Le Pen defeated in France, but far-right gains ground

For the third time in 20 years, the anti-immigrant far right has been blocked from winning the French presidency at the last minute, leaving many breathing a sigh of relief. But with Marine Le Pen scoring the highest total ever for the extreme right—41.5% against incumbent President Emmanuel Macron’s 58.5%—the French Communist Party is warning that “the noose is tightening” on democracy in the country.

The run-off vote this weekend followed the first-round election of April 10 and saw massive—by French standards—voter abstention. Turnout was pegged at just below 72%, the lowest participation rate in a run-off in more than 50 years. Le Pen’s anti-immigrant hatred and Macron’s anti-worker economic policies combined to create widespread dissatisfaction, according to opinion polls in the run up to the vote.

In the first-round, Macron came in just ahead of Le Pen, 27.9% to 23.2%. Left and environmental movement candidates—Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the party La France Insoumise, Communist Fabien Roussel, Green Yannick Jadot, and Socialist Anne Hidalgo—carried the largest total, some 30% when added together as a bloc. Their divided votes, however, left the opening for Le Pen to move ahead and challenge Macron in the final round.

It was the eventual consolidation of the left vote against Le Pen which propelled Macron to victory—a fact which the re-elected president openly acknowledged. He admitted that “numerous” voters cast a ballot for him only because they were motivated to block Le Pen. Macron pledged to carry out his policies “with force,” but said he was “aware” that many who voted for him were not supporters but rather felt “obliged” to mark his name on the ballot.

Stephanie David, a transport worker who voted for the Communist candidate in the first round, went with Macron, but not with any excitement. “It was the least worst choice,” David told the Associated Press.

Retiree Jean-Pierre Roux, who also voted for the Communists, was repelled by both Macron and Le Pen. He dropped an empty envelope into the ballot box, saying, “I cannot stand the person,” referring to Macron and his arrogance.

Marian Arbre, a 29-year-old Parisian, didn’t care for Macron, either, but he had no qualms about how to vote. “There’s a real risk,” Arbre said; he believed France had “to avoid a government that finds itself with fascists and racists.”

Going into the election, Macron was accused of being “the candidate of the 1%.” He bragged that “job creation” and “labor market reform” were among the key accomplishments of his first term and proved he was best-suited to get France through its current economic troubles.

The “reforms” he championed, however, were new regulations making it easier for employers to fire and hire people. Rather than create jobs, many economists say the changes have resulted in lower wages and greater job precarity. Macron’s economic growth plan centered on €7.5 billion of tax cuts for businesses and increased cuts to social and welfare budgets. His plans for further military spending—already up by €7 billion since he took office—also left many unconvinced.

Such policies prompted an increasing number of voters and political analysts to conclude that the “centrist” Macron was moving further right, leaving less and less space between himself and the right wing on many issues.

As for Le Pen, despite losing again, she celebrated the accomplishments of her National Rally party, previously known as the National Front—and with good reason. By taking almost half the vote in a presidential election, the far right has cemented its place in French politics; it can no longer be dismissed as a fringe group.

“In this defeat, I can’t help but feel a form of hope,” Le Pen said in Paris. “This is a shining victory.”

Over the last two decades, the right has steadily gained traction. Going head-to-head against Macron in 2017’s run-off, Le Pen garnered 34%. Twenty years ago, in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen—father of the current candidate, founder of the racist National Front, and Holocaust denier—scored 18%.

For the 2022 campaign, many of the party’s traditional anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies were still on the platform—such as banning Muslim women from wearing a headscarf in public and limiting immigration to France—but economics drove many to support Le Pen for the first time.

She pressed Macron hard on cost-of-living issues, inflation, pensions, and taxes. Though in reality she is even more pro-corporate than Macron, taking populist positions on a few burning issues allowed Le Pen to present herself as connected to the struggles of working people.

She pledged to keep the retirement age at 62, compared to Macron’s plan to raise it to 65. Le Pen also promised to lower taxes on fuel and set up a fund to help the poor afford food and other essential items.

Such promises, empty as they may have been, helped Le Pen make further inroads among voters in rural communities and former industrial areas which, in the past, were solid supporters of the Communist and Socialist Parties. “The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer—a group I now belong to,” Margarit Mondabric, a Le Pen voter in the provincial town of Béziers, told the media.

The war in Ukraine also figured prominently in the French election, especially given Le Pen’s prior close association with Russian President Vladimir Putin and her party’s reliance on campaign loans from Russian banks. However, in contrast to U.S. media coverage that presented the vote as a referendum on the “anti-NATO, pro-Russia Ms. Le Pen,” the contest was much more centered on domestic matters. In a pre-election IPSOS poll, only a third of voters said the war would have an impact on their choice.

Attention in France now shifts to legislative elections in June. For the left, that means building a third pole in opposition to both Macron’s neoliberal economic policies and Le Pen’s racist offensive. The French Communist Party (PCF) is engaged in what it calls “discussions to find common ground.”

The party’s national secretary and presidential candidate, Fabien Roussel, said, “By uniting the left vote in the first round of the legislative elections, we can beat the far-right bloc and the liberal bloc.” The PCF and its allies in the labor movement are now organizing for massive turnout at May Day protests as a kick-off for a united left election effort.

Roussel pleaded for unity, saying that Macron’s victory cannot be interpreted as support for his policies and that Le Pen’s loss is not the end of the right-wing threat. He said the Communists would “give ourselves to the effort to build a coalition of the alternative majority” and pointed to a survey that shows 66% of the French people want a legislature that will put a check on Macron—one controlled by neither the president nor the right wing.

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People’s World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People’s World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

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