|Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen|
by Roger Silverman.
The first round of the French presidential election represents a huge setback for the working class - its worst result ever. All the left parties together managed to win hardly more than a quarter of the total vote (27.67%) - not even ten million votes out of a total of 36 million cast. Their performance was even worse than in the disastrous 2002 election, when despite their rout and their failure to reach the second round, the left parties had still managed to win between them 30% of the total.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Front National increased its vote massively, from 4.8 million in 2002 (16.9%) to a shocking 7.68 million this time (21.3%). Marine Le Pen could still win the presidency.
There are of course some shafts of light in the gloom. The first is the welcome surge of support for the left candidate Melenchon, representing a more radical alternative political voice of the working class. This constitutes a major upheaval on the left. It also incidentally refutes the discredited dogma that workers will always and invariably return first to their traditional party rather than seek new channels of struggle. The history of the French working class, with its especially distinctive traditions of volatility and improvisation, above all proves the contrary.
Campaigning on a left programme, Melenchon on his own won more than seven million votes: 19.5% of the total. This is a positive signal of a mood within the working class for a fightback. And yet… if (and what an "if"!) the left candidates had made any serious effort to reach a common agreement, with their combined vote of almost ten million they would together have stormed into a decisive lead. If it were not for the sectarianism which has long been a curse especially of the French left, a common left candidate could with 27.67% have easily cleared the hurdle to sail into the second round with a decisive lead. In a head-on clash with Le Pen, Melenchon would probably have won the presidency. A victory for the left would have sharply polarised society and enormously boosted the confidence of the working class, radically shifting the balance of forces not only in France but throughout Europe.
The responsibility for this inexcusable sectarian fragmentation lies primarily with the Socialist Party candidate Hamon, who had after all posed as a left alternative to the discredited Hollande leadership. By refusing an agreement with Melenchon, Hamon betrayed his electorate. Equally culpable, if not even more so, are the two left splinter candidates, representing the Anticapitalist Party and Lutte Ouvriere respectively. For the sake of nothing more than self-indulgent vanity, they spurned the chance to add their pitiful but in the circumstances potentially crucial 2% to Melenchon's score. At the same time, Melenchon himself is equally at fault for failing to make a determined open appeal for unity, including a public offer of co-operation in the coming Assembly elections and subsequent support for a left coalition government.
The eclipse of the traditional ruling capitalist party, the Republicans, is highly significant. It is yet another symptom of the rejection by their traditional supporters of the parties of the ruling establishment worldwide. But Macron is an accidental nonentity, and his artificial overnight political vehicle En Marche has no real substance. The sudden infatuation with En Marche by millions of voters (8.65 million, or a staggering 24.01%) is not so much a demonstration of active rebellion or protest against the ruling class as an expression of what we might call positive abstentionism: a desperate clutching at straws for a safe, neutral, bland "none-of-the-above" alternative. The nearest counterpart in recent British history to this accidental phenomenon is the sudden wave of vague popularity that briefly engulfed Britain in 2010 for the Liberal Democrats, and swept them into coalition with the Tories; and its popularity will probably be even briefer. Macron and Clegg even look alike! En Marche is just an episodic symptom of the political crisis of the ruling class.
It is understandable that many socialists will be tempted to abstain in the second round on Sunday. In my opinion this would be a fatal mistake. It underestimates the threat that a Le Pen victory would pose to the unity and rights of the working class, not just in France but throughout Europe. We would not support the idea of breaking up Tory meetings in Britain; but we have always been in favour of breaking up rallies of the racist BNP or EDL. In just the same way, we are in favour of doing anything possible to destroy the Front National in France. The best result we can hope for on Sunday is a massive vote, not for Macron but against Le Pen.