As French presidential elections loom, the political space is cluttered
As French presidential elections loom, the political space is cluttered
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How are French people reacting to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency?

His “extreme centre” neoliberal support base is stable, so he has a good hand of cards to get re-elected. The success of the vaccination campaign and of the vaccine pass (required to get into cinemas, restaurants etc.) have helped his ratings. Infection and death rates have been lower here than in Britain, for example. But if only a quarter of voters definitely want him back in, that leaves an awful lot of unhappy people. What those people decide to do is key.

There is plenty to be angry about. Catholic charity Secours Catholique just reported that 10 percent of the population had had to use food banks last year. Macron has been pushing through Islamophobic laws, slashing taxes for the rich and making life harder for the poor since his first day in office. Recently, a new system was introduced for unemployment—you now have to work for six months rather than four to be eligible for payments (this in a world where short-term contracts are everywhere). He has also been talking about clamping down on unemployed people who are “not really looking for a job”. There is no evidence that there are many of these, but politically it is useful for the president to be loudly denouncing them.

However, Macron does have a bitter political pill to swallow. Millions on the streets and on strike forced him to shelve his huge flagship “reform” that would have destroyed the retirement pension scheme. The pension system in France has remained intact, if bruised, after 25 years of working-class struggle. In a recent major speech, Macron admitted (if we read between the lines) that he was too scared to relaunch this attack before next year’s elections. So as to have a new flagship project, he announced the building of a bunch of nuclear power stations.

A new president will be elected in April. What are the polls looking like?

Because of the two-round election system, candidates are above all aiming to get over 22 percent or so in the first round. In the French system, if no-one receives an absolute majority in the first round of voting, which will be on 10 April, the strongest two candidates go through to a second, run-off election on 24 April. The fragmenting of the vote should mean that 22 percent is enough to get through to the second round, and the more people who stay at home on election day, the fewer votes will be needed to get through.

In 2017, in a field of eleven, Emmanuel Macron got 24 percent in the first round, while far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen got 21 percent. Almost one-quarter of those registered to vote stayed at home. Macron is hoping for an exact rerun, confident that he can easily win again in a second round against Le Pen.

The polls continue to show the shipwreck of the traditional Socialist Party and classical conservative options. Declared Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo gets around 5 percent. Given that the president before Macron was from the Socialist Party, this remains stunningly low. The traditional right Republicans haven’t yet decided on their candidate, but the most likely, Xavier Bertrand, stands at around 13 percent in the polls.

The Greens just chose a candidate from the right of the party, Yannick Jadot, who is on 8 percent. Radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is at 9 percent. The Communist Party, which backed Mélenchon in 2017, is fielding its own candidate, who is at 2 percent. A rebel ex-Socialist Party candidate gets about the same, while various Trotskyists get about 1 percent each.

Macron is leading the polling at 24 percent. But the combined vote of the fascists is shocking. Marine Le Pen is on 18 percent and Eric Zemmour, a political journalist who has not officially declared his candidacy, is on 14 percent.

Who is Eric Zemmour?

A media personality openly claiming that France is threatened with destruction through immigration, he represents a part of fascist and hard right opinion that regrets Marine Le Pen’s move towards respectability. By throwing her father out of the organisation, changing its name (it was previously called the National Front), no longer flirting with Holocaust denial, and allying herself with some small non-fascist right-wing groups, Le Pen has been fairly successful in mainstreaming her politics—although she has been less successful at building a solid party structure.

Zemmour appeals to hard racists. He says that it should be illegal to give babies first names like Mohamed or Fatima. He claims that Muslims are terrorising working-class neighbourhoods like mine. He claims that the French fascist Vichy government during World War Two tried to protect French Jews and asks people to be reassured that most Jews sent to their deaths by Vichy were of other nationalities. Not for the first time, he is in court accused of inciting racial hatred by saying that unaccompanied minors among migrants seeking asylum are “murderers and rapists”.

That he can get 1,500 people in Bordeaux to a public meeting, without the support of a party structure, is worrying. In his new book, France Has Not Said Its Last Word, on sale everywhere, he promises to slash taxes and social security and abolish environmental regulations. And he rails against the supposed dangers of wokeism and “gender theory”. Fortunately, there have been counter-demonstrations against Zemmour’s meetings in a number of towns, including Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseille and Geneva. These should be built everywhere.

Should we be pleased that Zemmour seems to be taking some voters away from Marine Le Pen?

Some desperate people on the left feel that way, but they are wrong to do so. Zemmour is normalising hard Islamophobia and fascist ideas and dragging much of the media debate to the hard right. News channel CNews invited Zemmour to discuss whether Western civilisation had forgotten how to be proud! These bad tidings follow a year in which the far right has successfully built support, very much helped by the context broader mass anti-vaccination demonstrations.

The rise of the far right has encouraged Macron to go much further in attacking Muslims, even though he himself was schooled in a branch of right-wing thought for which Islamophobia is not important. The government recently banned several Muslim organisations that fight Islamophobia, on the grounds that ... they fight Islamophobia! Justifications also included that some people had left anti-Semitic comments on the Facebook pages of the now banned organisations. The education minister has said that universities are in danger from hordes of “Islamo-leftists”, while Le Figaro, a mass circulation conservative newspaper, recently ran front page headlines about the “indoctrination of our children” by “LGBT ideology” and by “anti-racism”.

Many people have been inspired by France’s Yellow Vest movement. What are the Yellow Vests doing now, and have they had an impact on the elections?

The Yellow Vests were a broad, dynamic, leaderless movement that inspired millions and scared Macron. Today, the movement is many times smaller and is unlikely to produce a united response to the elections, though it could burst into action again at any time.

France has seen some large COVID demos this year, in which both left wingers and right wingers have participated. I was at a film screening recently where the director called these protests a continuation of the Yellow Vests. Is he right?

The Yellow Vest movement was always contradictory, an alliance of poor workers and very small (sometimes penniless) businesspeople. So the anti-authority and individualist content was always strong (supporting destruction of speed radars, for example). Sadly, along with much of the radical left, certain sections of the remaining Yellow Vests have mobilised on an individual freedom basis against health restrictions that are necessary to save lives. This led to a mass mobilisation which was not hard for the far right to profit from: in Paris we have seen separate marches by anti-vax fascists, the biggest fascist marches for decades.

Who are the left candidates for president and what do they stand for?

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is standing for the Socialist Party. It does not seem that she will revive the Socialist Party’s very sick body. The Communist Party is standing Fabien Roussel, who is pitching to the right of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, emphasising his support for the police and for nuclear energy. At least three revolutionary left candidates are hoping to stand, including Philippe Poutou for the New Anticapitalist Party.

Mélenchon is the left candidate who really matters because he is the only one who might be able to run an insurgent campaign and persuade millions who were going to stay home to go and vote. This is how he got 19 percent and seven million votes in the 2017 first-round election. It was the highest ever vote for the radical left, with 24 percent of blue-collar voters and 22 percent of white-collar working-class voters choosing him.

His program pulls the political debate leftwards: raising the minimum wage, retirement at 60, 100 percent renewable energy, huge investment against violence against women, generalisation of free health care and many dozens of other radical reforms. It opens up spaces for mass discussion on crucial questions, on which Marxists have things to say to other class fighters. And he has been loudly defending Muslims against Islamophobia for years, improving on his previous positions. His organisation, France Insoumise, is running a dynamic campaign. The YouTube channel has 600,000 followers, and the plan is to knock on a million doors over the next few months. Door-to-door canvassing is not a traditional tool in French elections. Mélenchon is an extraordinary orator; his mass meetings will be huge.

France Insoumise calls for a “citizens’ revolution”. The Trotskyist candidates reply, “That would be the wrong kind of revolution”. They are kind of correct in the abstract—the question of overthrowing the capitalist state cannot be avoided. But the differences between a citizens’ revolution and other kinds of revolution are sadly unknown to 99 percent of French workers. Given that Mélenchon’s campaign and movement is not a membership organisation with strict rules to limit what activists can do, it seems to me obvious that revolutionaries can and should work within it, rather than chase after 1 percent of votes based on distinctions invisible to the working class in general. Marxists who work in the campaign for Mélenchon’s election have plenty of space for fraternal debate about reformism and the state, and to politically oppose other sets of ideas—like the deep green degrowth ideas, identity politics or animal rights ideas—which all have considerable influence.

Mélenchon is a left reformist candidate. I could amuse myself by listing 27 disagreements I have with him, but this would be unproductive. He is at present facing a major smear campaign that will accelerate as the months go by (we will hear that he is a megalomaniac, racist, anti-Semitic friend of Vladimir Putin and more). The lessons of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain must be learned: Mélenchon is under attack because he says neoliberalism is not inevitable, and that another world is possible in which human needs are put first. Those sections of the radical left who are tempted to bay with the hounds are doing our class a great disservice.

Whoever wins the presidency, social struggles will continue. What is on the horizon?

If Macron wins, he will try again for his juggernaut anti-pension “reform”, and there will be mass revolt. If Mélenchon should win (which is possible if it turns out he is in the run-off against Le Pen), the ruling class will pull out all the stops to prevent him from applying his program, and mass movements are also likely. However, my crystal ball is rather hazy today, so watch this space.

A version of this interview was first published at The Left Berlin. It has been edited and updated slightly.

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