Toby Abse warns that Macron’s election victory does not herald the end of Europe’s far right
The outcome of the second round of the French Presidential Election on 24th April came as a great relief to anybody concerned about the advance of the Far Right on a world scale over the last few years. Nonetheless, a closer look at the results for both the first and second rounds will show that the Left has much to be concerned about.
Firstly, although Marine Le Pen lost – and lost by about 17% – her 41.4% is the highest national percentage vote a fascist candidate has ever got in a free election in a western European country. It was more than Hitler got against Hindenburg in the April 1932 presidential election, and more than the Nazis got at their highest point in the July 1932 general election (37.4%). Le Pen gained about 8% more than she had in the second round of the 2017 Presidential Election, picking up 2.7 million more votes. And of course, the difference between her score this year and that of her father Jean-Marie in the second round in 2002 is enormous. There was a gap of 20 million votes between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, a gap of 10 million between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in 2017, but only a difference of 5 million this time. It is also worth noting that she came top in 30 of the 101 départements (the French equivalent of counties). Moreover, she decisively beat Macron in the French Overseas Territories (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana) – mainly because of the massive abstention of those Afro-Caribbeans who had voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round – in which he topped the overseas poll – but who regarded Macron as just another oppressive white colonialist.
Most hated politician
Secondly, the abstention rate rose to 28% in the second round – the highest since the 1969 presidential election, in which Georges Pompidou beat a non-party candidate who had played a leading role in organising the opposition victory in the constitutional referendum that triggered De Gaulle’s resignation. The reasons for this abstention are partly structural, as a large section of the working class no longer sees any point in voting, given a choice between various brands of neoliberalism, and partly more personalised: Macron is one of the most hated of all French politicians, being regarded as an incredibly arrogant ex-banker, out of touch with ordinary people’s lives. He is often referred to as ‘ The President of the Rich’. This has meant that the prospect of a Republican front against any fascist candidate, i.e. the notion of an alliance embracing Socialists, Communists, Gaullists and Centrists, of the kind that gave Chirac a huge victory over Le Pen père – is fading rapidly. As French Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel put it, ‘When 28% of voters abstain, taking the risk of the election [of Marine Le Pen], one understands the extent to which the ideas of the extreme right have now been normalised in our country.’ The increase in abstention between the two rounds was also very clearly linked to the elimination of Mélenchon of France Insoumise, the third-placed candidate. Although the 61% who went to the polls for a second time in Seine-St.Denis, which is one of the poorest in the country, gave a majority of their votes to Macron, many of those who had voted for France Insoumise of the first round stayed away. Hence, in St.Denis, Macron’s victory was less marked than in Paris itself, not because Le Pen did particularly well in this multi-ethnic area, but because fewer voters saw any point in stopping her. In other cities, where Mélenchon had clearly been the frontrunner in April – Marseilles, Toulouse, Lille – the abstention rate was between 30% and 33%, some points up on the first round. Nationally, it is estimated that only 42% of Mélenchon’s electors voted for Macron in the run-off, with 17% voting for Le Pen and the rest abstaining.
The traditional mainstream parties of the Fifth Republic have been more or less eliminated. Obviously, this evaporation is to some extent the result of the rise of Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM). LREM has picked up voters from the moderate right who would once have been described as Gaullist or Giscardien, as well as those more affluent Parisians who used to vote Socialist in national elections, and still seem inclined to do so at the municipal level. The fourth placed candidate in the first round was not Valérie Pécresse from Les Republicains, the group nearest to the old Gaullists, who only got 4.7%, but Eric Zemmour with 7%. Zemmour, the self-hating Algerian Jewish Fascist, criticised Le Pen for being too soft on migrants, particularly North African ones, and was more open in his praise of the anti-semitic Vichy regime of 1940-44, and in his defamation of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer wrongly convicted of espionage in the 1890s, than his Rassemblement National rival. The Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, only got 1.7%, coming behind both the Green, Yannick Jadot (4.5%) and the Communist, Fabien Roussel (2.3%). She came tenth in a field of 12, escaping total ignominy by beating the two rival Trotskyists, who each got less than 1%. It looks as if the Parti Socialiste, founded by François Mitterand, will follow its predecessor, the SFIO, into oblivion, as even this earlier Socialist party, founded in 1905, did a bit better it its final presidential outing in the first round of the 1969 election. Apart from Le Pen and Zemmour, there were two other candidates who might be described as far right – the anti-vaxxer Nicholas Dupont-Aignon (2%) and the Ruralist Jean Lassalle (3.1%). Given that Le Pen herself got 23.15% in the first round, the total of the four Far Right candidates was already more than 35% in April, so most of her second round votes – gained on a reduced turnout – could be described as coming from voters already ideologically close to fascism, rather than merely hitting out at Macron.
The only hopeful sign in all this, other than Le Pen’s defeat, is the size of the first round vote for Mélenchon – 21.95%. This was only 1.2% less than Le Pen, while Mélenchon’s sectarian attitude towards the PCF probably contributed to the Communists’ decision to stand a candidate in the first round – in marked contrast to their absence from the last two presidential elections – nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suppose that the PCF’s intervention deprived Mélenchon of the votes that would have enabled him to beat Le Pen, eliminate her from the run-off, and turn the second round into a contest between a neoliberal Centrist and a radical Leftist.
Demagogy and despair
While it is more than likely that Macron would have won, with massive support from a threatened establishment, of the kind we saw in the UK’s December 2019 demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn, it would have offered an alternative to those working class and unemployed voters who, in recent decades, have either abstained in despair or fallen for the demagogy of Le Pen and her promise of a Volksgemeinschaft once those with a darker skin have been kicked out of France. The best safeguard against a further rise of the French far right over the next five years is for the electoral coalition Mélenchon has put together – in recent months – to challenge Macron’s centrist alliance, as it did in June’s parliamentary elections. Yet it is too early to say what the fall-out from that vote will be.
Toby Abse is a member of the Socialist Alliance and AGS national committees
Photograph by Jeremy Bezanger/Unsplash