April 22, 2022

On May 6, 2017, the day Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France after trouncing Marine Le Pen, he made a promise to the French people: that the country would never again see a “far-Right” candidate reach the second round of the presidential election. Fast forward five years, however, and Macron is once again facing off against Le Pen. And this time, it’s bound to be much closer, with the incumbent polling at 55% to Le Pen’s 45%.

For Le Pen to narrow that gap, she must win over at least some of the 22% of voters who opted for the “Left-populist” Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the election. Yet Mélenchon’s position on the matter is clear: “We must not give a single vote to Le Pen,” he stated on the evening of the first round, in what amounted to a de facto endorsement for Macron. In a letter to his supporters, he clearly said that he believes the outgoing president to be the least-worst option on the table.

However, not all his voters are of the same opinion. As Alexandre, a 36-year-old who voted for Mélenchon in the first round, told BFMTV: “I am fundamentally, ideologically on the Left and I am deeply humanist, but I will vote for Marine Le Pen.” He is not alone in holding such a view: according to polling firm Elabe, a third of Mélenchon’s voters are likely to vote for Le Pen in the second round.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that a good number of Mélenchon’s supporters don’t agree with their leader that Macron is the lesser evil. Throughout his presidency, Macron has relentlessly pursued an aggressive neoliberal agenda that has dramatically worsened the conditions of the French working class, while hugely benefiting the country’s wealthy elites and corporate giants — slashing taxes for the rich and for big business, reforming the labour code to benefit employers, cutting back on welfare spending, and pursuing the “marketisation” of every area of French society.

As one French economist put it: “Macron is the candidate of the richest 1% or even 0.1%.” This is more than just a figure of speech: in his eye-opening book Crépuscule, French writer and activist Juan Branco chronicles how France’s most powerful oligarchs and media moguls literally “groomed” Macron from an early age, using all the money and influence at their disposal to help him become the country’s youngest president. It proved to be a worthwhile investment: in recent years, France has seen the greatest increase in the number of millionaires after the United States, with the richest 1% now holding 20% of the country’s wealth and seven billionaires owning more than the poorest 30%Meanwhile, the living conditions of the most disadvantaged have worsened, and the number of French people in poverty has increased.

As if this weren’t bad enough, when France’s underclasses took to the streets to protest the president’s policies of top-down class warfare, giving birth to the Gilets Jaunes movement, Macron responded with frightening police violence, worthy of the world’s most repressive regimes, which caused protestors to lose at least 24 eyes and five hands.

The protests only came to an end because the outbreak of the Covid pandemic offered Macron, as other leaders around the world, the perfect excuse to roll out draconian and authoritarian policies of social control, which, as Toby Green and I have documented, have hurt the working classes the most. As Serge Halimi, director of Le Monde diplomatique, recently stated, Macron’s is “France’s most ‘illiberal’ presidency of modern times”, having exploited the fear of insecurity, terrorism, Covid-19 and now the war in Ukraine to “favour an anti-democratic ‘shock strategy’ aimed at “govern[ing] by fear”.

And the future for the ordinary French isn’t looking any brighter, if Macron’s electoral manifesto is anything to go by: more tax cuts for big business, raising the retirement age to 65, forcing recipients of in-work benefits to work more than 15 hours a week, and returning to Maastricht’s strict budgetary rules (i.e. more austerity). As Halimi notes: “A second term for Macron would be especially dangerous for the working class as he is unable to run for a third. Without the restraining influence of a future election”, there would be little standing in the way of Macron’s authoritarian neoliberal project.

All of which begs the question: why would a socialist like Mélenchon want to see him remain in power? To most leftists, not just in France, the question is likely to appear provocatively rhetorical: well, because the alternative — Le Pen — is obviously worse. But is it? Or is it simply a case of Left-Pavlovian reaction to the sound of her name? Mélenchon’s arguments echo the conventional wisdom among French leftists and socialists: Le Pen’s economic agenda is just as bad — i.e. neoliberal — as Macron’s, while her “cultural” agenda (on issues such as immigration) is much worse.

It would be a pretty reasonable argument — if only it were true. The notion that Le Pen and Macron’s programmes are equally bad from a left-socialist perspective is simply false.

Le Pen has castigated the “neoliberal” logic of many of her competitor’s proposals — particularly the tightening of the conditions for the recipients of in-work benefits and the raising of the pension age, both of which Le Pen has consistently opposed. Indeed, it is frankly difficult to see how anyone in good faith could describe Le Pen’s electoral manifesto as neoliberal. If anything, it is a moderate redistributive programme of Keynesian orientation based on state interventionism, social protection and the defence of public services. Its measures include the strengthening of public services such as hospitals, widespread reductions in VAT, wage increases for healthcare workers and other sectors, tax exemptions or free transport for young working people, the construction of 100,000 social housing units per year, the renationalisation of motorways, and a tax on financial wealth. Nothing particularly radical — but neoliberal it certainly ain’t.

It’s no surprise that an in-depth study of Le Pen’s manifesto by the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po, one of the largest and most influential centres for political science research in France and definitely not a lepéniste bulwark, concluded that her political programme is firmly “to the Left of the economic axis” — far more so than Macron’s agenda. Interestingly, the study also showed that Le Pen’s electorate shares her Left-wing economic outlook: high confidence in unions, distrust of large private companies, refusal to reduce the number of civil servants. Overall, an overwhelming majority of Le Pen’s supporters agree with the idea that “one should take from the rich to give to the poor”.

Indeed, it’s painstakingly obvious that Mélenchon’s own economic manifesto has much more in common with Le Pen’s than Macron’s. Yes, Mélenchon’s programme has a stronger emphasis on wages and workers’ rights, as is to be expected, but the overall orientation is similar. Mélenchon and Le Pen have also both been very critical of Macron’s “vaccine passports”, promising to repeal them if elected. And the two leaders share a similar aversion to globalisation and to the European Union in particular — of which Macron is a staunch supporter. They also both support France’s withdrawal from NATO.

The biggest difference between the two concerns immigration. While Mélenchon’s manifesto calls for “welcoming immigrants with dignity”, Le Pen wants to “regain full control of immigration” — by tightening the rules for acquiring French nationality, granting priority access to certain social services to nationals and deporting delinquent and systematically unemployed foreigners. She has also taken a hard stance against Islamic radicalism.

Now, one may very well not agree with these policies, but demonising them as “fascist” — as many on the Left now do — is simply ridiculous. After all, the notion that a state should prioritise the well-being of its own citizens would have been considered self-evident up until not too long ago — even among Left-wing parties and voters, as Sahra Wagenknecht, former leader of the radical-Left German party Die Linke, notes in her latest book Die Selbstgerechten (“The Self-Righteous”).

But more importantly, is Macron really that better than Le Pen in this respect? As Pauline Bock wrote in The Guardian, Macron himself has adopted a very “tough stance on immigration that saw police officers destroying refugees’ tents in Calais… paying homage to the ‘great soldier’ Marshal Pétain… and giving interviews to far-Right magazines”. Indeed, facing Le Pen on a TV show in February 2021, Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, even accused her of being “too soft on immigration”.

So it seems that most of Mélenchon’s (and the French Left’s) arguments for choosing Macron over Le Pen don’t hold up to scrutiny: the former is incomparably worse — i.e. more “Right-wing” — than Le Pen on the economic front, and arguably almost as bad as his rival, from a standard “progressive” standpoint, when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. Regardless of what one may think of Le Pen — I’m not a fan and if I lived in France my vote would have gone to Mélenchon — it seems pretty clear that the French working class would be much worse off with a second Macron term.

Ultimately, this whole affair really encapsulates why the Left-Right cleavage no longer makes much sense. No country exemplifies this better than France — the place that invented the concepts of Left and Right in politics in the first place. For not only have nominally Left and progressive parties radically shifted to the Right in economic terms and abandoned class politics in favour of identity politics, while at the same time nominally Right-wing parties have moved to the Left on the economic spectrum. But even where political parties have challenged the traditional Left-Right dichotomy — and Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon have all insisted, in their own way, that Left-Right politics are over, with the latter going to great lengths to “de-neoliberalise” Left politics — these labels continue to prove very hard to shake off.

This is ultimately why a socialist like Mélenchon still can’t bring himself to choose “Right-wing” Le Pen over nominally “progressive” Macron, even though the former’s economic agenda is much more Left-wing. It also explains why Macron will likely be elected for a second term, with dire consequences for the French working and middle classes.

Of course, Le Pen’s voters would probably face the same dilemma if Mélenchon were running against Macron. But this only proves how the Left-Right cleavage has become a smokescreen destined to make it virtually impossible to mount any serious challenge to the status quo. So long as political parties and voters continue to attach greater importance to the increasingly meaningless labels they give themselves, rather than to the policies other parties and voters actually support, any prospect of toppling the likes of Macron is likely to be thwarted — much to the delight of the ruling classes.

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A previous version of the article contained an erroneous statistic (“a third of France’s wealth reportedly now in the hands of just eight billionaires”) taken from the French state-owned international radio broadcaster RFI

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