For the first time neither of France’s main parties will be represented in the second round of its presidential elections, after an historic upset in Sunday’s first round.
Liberal Emmanuel Macron and fascist Marine Le Pen will qualify, according to preliminary estimated results. Radical left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and Tory Francois Fillon are neck and neck for third place, and social democrat Benoit Hamon trails a distant fifth.
Benoit Hamon’s Socialist Party (PS) is currently in office—but it barely scraped enough votes to get its campaign costs refunded.
When centre right parties picked Fillon as their candidate, their poll lead was such that he seemed a president in waiting. But his refusal to step aside after a series of embezzlement and corruption allegations left him badly damaged.
Macron, a former banker and product of the elite educational system, came first and is by far the favourite to win the second round. He was a senior minister in the PS government. But he came late to politics and managed to position himself as an “outsider” without the main parties’ toxic baggage.
His programme centres on even more cuts and attacks on workers’ rights than the PS government pushed through. As a candidate he avoided the Islamophobia that dominated recent governments, though this could quickly change.
The two small liberal parties that support him are unlikely to win enough seats in June’s parliamentary elections to govern alone. Coalition deals could produce a weak and nasty government, starting fights with a working class rejuvenated by last year’s mass strikes.
Fascist Le Pen missed out narrowly on the top spot that polls had predicted for her for most of the long election campaign. But with over 7.5 million votes and an increasing success among young voters she consolidated several years of growth for her fascist Front National (FN).
Le Pen responded to the shooting of a police officer in Paris on Friday with vicious racism. She called for all foreign or dual nationals officially suspected of “extremism” to be rounded up and deported. Thousands of people are in this category.
It had particularly chilling undertones coming just weeks after comments about the Holocaust. She denied the French state’s responsibility for rounding up and deporting foreign Jews to Nazi death camps.
For the next two weeks until the second round Le Pen has an unrivalled platform to spread such bigoted ideas. This racist poison affects the whole political landscape—and hardens up an audience of potential FN recruits.
Melenchon’s success underlines that there is an alternative to the fake choice between the hollowed out establishment gathering behind Macron and the nightmare of Le Pen. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his mass rallies, and over 7 million have voted for him.
His eclipse of the PS is an historic shift for the French left.
Mainstream politicians wasted no time in calling for a second round vote for Macron—and fear of Le Pen is expected to swell his score. But it's clear that rehashing the pro-business political establishment that laid the ground for Le Pen offers no hope of checking her rise.
It will take mass struggles—including united anti-fascist demonstrations—to do what the politicians won’t.
Successes in the first round give hope about prospects for Left after election
Hundreds of people protested against Le Pen in Place de la Republique in Paris after the result was announced on Sunday. Unite Against Fascism rallied in London and Liverpool on Monday.
More protests are planned in France on May Day, the date of the FN’s own annual rally.
Anti-fascist demonstrations dogged Le Pen’s campaign.
Larger and more sustained opposition can cut off her rise. But Macron’s programme means attacking the working class capable of building that opposition.
Melenchon’s success underlines that there is an alternative.
Hundreds of thousands of people attended his mass rallies, and over 7 million voted for him. His eclipse of the PS is an historic shift. Hamon’s victory in the PS primary was also a move to the left.
And the New Anticapitalist Party’s Philippe Poutou made an impact in TV debates, though this did not unfortunately translate into a big vote.
Melenchon was consulting members of his organisation France Unbowed on whether to back Macron as Socialist Worker went to press.
Poutou said, “We understand the desire” to “block the FN by voting for Macron”.
But, he warned, “It is the politics of austerity and authoritarianism—in particular from the so-called left government—that caused the rise of the FN and its sickening ideas.
“Macron is not a rampart against the FN.”
He added, “The only solution is to take to the streets—against the far right but also against those, like Macron, who attack the working class.”
Nazis push Islamophobia
One of Le Pen’s main lines of attack has been to call for restrictions on Muslims’ right to eat halal food or wear headscarves and veils.
This has been made easy for her by mainstream parties passing laws such as the 2004 ban on wearing headscarves at school.
The centre right, centre left and even sections of the far left argued that Muslim practices were a threat to the “Republic”, to secularism and women’s rights.
On that basis Le Pen could argue for going further. The centre left PS government’s two-year state of emergency brought vicious repression of Muslims, strikers and student protesters.
The last law it passed granted cops more powers to use their guns.
The main parties also attacked ordinary people’s living standards in defence of a system whose crisis increased unemployment and uncertainty.
At the same time as legitimising FN policies, they fuelled the despair and disillusionment it feeds on.