The left leads the fight against fascism in France

20 June 2024
D. Taylor
Election posters of the left-wing alliance New Popular Front, Paris, France, 19 June PHOTO: REUTERS / Benoit Tessier

If a fascist government comes to power in France, it should build statues in honour of President Emmanuel Macron. Victory wouldn’t have been possible without him. In fact, there is probably no individual in postwar French politics who has done more to rehabilitate the image and to legitimise the program of the extreme right.

It has been a long and winding road of reinvention and dédiabolisation for French fascism, or post-fascism or quasi-fascism—whatever we might call the National Rally of Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen. The first steps were taken in the 1950s. In those days, Pierre Poujade pioneered a much-needed rebrand of far-right politics. Fascism didn’t seem so civilised and patriotic in the immediate aftermath of Nazi collaboration and the Holocaust. In the early Cold War, Poujade’s Defence Union of Shopkeepers and Craftsmen found a new focus for middle-class reactionaries: anti-tax, anti-Communist and committed to the retention of France’s colonies by any means necessary.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, aged just 27, was first elected to the National Assembly as a Poujadist deputy in 1956. He carried out the next phase of the movement’s renewal. French ultra-colonialism had no political future after the victory of national liberation movements in Algeria and Indochina. So, in the 1970s, Le Pen was a pioneer of the European far right’s turn to anti-immigration politics.

His organisation, the National Front, went nowhere for some years. But it broke through in the 1980s after the Socialist Party’s transformation into a neoliberal austerity government, its tournant de la rigueur, under François Mitterrand. Mainstream centre-left “socialism” no longer even pretended to offer an alternative to the free market. Anti-immigrant racism offered an alternative that built on the prejudices of capitalist society. It worked for almost anything. Unemployment: expel immigrant workers. A housing shortage: evict immigrant residents. Social breakdown: deport immigrant criminals.

The neoliberal stranglehold on mainstream French politics allowed breakthrough after breakthrough for the National Front, later to be rebranded the National Rally. After the Socialist government of François Hollande and Manuel Valls forced through a law attacking the rights of workers, the Socialist Party’s vote collapsed to 6 percent in 2017. Emmanuel Macron, representing a pure embrace of neoliberalism, became president. Le Pen’s daughter Marine became leader of the fascist opposition.

And opposition to what? Macron’s neoliberalism increasingly blended with a right-wing authoritarian politics that makes fascism seem like the logical next step. At the highest level of politics, he has forced through unpopular policies using constitutional tricks to bypass parliamentary votes. In civil society, he has ordered the legal dissolution of anti-racist and environmentalist NGOs. On the street, he has banned protests and unleashed head-cracking riot cops on opposition movement after opposition movement.

On immigration and the persecution of Muslims, Macron’s thuggish interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, accused the fascists of being “un peu molle” (a bit soft), not “assez dure” (tough enough). Macron’s government passed an immigration law inspired by the National Rally, which Le Pen called an “ideological victory” for her tradition. After parts of it were ruled unconstitutional, Macron mused about amending the constitution to allow for the longstanding flagship policy of Le Pen’s party: a referendum on the immigration question. “It cannot be avoided”, he said.

And in election after election, Macron has begged leftists to faire barrage, to build a blockade against the far right. Faire barrage is French for lesser-evilism, the moral blackmail demanding that leftists support right-wing candidates or else be blamed if the public votes for even more right-wing candidates. At the same time, Macron and his allies have constantly characterised the broad left as an enemy within. The left are, the Macronie constantly repeat, outside the arc republicain. Unlike the fascist opposition, the leftist opposition of France Unbowed are said to have no legitimate place in French politics. This refrain intensified after anti-police riots in 2023, which France Unbowed would not condemn, and became deafening after it opposed Israel’s genocidal bombardment of Gaza.

Macron’s government has done so much to legitimise the far right, and to diabolise the left, that the fascist leader Jordan Bardella can now wield his own version of lesser evilism. On BFM TV, one of the large media networks, he called on the conservative electorate to faire barrage (block) the left—the left who, in words that could have been written by Macron himself, “pass their time insulting our police, who want to disarm the police, who refuse to call Hamas ... a terrorist organisation, who trample on our businesses, who trample on our farmers’ fields, who trample on secularism”. He concluded: “I am the only one who can faire barrage against Jean-Luc Mélenchon [leader of France Unbowed], who can faire barrage against the far left”.

Is struggle the solution to the situation? France has had no shortage of it. Since the end of the Cold War, France has probably seen more and deeper social movements than any other major European country. Since 2016, there has been a once-in-a-generation social movement roughly every eighteen months. There have been student occupations, urban riots, environmentalist blockades, unclassifiable popular uprisings like the Yellow Vests and nation-wide political strikes of such breadth and intensity that they put most of the world’s workers’ movements to shame.

Some have been politically contradictory, like the Yellow Vests. Some, like the recent farmers’ blockades of the cities, have probably benefited the far right: when Jordan Bardella popped in to the Salon de l’Agriculture in February to campaign for “economic patriotism”, he was received like Taylor Swift showing up at a fan’s birthday party. But most have been unambiguously left wing: led by left-wing activists, informed by left-wing politics, opposing deregulation, privatisation, neoliberalism, racism and environmental destruction. Chief among these movements were the national strikes against Macron’s attacks on France’s pension system.

These strikes deserve close study. They persisted for years, beginning in 2019 and reviving almost as soon as the COVID lockdowns were over. Their size and resilience shattered expectations and defied the downward trends of the last few decades that had led to some suspicion that the French trade unions were past it. They combined local reconductible strikes—ongoing strikes, re-ratified daily by mass meetings of workers, in key sectors like rail and oil refineries—with enormous one-day national mobilisations. They were supported by sympathising movements: student occupations in the cities and cross-class protests in the little villages throughout France. Most importantly, they were overwhelmingly popular, with enormous super-majorities supporting the strikes in poll after poll.

In many ways, they were exemplary: political general strikes, in which the working class appears as the leading force in society, confronting a hated enemy and defending the people as a whole. Socialism will be impossible without many, many more movements of this nature. And the far right was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, its activists could not even attend the demonstrations, and were roundly mocked for their invisibility as a purported “opposition” during the biggest and most important oppositional movement of Macron’s presidency. The reason is obvious: fascists are known enemies of the workers’ movement, and if they had shown up, they would have been beaten up and driven out.

It is sometimes said that the fascists are the leading party of France’s working class. This is highly misleading. Among workers and the poor in big cities, the vote is overwhelmingly for the left. The big population centres, in which the most organised, militant and class-conscious workers live, have so far rejected the fascists and embraced the left in overwhelming numbers.

And the story is not even as simple as an urban-rural split. Yes, the far right has its electoral base in rural and semi-rural electorates. But throughout France, it seems to appeal to a particular kind of voter, as the researcher Gala Kabbaj explained at a France Unbowed conference in 2023. The fascists do well among workers in areas where small businesses predominate, where there is little open class conflict and where workers can be strongly influenced socially, personally and politically by bosses who may be their neighbours, relatives and aspirational role models.

When the biggest, best-organised, anti-fascist sections of the working class become active and assert themselves, they can provide an alternative leadership and undermine the influence of right-wing politics everywhere. So by April 2023, 60 percent of small business owners opposed Macron’s pension attacks, according to an Ifop poll. Right-wing political support began to crack up; conservatives said they would not vote for the policy, making a parliamentary majority impossible.

Yet the strikes failed. They wound themselves up. The apparently mighty Intersyndicale, the united campaign group of the chief national union bureaucrats, ran out of puff. Self-sacrifice and determination of the rank-and-file notwithstanding, the bureaucrats who summoned the movement into existence always wanted to limit it. Both the right-wing French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), which repeatedly offered deals to wind the movement up, and the more “militant”, Communist Party-aligned General Confederation of Labour (CGT) were much more comfortable with a series of national one-day rallies than with generalising the reconductible strikes and following through on their verbal threats to “blockade the country”.

In March 2023, Macron abandoned any pretence at democracy: he sidestepped parliament to force through his attacks using the notorious Article 49.3 of the French constitution. Attempts by the opposition to compel a referendum were rejected by France’s Constitutional Council, which consists mostly of ex-politicians. Serious riots, led by youth in the cities, exploded throughout the country. Spontaneous strikes proliferated. In late March, polls showed an overwhelming majority of the population wanted the strike movement to “harden” and go further: 62 percent of the whole population, 68 percent of those under 35 years old, and 74 percent of the poor.

It didn’t happen. There was no generalisation, no hardening of the movement, no real general strike. The Intersyndicale didn’t want it, only another one-day mobilisation to take place on May Day and then another a few weeks later in June. It was an admission of defeat; an official recognition that the union bureaucracy would rather be beaten than destabilise the political order. The centre of gravity shifted back to elections—a much more comfortable one for the fascist opposition. And in that field, what has the French left offered?

The key figure, of course, is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He had a long career in the Socialist Party, first as a young MP in the time of Mitterrand’s neoliberal turn, then as a participant in left-wing internal party oppositions. Then he left the party to launch a series of projects aimed, in various ways, at reviving old-school, pre-neoliberal social democracy, with an anti-imperialist flavour and a tendency to propose electoral alliances with the Communist Party. In program and rhetoric, he is not far from Jeremy Corbyn. Unlike Corbyn, he made the wise decision to launch his own parties, of which the latest is France Unbowed—so he is in no danger of being controlled or deposed by a hostile right-wing internal opposition. He has stuck to his principles.

As France’s political crisis has deepened, Mélenchon and his comrades in France Unbowed have achieved remarkable success. In current polls, they are neck-and-neck with the National Rally. They have won high support among demographics socialists crave: young people, urban workers, the oppressed. Firmly rejecting Islamophobia, even under the traditional French guise of “secularism”, France Unbowed is the party of choice for French Muslims, 69 percent of whom voted for Mélenchon in the 2022 presidential election. Its MPs are creative and disruptive in parliament. The party supports all the right causes and tends not to back down, even under the most intense media pressure: support Palestine, support the strikes, attend banned protests against police brutality.

This is all to its credit, and it is to the credit of France’s workers and youth that they reward France Unbowed with their support in such large numbers, despite the constant and predictable streams of slander from the mainstream media. It is better than most reformist parties ever get these days. It recalls Greece’s Syriza at the peak of its oppositional momentum.

But is it enough?

During the pension strikes, the bureaucratic union leaders, who were leading that movement to a shameful defeat, attacked France Unbowed time and again—for being too radical. Philippe Martinez, the Stalinist secretary of the CGT, complained that France Unbowed wanted to “appropriate the movement and push the unions into the background” when it tried to disrupt the passage of the pension law; Laurent Berger of the right-wing CFDT called the party’s parliamentary protest a “shameful spectacle”. France Unbowed did nothing to counter these attacks. When the union leaders wound up the movement with a couple of hopeless one-day protests, Mélenchon simply announced: “We must all be ready to line up again behind the Intersyndicale”.

The right-wing press often accuse the “Islamo-leftist” Mélenchon of engaging in cynical electoral opportunism: betraying the principles of the republic to seek Muslim votes, adopting “antisemitic” support of Palestine. This is a typical racist slander. But there is a real problem of electoral opportunism. Mélenchon is happy to leave class struggle to the union bureaucracy—his party supports strikes but does not organise them, and certainly does not challenge their bureaucratic leadership. In exchange, it is hoped that the French union bureaucracies will maintain a neutral or friendly disposition to France Unbowed.

So far, so good. The political momentum of France Unbowed has forced its rivals in the reformist left to once more collapse into a Mélenchon-led electoral coalition, the New Popular Front. Everyone can get on board: the Communist Party on one side and the old, hated Socialist Party on the other. Even François Hollande, the political father of Emmanuel Macron, has reemerged as a candidate in Mélenchon’s coalition. None of the constituent parties will stand against each other: there will be no criticism of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party or the union officials. All together to faire barrage against Le Pen. “Throw rancour in the river” is Mélenchon’s slogan of the day.

Who knows? They might even win. If they do, they will presumably find themselves constrained by the realities of capitalism to jettison much of their program—like Mitterrand with his social democratic programme commun of 1981, abandoned for austerity in 1983. Nonetheless, just as Le Pen and Bardella became the opposition to Macron, now the left—with an anti-neoliberal, anti-racist, pro-Palestinian leadership—is the main opposition to Le Pen and Bardella. This is a real achievement, and something to build on.

But France does not need one more “socialist” government to draw up policies and abandon them under pressure. It has had plenty of them since 1848.

The oppressed people in France, the youth, and especially the workers have shown their willingness to throw themselves into struggle to defend themselves collectively against the ravages of neoliberalism. They need a politics that can build on this determination, not by converting it into votes, but by helping it to break free of the bureaucratic leadership that keeps it within the bounds of the system. That alternative—a revolutionary socialist one—will be necessary whoever wins these elections, or the ones to come after.

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