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The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?

The presidential runoff between Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen poses a dilemma for many French progressive voters: the former is seen as one of the main architects of François Hollande’s most unpopular pro-market and antisocial reforms, such as the Labour Law which dismantled vital workers’ rights. If elected, he promises a hardened version of those reforms, which have destroyed the Socialist  Party. The latter, no less neoliberal than Macron (she has a similar socio-economic platform to Donald Trump), proposes an authoritarian regime in which the old obsessions of French Fascism could thrive: bashing Muslims, anti-immigration, as well as curbing civil liberties.

Between two evils, which one should the Left choose? The answer seems deceivingly straightforward: how could a left-leaning voter choose the Front National? But Emmanuel Macron’s arrogance and incompetence are not helpful. On Tuesday, he went on television to request no less than a “vote of adhesion” against Le Pen.

Despite being the candidate of the political and economic establishment, the former banker is not surfing a wave of popular support. An Opinionway poll carried out after Sunday’s vote shows that 54% of people who cast their vote for Macron, voted tactically. The truth is that the former economy minister has no solid constituency backing him, and no real popularity.

Le Pen has exploited Macron’s awkwardness by pointing that her opponent is clearly out of touch with ordinary people and lives in a bubble. Her strategy is clear: she will portray him as the puppet of financial markets, the European Commission and “globalised and cosmopolitan elites”. By contrast, she will present herself as the defender of workers, of the national interest, and a true patriot.

The far-right entry to the second round of the presidential election is not a mere re-run of April 2002 when, against all expectations, Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac. Then, the incumbent president trounced the old far-right leader. But today, Marine Le Pen has a small but potential chance to win the vote and to succeed Hollande.

Most commentators say this is highly unlikely. They may be right; however one may reflect on this issue from a different angle: can Macron lose? The untested candidate could yet make terrible blunders and repel a swathe of left-leaning voters.

On Sunday night, Macron and his supporters went to a plush Paris restaurant – giving the impression of a celebration, that the outcome of the second round was not in doubt. Le Pen showed up this week at the Whirpool factory near Amiens which is set to close in 2018 making several hundred workers redundant. She called for “economic patriotism”, and in the coming days she’ll also be stressing the similarities between her social programme and former candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s in order to appeal to disenchanted left-wing voters.

The reactions following last Sunday’s results were incredibly muted, despite the presence of the far-right in the second ballot. Trade-unions are more divided than ever and might not march together against the Front National on 1 May. In 2002, one million took to the streets to protest the qualification of Jean-Marie Le Pen for the second round. The coming together of a “republican front” (an ad hoc electoral coalition of all democrats against the far-right) was taken for granted and quickly gelled. Today, the anti-Le Pen coalition which is emerging is more haphazard and less resolute.

Left-wing abstention is the greatest threat of all. In social media, the “Neither Macron nor Le Pen” slogan is gaining momentum; hashtags such as “#SansMoiLe7Mai” (Without me on 7 May) are popular. These are signs of extreme political confusion and evidence of the Front National’s “de-demonisation” in voters’ minds. Some leftwingers claim that “neoliberalism is as bad if not worse than fascism” or that “neoliberalism feeds in fascism”. Others argue that a Macron presidency will guarantee a Le Pen victory in 2022. They forget that abstention might make a Le Pen victory possible as early as 2017.

A poll this week showed that though 50% of Mélenchon’s voters would transfer their vote to Macron, 20% would prefer to vote for Le Pen. This is worrying, and a major warning to complacent politicians and media. To beat the drum of 1930s-style anti-fascism will not do this time round with a young people who do not understand this type of discourse. It further underlines the ideological weakness of the French Left.

Most major politicians, parties of the Left and trade unions have declared that “not a single vote should go to Le Pen”. This is fine, but it could still encourage abstention. Of all left-wing candidates, only Benoît Hamon clearly endorsed Macron on Sunday evening. But Mélenchon has kept quiet until now and might not say what he will do in the second round.

In 2002, when he was a socialist official, Mélenchon emphatically called for a vote against Le Pen. This time he has brushed aside the issue, saying his supporters will be consulted on the issue and will give their “non-binding opinion” next Tuesday. If Mélenchon were to keep silent it would be politically irresponsible; the most serious act of detoxification of the far-right in French politics.

This is indeed a dilemma but between two evils, the Left should not hesitate to choose the lesser. First, defeat emphatically the fascist candidate by using the only means at its disposal – a Macron vote. Then start opposing President Macron by giving the Left a majority in the National Assembly. The Left would have a chance to make a political comeback with a neoliberal president in office, but it would be trashed for good if it let the far-right come to power.

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Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

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