marine Le Pen’s image, who appeared as “moderate” compared to him.
The state of play on the left
Under the banner of l’union populaire, Mélenchon seems to be the only person in the political spectrum who has waged a real election campaign. But as he keeps repeating, it is not a matter of him but his program (l’avenir en commun), which is very popular. It is the same platform as the last election but enriched with new developments, for example, the centrality of anti-racism.
Mélenchon’s campaigning has been very intense with mass canvassing, especially in the ‘quartiers populaires’. He is attempting to reverse abstentionism in places where he has lots of support, especially with black people. He continues to hold enormous meetings and demonstrations in all the main towns, including Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier and Toulouse. In Paris, over 100,000 were in attendance.
Mélenchon’s position on Ukraine has brought him political legitimacy. Many consider he could be a good President for France and Europe with his proposals for peace and a neutral Ukraine. He has called for a cease-fire; a peace negotiation process and for Russian troops out of Ukraine. He supports France’s non-alignment in this war in the tradition of De Gaulle’s foreign policy. He has also been repeating his long time position of withdrawing from NATO.
As for the other forces on the left, they have stagnated or decreased in support compared to the election five years ago.
A new left
Mélenchon’s popularity can only be understood if we put it in the context of the political situation within the left over the last decades. Namely, in the face of the capitulation of social democracy to the neoliberal turn of capitalism, Mélenchon represents the resurgence of a new left, ready to govern and implement reformist policies in favour of the working class, i.e. linking up with the struggles and the genuine concerns of the population.
In the ’90s, the class struggle in France had been characterised by massive mobilisations but with no positive political outcome on the left. The Mitterand period, [elected as President in 1981] was a distorted and delayed political answer to May 68. Since then, there have been several huge movements that did not find any political expression on the left.
The first of these mobilisations was the fight against the bill called Plan Juppé. [Juppé was prime minister of the newly elected right-wing President Chirac in May 1995.] The bill attacked the public health system and the pensions of the public sector. The latter attack unleashed the biggest strikes since May 68, organised by all of the unions in the public sector, behind the CGT railway workers [The railway workers having remained one of the strongest battalions of the French working class]. The strikes also involved the private sector. It culminated with a two million-strong protest across France on December 12th 1995. Three days later, on December 15th, the government had to withdraw its pension reform. Until now, no government has been able to make significant changes to the pensions in the public sector.
According to the ministry of labour (ministère du travail), the enormous social movement included 6 million workers on strike, 4 million in the public sector and 2 million in the private and semi-public sector. Its victory has remained in the collective consciousness.
In 2006 another huge social movement started against the CPE (contrat première embauche). The government bill of January 16th proposed to make it legal to impose precarious jobs and overexploitation on people under 26 years old. Immediately after its announcement, university students started to mobilise nationally in opposition to the bill. Soon high school students joined in, and workers’ unions later. Nevertheless, the government voted it into law on March 31st after only one reading to speed up the process. On April 4th, workers’ unions called for a strike and demonstrations all over France, which attracted 3 million people. The strikes continued on April 6th. Eventually, the right-wing government withdrew the CPE law on April 10th.
Between these two victorious mass movements, there was the 2005 rebellion of the black youth in the suburbs, known as the ‘quartiers populaires’, which ignited France when two young people, Zyed and Bouna in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois died after being chased by the police. The anger spread all over France for three weeks and it was met by violent confrontations by the police. It was utterly repressed: drones were used; 6000 arrests were made; and a curfew was enforced, reminiscent of the period of the Algerian war. Mélenchon denounced the apartheid that youth were subjected to in ‘les quartiers’ and pointed out that the 2006 CPE bill’s main target was the black youth of the ‘quartiers populaires’.
The high level of resistance and the anger of the population shown in these struggles are at the core of the electoral alliances Mélenchon is trying to build.
The ruling class also learned how difficult it is to deprive the French working masses of their welfare state. Sarkozy and Macron, unfortunately, helped by the socialist Hollande, have been trying for years to break the combativity and resistance of the French working class. This is still its main agenda.
The two movements of 1995 and 2006 succeeded in creating a relationship of forces that inflicted a defeat on these bourgeois neoliberal reforms and forced the governments to step back. It was two victories won in the streets and by strikes. In 2006 they even succeeded in reversing a law that had already been voted on.
These struggles raised the question of power, but no political force was able to turn them into governmental power. In 1995, the question of a different society was raised and discussed. On the left, there was a growth in consciousness about how to achieve it. A whole generation of social and political activists from different parties who had supported and taken part in these vast mobilisations started to meet to prolong those struggles, aware that they needed a political outcome. This was even more so after the trauma of the 2002 presidential elections, when the National Front qualified for the 2nd round.
The opportunity for united front actions came with the “No” campaign in the referendum on the European Treaty in 2005. The left forces, the CP, the LCR and others, who had previously campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 formed a front, soon to be joined by other forces, including the Greens and individual members of the Socialist Party, Laurent Fabius former prime minister and senator Mélenchon. Trade unions and activists participated in the campaign. A thousand unitary committees were set up all over France to read the treaty. The European Treaty was rejected on the grounds that it was liberalism imposed undemocratically by the European institutions. Many debates took place. For the 3rd time, this struggle was successful: “No” won with 55% of the votes.
This combination of mass struggles and political debates laid the basis for an electoral coalition, which could prolong these dynamics of resistance. Mélenchon was the one to propose it, with his motto ‘dans les rues et dans les urnes’. In 2008, the Mélenchon current concretised its rupture with the neoliberal orientation of the SP by leaving the latter. They then founded the Parti de Gauche, whose aim was to create the Front de Gauche, a coalition of this new party, the Communist Party and other leftist organisations. The LCR, whose strategy had for years been to support social movements and strikes but not to go into government, considered it a reformist betrayal. They did not join but suffered two splits which later joined le Front de Gauche and later la France Insoumise.
This strategy of rejecting the social-democratic adaptation to neoliberalism of the last three decades (even more so since the 2008 crisis) while linking up with social movements and their demands has proved very productive and is rejuvenating the left.
Mélenchon represents the birth of a new left force that can mobilise large numbers in the streets, as was shown in the last three presidential elections. He believes things can be changed within bourgeois society via reforms and the power of democracy, and the demonstration of power on the streets. He sees the Latin American citizen revolutions as a model to emulate.
The Mélenchon current has gained credibility, particularly after the last disastrous Hollande government, which, instead of defending the interests of the working class, attacked it by imposing neoliberal policies. In 2017 Mélenchon was 600 000 votes short of going through to the 2nd round. This time Mélenchon lies third in the polls. His election campaign is the most dynamic, with meetings of tens of thousands and 100 000 supporters demonstrating in Paris on March 20th
Unfortunately, it is hard for other forces on the left, such as the SP, the Greens, and the CP, to come to terms with the fact that the Mélenchon current is today in a position to prevent the much second-round dreaded duel between Le Pen and Macron. Opinion polls should be viewed with caution; the predicted outcome can still be prevented if the bulk of the left rallies to Mélenchon at the last minute. It is not too late for France to avoid taking the terrible risk of having Le Pen face Macron in the second round.
Mélenchon has helped to facilitate a rebirth of the left. He is not only proposing a solution for France’s future: the hope of putting an end to this slow-motion drift towards the right and extreme right, but also he is pointing a way forward for Europe not to engage in a third world war with nuclear weapons.