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Saturday, June 25, 2022

In between practicality and principle: a partial observer’s advice for the French left

Maya Thapa-O Faolain discusses how disunity among the French left has curtailed their electoral success.

Between “la peste et le cholera” there are no good options. This was the pithy slogan brandished by a protester who felt that the choice between the two candidates in the second tour of the French presidential election was no better than having to choose whether to have the plague or cholera. Forced to decide between two equal evils, in this protestor’s perspective, is really no choice at all. This reflects the prevailing sentiment of the French people toward the second tour – in which the two candidates from the first round with greatest share of the popular vote go through to the final round – of their country’s presidential election. Even those who reluctantly voted Macron in order to faire barrage (blockade) against the far right did so with a heavy heart. In short, the second round became a vote of necessity.

This was certainly the case on the left – the two final candidates in the ring represented the centre-right (despite Macron’s attempt at creating some strange depoliticised ‘neither right nor left’ version of politics) and the far right. But in the first round, left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came third by a hair’s breadth: he had polled at 22%, placing him somewhere between 0.8 and 1.2% behind far-right candidate Marine le Pen, at 23%. His narrow failure to qualify as one of the two most successful candidates, which would have put him through to the second round, is symptomatic of the stagnation of French politics which has been growing over the past five years. Inevitably, the second round of the presidential election  overlooked the issues which tend to concern the left: there was a telling silence around issues of the environment, improving public service, workers’ rights, and France’s abhorrent pattern of femicides.

Why, though, did Mélenchon fail to make the final cut? Not, in fact, because of the strength of the right, or even the centre, but because of disunity among the left. This is the fault both of candidates who failed to withdraw and of the electorate who failed to put aside ultimately minor differences (especially compared to the ideological gulf that separates any of these candidates from Macron, let alone the openly Islamophobic Le Pen). Six candidates stood on the left in the first round, amassing approximately a third of the total vote. Mélenchon was the heavy favourite – the other candidates swept up around 10% of the electoral crumbs. Crumbs though they may be, their agglomeration could have put the left through to the second round, and with some comfortable breathing room. Consider for a moment this entirely fictional scenario: if the entire left-wing electorate had voted for Mélenchon, or if all of  the other left-wing candidates had dropped out, Mélenchon would have amassed a greater slice of the electoral pie than the incumbent Macron himself. Instead, Ecologist Yannick Jadot polled at 4.4%; anticapitalist Philippe Poutou at 0.8%; Workers’ struggle candidate Nathalie Arthaud at 0.6%; Communist Fabien Roussel at 2.4%, and Socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo at 1.9%.

This is not to say there are no differences among the candidates (there are), nor that Mélenchon is faultless. Indeed, I am rather resistant to  several aspects of his foreign policy – something Jadot has railed against, particularly with regard to Mélenchon’s ‘non-aligned’ geopolitical position given the divisions cutting at the heart of the world order (I refer specifically to Russia’s horrific war on Ukraine). But the point of this article is not to examine the specific policies of each candidate – in any event, the time to do that has come and gone. Mélenchon’s programme was complete, extensive, had been cross-checked by NGOs – specifically climate NGOs – and declared feasible. He was the only left-wing candidate who was polling at anywhere higher than 15%, and, as I keep insisting (sorry), the differences among the left are minuscule in comparison to those between left and right. And I do believe that everyone on the left was severely disappointed with the options they were presented with during the second round. Had they read the polls, they would have known that voting for other candidates on the left would actively harm the chances of seeing any left-wing candidate making it through to the second round. This, in turn would make it far more likely that centrist/centre-right Macron (who was always going to make it through) would face up against an openly racist, homophobic, climate crisis-denying candidate, thus making the famous ‘presidential debate’ a chance for him to combat these inflammatory ideas with cool reason, rather than facing any serious challenges to his policies. I would venture to say Macron’s wager was precisely this: having refused to participate in the first round of debate, he knew he would not face a serious and face-on political challenge from the left, and counted instead on showing himself as the voice of reason against Le Pen’s divisive, choleric, and indeed unfeasible, ideas.

As for the electorate: in an election, there are two key axes you have to consider: principle and action-potential (which might also be labelled ideological and pragmatic respectively). Anyone who is actively engaged in politics surely believes they are out to improve people’s lives (I have a very, very hard time believing this about the far-right, but I suppose they would say they are trying to make a ‘safer’ world by removing ‘enemies’ from the apocalyptic universe they whip up in some virtual reality lab – in which one risks being beaten up (probably by an immigrant) the second one leaves  home). Let’s, then, use the left as an example. All the candidates ran on a basis of wanting to increase social equality, and reduce environmental catastrophe – they each presented slightly different ways of achieving these aims, but these issues were their meat and potatoes, so to speak. So if you are voting on the left – a core principle of which is solidarity – a desire to improve the lives of those most marginalised members of society. That could be because you are part of this demographic, or because you are ideologically inclined that way.

By way of analogy, permit me a small digression. Imagine I am tasked with designing a car to drive along a desert road from point A to point B as fast as possible. To be successful, the car must a) be fast and b) be able to drive well in a desert. A fast car that doesn’t drive well in a desert will be useless, and a car that drives well in a desert but isn’t fast won’t be much good either. My point is that you have to try and translate your aim into something that achieves what you wish to see implemented within the system you are given. You should of course be making constant effort to change the system – if a desert is not a good environment for a car (it isn’t), then you should be trying, between races, to pave the road. But the time to complain about not having a paved road, and thus refusing to design a desert-appropriate car, is not two minutes before the race. Similarly, the time to complain about Mélenchon being insufficiently revolutionary, as some bemoaned, and thus voting for a candidate who will poll 0.6%, knowing that this effectively amounts to lending your vote to something you abhor (the far right) is, to me, utterly illogical.

I am not an apologist for a purely pragmatic approach to politics. But when faced with unity or annihilation, it is time to put aside minor differences, and think about ultimate aims – if not for ourselves, then for those who will suffer under the opponent’s policies. I am certain that everyone on the left would rather have seen Mélenchon face Macron – even if the former hadn’t won – if only to have two weeks debating issues that have been sidelined by the incumbent’s administration, and metaphorically spat upon by his opponent. 

Going forward, the left in particular needs to think about how it can most effectively see policies implemented that align with its overall vision. For there is, I would hold, an overall vision, but, like an impressionist painting, the whole can be perceived only from afar, rather than within an increasingly fragmenting swirl of similarly coloured mush. Perhaps this ‘afar’ is where we are now – where the far right has amassed an unprecedented 41% of the vote in the second round and the right is once again in power for five years. Hopefully, this dire state of affairs will allow the left to see the common ground they share, now that they’re being confronted with something which they find so alienating. It does seem things are moving in this direction, with a growing left-wing coalition presenting itself for the legislatives in June. We will see how the ballots are cast.

Image credit: Place Au Peuple / CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr

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