For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, neither of the main parties of French capital made it to the second round of the presidential election. Only five years after Socialist Party (PS) was swept into power, PS candidate Benoît Hamon — crippled by his own uninspired campaign, the meteoric rise of left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the shameless betrayal of the PS leadership, and the fact that former president François Hollande is less popular than a steel boot to the larynx — won less than 7 percent of the vote in the first round. Candidate for the Republicans, François Fillon — Nicolas Sarkozy’s former prime minister and the living embodiment of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” —squeaked into third place, despite his best efforts to show everyone that he could hate just as much as the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, and despite promising everyone named or married to a Fillon a high-paying job that definitely, definitely exists.
In this election, French voters demonstrated their anger with the status quo and their hunger for something different. Well then, we might reasonably conclude, this means that some astounding leftist candidate broke through the establishment, right? After all, France has an illustrious history of radical politics. How about that Mélenchon cat? Perhaps someone resurrected the Paris Commune as cyborgs, and they decided to run as a collective?
Sadly, no. In that distinctive fuck-you-and-your-children style characteristic of elections under late-stage capitalism, France is now stuck with the two most dangerous candidates in the race: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, founder of neoliberal political movement En Marche! (Forward!). For those who haven’t been following French politics closely, it’s worthwhile to examine these two terrible children of capitalism, both of whom stand a good chance of becoming the next president of Europe’s second power.
Marine Le Pen is a former leader of the National Front (FN), the grand dame of the European far right, and — notwithstanding her attempts to rebrand the party founded by her Holocaust-denying father — a fascist through and through. Le Pen is perhaps best known for her racism and xenophobia. As is fashionable these days, she has largely replaced the old right-wing obsession with Jews with the more hip and modern hatred of Muslims and Islam, which can earn a politician a far broader base of bigoted support. She has compared praying Muslims to Nazi occupiers, and exploited ISIS beheadings to score cheap political points. In case you missed that classic anti-Semitism, however, there’s no need to worry. She has also denied France’s role in the mass arrest and deportation of Jews during the Vichy years, proposed bans on kosher food and yarmulkes as well as hijabs and halal meat, and when it came time to select a temporary replacement as head of the FN, her first pick was a man who questioned the use of Zyklon B in the Nazi death camps.
In the world of Le Pen, immigrants are a black and brown cancer, eating away at the heart of the glorious French nation. She is an avowed defender of colonialism, opining recently that “colonization brought a lot” to Algeria. As any Algerian can tell you, this blessed cornucopia included over 130 years of theft, rape, torture, murder, and general exploitation and degradation, but never mind all that — let’s just focus on all those roads, hospitals and schools most Algerians didn’t benefit from. Those were great. Befitting her colonialist pedigree, she has sung the praises of fellow fascist Bashar al-Assad, deeming the butcher of the Syrian people a “reassuring choice for France.” Downplaying her privileged background and the inconvenient truth that the FN has never truly defended workers, she plays at populism, using racism and bigotry to pit the oppressed and exploited against one another in a false zero-sum game. In short, if you have an unhealthy obsession with borders, enjoy your nationalism as self-congratulatory as humanly possible, and like to dabble in Nazi/Nazi collaborator apologias, but don’t care for Jews—wait, I mean “globalists” — Muslims, and immigrants stealing your sovereignty and blowing up your jobs, Le Pen is your candidate.
What of Emmanuel Macron, that handsome rebel with whatever-cause-that-seems-agreeable-to-a-winning-margin-of-voters? Looking and listening to Macron feels like peering into the bottomless cybernetic brain of some horrible Neoliberal New Man, a nightmare automaton trotted out by a desperate ruling class to stop—or at least delay—a fascist beast of their own making. To quote Frédéric Lordon of Le Monde Diplomatique, Macron is the kind of figure who is “capable of speaking and saying nothing, saying nothing but constantly thinking about ‘it,’ being at the same time utterly empty and dangerously charged with content.” Despite careful examination and exhaustive research, the very best scientists and philosophers have been unable to detect a soul or even a discernable heartbeat in this remarkable simulation of an actual human being.
Although Macron is fond of portraying himself as neither left nor right, but a reasonable, pragmatic “anti-politician” for all seasons, when we pierce the veil of his philosopher-king-at-a-TED-Talk rhetoric, we find a program that is aggressively ideological, one that belongs squarely into the category of the extreme center. In keeping with his record as an investment banker and Hollande’s economy minister, every aspect of his agenda is tailored to the interests of capital. He wants to slash public sector jobs, deregulate the labor market to give employers more “flexibility,” cut business taxes, and mercilessly reduce social spending. In stark contrast to Le Pen and his former presidential rivals, Macron is an enthusiastic and uncritical supporter of the European Union in all its technocratic splendor.
Even his flashes of apparent sense and decency, like his recognition of French colonialism as a crime against humanity, are revealed as nothing but opportunism upon closer examination. It was only last November that he claimed that colonization contained “elements of civilization and elements of barbarity”; and when his later comments outraged the Right, he quickly apologized—to the pied-noir settlers. It is obvious that his social liberalism plays a distant second fiddle to his economic agenda.
The rise of someone like Macron — a bourgeois phantom who has never held elected office, but flitted from one elite bubble in life to the next, a perennial insider of the capitalist order — to the cusp of the presidency speaks volumes about the mindset of the French ruling class. Faced with the near total collapse of the traditional parties of French capital, the ruling class wasted no time in picking a candidate who not only embodies but is prepared to accelerate the neoliberal policies that created an opening for the far right and hobbled the popularity of the Republicans and the PS. Confident in their ability to manipulate the field of play to ensure that their Golden Boy would win, they did everything in their power to create a Macron versus Le Pen runoff. Not quite ready for full-on fascism yet, they are betting on a plastic horse to delay the inevitable, their arrogance equaled only by their sheer desperation.
Given a choice between a fascist devil and a neoliberal one, what options does the Left have in France? Mocked by the elite for their unabashedly radical politics and working class status, Phillipe Poutou of the New Anti-Capitalist Party and Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière (Communist Union) handled themselves capably, attacking the corruption and hypocrisy of candidates like Le Pen and Fillon, but both were unable to break through. Benoit Hamon was crushed, faintly crying out something about “universal basic income” and “that bastard Hollande” as he was trampled underfoot. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise (France Unbowed) emerged as the leading leftist politician in France, winning nearly 20 percent of the vote thanks to the mendacity of the PS and his unexpectedly strong performance. Mélenchon’s platform, while hardly the second coming of Lenin or even Robespierre, emphasized robust Keynesian economics, ecological planning, and the creation of a Sixth Republic through a “citizen’s revolution.”
Despite this success, the campaign underscored several flaws in Mélenchon’s approach, which are instructive for the Left as a whole. His newly established movement, France Insoumise, appears to be based more on Mélenchon’s considerable gifts as an individual than on any solid, mass social base. He displayed an inexplicable nostalgia for bourgeois republicanism, devoid of any criticism for its more unsavory aspects. He tapped into a deep desire within French society for structural change, particularly of the state, and articulated an intelligent approach to the issue of the European Union. But he came up short on defending the rights of Muslims and immigrants, promoting solidarity with democratic struggles around the world, and challenging capitalism.
It is entirely possible that Le Pen will emerge victorious this Sunday. Macron was once favored to crush her in the runoff, but opinion polls have tightened since the first round. High rates of abstention are almost certain, driven by the widespread distaste for both candidates and the whole rotten system. An internal consultation of France Insoumise’s members revealed that about 65 percent of Mélenchon’s supporters will not turn out for Macron in the second round while fewer than half of the people who voted for Macron did so because they believed his policies would improve their lives. Disaffection reigns in France. Even if Le Pen does lose this time, the devastation that Macron’s neoliberal policies will inflict ensures that the far right will be even better positioned for victory in the next election. After Macron comes the fascist deluge.
The Left—both in France and internationally — is therefore faced with some harsh lessons. So long as we believe that elections are a theater for radical change, we must advance positive programs that are organically linked to the demands of the masses while helping them develop their consciousness. The masses — not any savior figures — are the key. We must make it clear that the choice between neoliberalism and fascism is a false one, and while denouncing false equivalencies, emphasize that they are both faces of the same capitalist beast.
Chasing respectability and peddling patriotic illusions may be a good way to gain votes in the short term, but that behavior is dishonest and undermines the revolutionary vision in the long haul. We have to remember that class is a critical dimension of oppression—but not the only one — and intentionally incorporate the specific struggles of immigrant, Muslim, women, LGBTQ, native, Black, Brown, and Asian workers — and all others targeted for abuse and oppression by the capitalist class — into our theory and actions. Outside of the electoral arena, we have to continue building and working within existing social movements, supporting strikes, occupations, street protests, and direct actions, not for the sake of our own political gain, but because it is the right thing to do. To beat capitalism in all its forms, we have to be smart, principled, and tough as hell. Anything less is asking for defeat.
At the very least, let’s get to work on those cyborg Communards, shall we?