Combating fascism in France

The 7 May second round of the French presidential elections is between Emmanuel Macron, a neoliberal who has already declared his intentions to continue tearing up labour protection laws, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist National Front (FN).

It is hardly an envious situation for anti-capitalists, even if the historic 23 April first round vote (19.6 percent) for the radical left program of Jean-Luc Mélenchon brightened the picture somewhat.

A fierce public image battle has been raging between the two candidates. Macron, who has never been active against fascism, has been visiting holocaust memorial sites. Le Pen, whose voting record in the European parliament shows how little she cares about workers, is spending her time at factory gates. She has also feigned interest in the environment and in women’s rights.

Le Pen pulled off a major tactical victory a few days ago by forming an alliance with a small right wing party, Debout la France (Stand up, France!). This group was founded in 2008, has 15,000 members and works under the slogan “Against the system and against extremism”. Its leader, Nicolas Dupont Aignan, received 4.7 percent of the vote on 23 April. Le Pen has announced that he will become prime minister if she wins the presidency. She hopes to win over support from the mainstream right.

The response of the left

Macron has been a key architect of austerity and attacks on the working classes, and he is promising much more of the same (proposing, for example, that unemployed people not be entitled to entitlements if they have refused two job offers).

The Socialist Party, the Greens and the Communist Party have all called for a vote for him, as have several feminist and anti-racist bodies. The Communist Party says that, should Macron win, it will nevertheless fight his policies every step of the way. My own organisation, Ensemble, has also called for a Macron vote (I do not agree with it on this). The far left New Anticapitalist Party, which polled 1.1 percent in the presidential election, released a statement saying it “understood” those who would vote Macron, but were not calling for people to do so.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose “Insubordinate France” election campaign was tremendously successful and led the biggest and most enthusiastic rallies on the left for years, says that no one should vote for Le Pen, but has declined to say whether people should vote Macron or abstain. A call to vote Macron would be unacceptable to a large part of his electoral base; a call for an abstention would be unacceptable to another part.

Mélenchon’s position has been met with an avalanche of slander in the media (backed by some left activists) claiming that he is an ally of the fascists. The French elite is far more afraid of Mélenchon’s 19 percent of the vote than they are of Marine Le Pen’s 21 percent. Even Macron seems to spend as much time attacking Mélenchon as he does attacking Le Pen, and he doesn’t use the word “fascist” to characterise his FN opponent.

In reality, Mélenchon’s supporters are among the most effective anti-fascists. His radical left campaign drew voters away from the FN in a way that the “austerity as usual” candidates could not. Le Pen was at 27 percent in the polls in February and finished at 21 percent. This was largely due to the dynamic of Mélenchon’s campaign. He won more young people and more unemployed voters than the fascists. Mélenchon is the only political leader who had the courage to challenge Le Pen in her own constituency a few years back. And he won a court case when she sued him for calling her a fascist.

Nevertheless, during a recent appearance on prime time television, Mélenchon put all the emphasis on legislative elections in June and did not make a priority of building anti-fascist demonstrations in the lead-up to this weekend’s vote. His electoralist orientation was clear.

Mass action against Le Pen

On 1 May, more than 200,000 people took to the streets to defend working class interests against fascism and neoliberalism. The mobilisations took place in hundreds of towns across the country. Many people who rarely demonstrate joined in to show their hatred of Le Pen. The mobilisation, however, was much smaller than the last time the fascists made the second round. In 2002, when Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie faced Jacques Chirac, the route of the Paris march was so packed that the demonstration could not move from its starting point for six hours.

Other anti-fascist initiatives have occurred this week. In one town, the FN representative was chased from a holocaust memorial ceremony. Anti-fascist lawyers and anti-fascist workers have led protests and launched petitions, as have Catholic workers’ groups and others. Over recent weeks, counter-demonstrations to FN meetings have been held in a number of towns. A series of high school students’ demonstrations were held during the last week under the slogan, “Neither Macron nor Le Pen”. This was not the best of slogans – it can be read as attacking those who will reluctantly vote Macron. “No votes for the fascists !” would have been better. But the most important thing is that the young people mobilised.

Various trade unions, nationally or regionally, published leaflets and press releases to build the May Day demonstration. Some of the union declarations call for a vote for Macron while insisting that he will remain an enemy. “No votes for Le Pen, no honeymoon for Macron” is the headline of one of them. Others, such as the national confederation of Education Unions, have a compromise slogan, which I think is best: “No votes for Le Pen”. The General Confederation of Labour declared, “Not a single vote should go to the far right candidate” without calling to vote Macron.

The reasons for the limited mobilisation this week compared with 2002 are several. First, Marine Le Pen’s campaign to “detoxify” the FN and persuade the world that it is not a fascist force has had considerable success. Even among people who are opposed to her ideas, many do not consider her a fascist. And of the 11 candidates in the first round of the presidentials, hardly anyone called her a fascist. Second, the FN is now treated in the media as a friendly, mainstream party.

Their spokespeople are asked to comment on everyday events, and are invited on chat shows; the party’s anti-Semitism and racism are rarely challenged on screen. Third, the favourite themes of the FN – reasons to hate Muslims and immigrants, and the need for law and order and states of emergency – have become so common in mainstream parties and on television that the FN automatically seems less extreme. Last year, for example, mainstream right wing mayors passed bylaws banning Muslim women from wearing full body swimsuits on the beaches, and the Socialist Party prime minister applauded the bans.

Time to organise

Le Pen will likely lose the runoff election. However, she will get her largest ever vote, and her organisation will be emboldened and ever more of a grave danger for working people. The French working class is paying the price today for two major weaknesses of the French left.

The first is the lack of significant active opposition to Islamophobia from the left or the far left, which has allowed it to become a key manner of attracting people to voting for the FN. The second is the lack of broad-based, permanent, national campaigning organisations to fight fascism. We need week-in, week-out anti-fascist education all year round, not two weeks of mass anti-fascism every 15 years.

The reason for their absence is confusion about fascism. It is widely-held on the French left that building an alternative to austerity and poverty is the “only real” solution to the problem of workers voting for fascism. This contains a grain of truth, but it misses the crucial necessity of preventing the fascists from holding meetings, demonstrations and other activities that build their ranks. The result is that more than 50,000 marched in Paris while Le Pen held a mass meeting of 5,000 at practically the same time 15 miles away without even a counter-demonstration in front of the venue!

The current political earthquake will continue through the June legislative elections. Further sections of the mainstream right will ally with the fascists (something they have avoided doing for 20 years). Socialist Party MPs will scramble to form new alliances and organisations, and the radical left will work to build on its excellent result last week to create a powerful anti-austerity left force. Hopefully, such a force will learn to be active outside parliament as well as inside.

John Mullen is a member of Ensemble and lives in the Paris region.