Dr Aurelien Mondon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. His latest book Reactionary Democracy How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, co-authored with Dr Aaron Winter, is out with Verso.
On the surface, Sunday’s French presidential election was a replay of the last. In many ways, little seems to have changed since Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen first faced off in 2017: the two candidates for one, and more importantly the opposition between a post-political technocratic vision of society and the far right as main alternative.
Dig a little deeper, however, and much has changed. France has seen a powerful rightward shift, with extreme views becoming increasingly mainstream. Yet increasing disillusionment with Macron has also opened the field to the left – if, that is, they are willing to claim it. The first round results opened the field for a realignment of French politics around three poles, the far right, the Macronist centre (right) and the radical left, but the division there risk making it obsolete if it does not get its act together urgently.
First, we may have witnessed the death knell of the centre-left and centre-right parties that have held the presidency for most of the past century. The centre-left Socialist party of former presidents François Mitterrand and François Hollande continued its downward spiral, winning only 1.7% of the vote. With 4.8%, the centre-right Républicains also fell short of the 5% threshold necessary to claim campaign costs, leaving a party famous for denouncing charity begging its members for money.
Meanwhile, the far and extreme right dominated the campaign. One key figure in the first round was Eric Zemmour. A taboo-breaking journalist whose career was built on unabashed racism, sexism and homophobia, Zemmour rose to political prominence thanks in large part to the French media – both the media empire of billionaire Vincent Bolloré and the mainstream outlets that saw in Zemmour an easy way to generate scandal. In its early stages at least, the terms of the campaign were set almost entirely by Zemmour, whose pet issues – from Islamophobia to the great replacement – occupied a disproportionate amount of media space compared to the ones cited in opinion polls, such as the spiralling cost of living, the climate crisis or healthcare.
Zemmour won only 7.1% in the first round and so did not progress to the second. His idolisation of Putin may have dinted his popularity – or perhaps voters found his extremism unpalatable compared with Le Pen’s more moderate presentation (though the collapse of the Républicains suggests that Zemmour’s base may have been drawn more from the mainstream right than from Le Pen’s far-right National Rally).
Despite and perhaps even because of this splintering, in other words, the far right cleaned up at yesterday’s elections: Le Pen managed to increase her vote share in both rounds. Yet while the results seem to be further evidence of the far right’s irrepressible rise, it is essential we not over-hype them – these were broadly the results we expected.
In 2017, Macron received 20 million votes to Le Pen’s 10 million. It is predictable that Macron’s popularity would have waned since then, and that Le Pen would attract some of the protest votes. Yet while Le Pen’s vote-share this year was high (41.5%), counting abstention and spoilt ballots she received only around 27%. While this is still concerning, it shows us that three-quarters of French voters chose not to vote for the far right.
This doesn’t mean the movement has been vanquished, however. The Le Pens have seen countless electoral defeats over the past 40 years, yet their ideas have only grown in popularity, helped by many in the political establishment. This is in part a consequence of the French presidential system, which means the two contenders who face off in the second round set the electoral agenda. It is therefore no surprise that the past five years have seen Macron shift right in order to construct himself as the alternative to Le Pen. This tactic has been a mainstay in French politics since the early 1980s, when France’s Socialist president Francois Mitterrand gave Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen his first mainstream media platform in an effort to split the rightwing vote. This cynical strategy backfired for Mitterand; yesterday’s results, which saw Macron’s lead over Le Pen halved, suggest it is hardly working any better for him.
Macron’s rightward turn after 2017 disappointed many on the left who had trusted him with their votes; some felt so betrayed that this year they turned to Le Pen. Yet it would be a mistake for the left to chase after these voters rather than the many more who remain unconvinced by or opposed to the far right. In fact, it is crucial that the French left not succumb to the idea that we must win Le Pen’s base – address the “legitimate grievances” of the “left-behind” – in order to win. We don’t.
Trying to “reclaim” the “white working class” by tapping into far-right grievances has never ever worked for the left, even in the short term. It has only served to legitimise the far right and its ideas and shored up its image as the voice of the working class. Instead, the left must follow the path tested this year by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of the leftwing La France Insoumise party.
Mélenchon performed well in 2017 (7 million votes, or 19.6% of the vote) and even better this year (7.7 million votes, or almost 22% of the vote). He did particularly well among younger voters and people from the banlieue (suburbs) by moving away from issues such as laïcité (secularism), which have been co-opted by the far right to push Islamophobia. Instead, Mélenchon talked about creolisation – a term coined by the Martinican poet Édouard Glissant to describe the fruitful blending of cultures – and proposed a number of progressive economic and environmental measures that diverted attention from far-right talking points. Had the left vote not splintered, Mélenchon would have been a strong contender in the second round; while polls suggest he would ultimately have lost to Macron, his continued presence in the campaign would have dramatically shifted its terms.
Still, Mélenchon’s strong showing is a twofold lesson to the left. First, we must be uncompromising in our fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism. Second, we cannot simply be anti-: we must also propose a positive alternative. We’ve spent too long reacting to reactionary politics – it’s time to act.
This blog was originally posted via Novara Media on 25 April 2022. All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.