Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Anti-Fascism Betrayed? The Left and the French Presidential Elections.

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Image result for front uni contre le fascisme

The End of the United Front Against Fascism?

The French Presidential Elections: Anti-Fascism Betrayed?

“qui’il n’y pas de hiérarchie dans l’inacceptable entre le Pen at Macron. Entre la xénophobie et la soumission aux banques.”

There is no difference of degree between the unacceptability of le Pen and Macron, between xenophobia and surrender to the banks.

Emmanuel Todd.

“Last year I wrote in the struggle against fascism the Communists were duty-bound to come to a practical agreement not only with the devil and his grandmother, but even with Grzesinski.”

Leon Trotsky. 1932. The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.

The 2/3rds majority of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise who support abstention, or a blank vote, in the second round of the French Presidential elections is echoing across the hexagon’s already divided left. In Wednesday’s Le Monde Jean Birnbaum wrote of the burial of the “united front” spirit of anti-fascism (le 4 août de Mélenchon, ou l’antifascisme trahi). There are those who argue that not only is Macron beyond the pale, a banker, a globaliser with a sorry Ministerial record as a hard-liner pushing liberal labour reform, but that his election would prepare the way for a future Front National triumph. Hence ballot spoiling, blank votes, for abstention are the only possible choice in an election where there is no choice. Birnbaum argues that this, amid smaller (indeed, very small) leftist groups and some public intellectuals refusing to “takes sides”, shows that the  unity of the left against fascism, which has been a cornerstone of its politics since the mid-1930s, is breaking up.

This is not, then,  a debate about abstention as such. This position, a very old one on the French left, going back to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 – 1865),  which argues for self-organising outside of Parliamentary institutions, is not at the centre of the debate. Alain Badiou early intervened in favour of a re-establishing a “communist vision” outside the “depoliticising” ceremony of the ballot box. Badiou’s recommendation not to vote because it only encourages them has not caught many people’s attention. (Alain Badiou. Voter renforce le conservatisme).

The Le Pen versus Macron duel has raised more serious issues. For Birnbaum, who has written on the blindness, if not indulgence, of a section of the left faced with Islamism (Un Silence Religieux. 2016 Review), some on the French left, many formed, like Mélenchon, from the Trotskyist tradition, have forgotten the need, which Trotsky (for all his acerbic attacks, and his loathing of the German Social Democrats, summed up in the figure of the Prussian Interior Minister, Grzesinski, demanded, faced with the prospect of Hitler’s rise, to defend democratic institutions.

No New Hitler.

It would be indecent to have to say that France today is far from the Weimar Republic. A new Hitler in power is not in prospect. There are no street battles between the Front National and the left. The FN does not offer a genocidal programme. Birnbaum’s argument that those who propose the view that Macron and Le Pen are politically twin-evils does not flag up the posthumous victory of the worst years of Stalinism, the Third Period. But, as many convincingly demonstrate the French far right is the vehicle for illiberal democracy. From leaving the Euro, Frexit, clamping down on immigration, including the expulsion of ‘suspect’ individuals, “national preference” (jobs first of all for French citizens), and tightening the borders, economically and socially, requires authority beyond normal Parliamentary democracy. The not-so-secret ambition of the extra-parliamentary wing of the far right, which would be emboldened by a FN victory, remains to fight the left violently, from the city pavements, civil society, education, and the workplace. (on this see the excellent: The Front National and fascism. Martin Thomas).

Yet Marine Le Pen’s party is, apparently, ‘normalised’. It is a refuge, Pierre-André Taguieff describes it, for those excluded by globalisation, a “pathological form of self-defence”, confronted with the erosion of nation states and the rule of elites. National-populism, he argues, reflects a “need” for identity and belonging. (La revanche du nationalisme. 2015)

There are doctors who claim to be treating this disorder. On the same page of le Monde, Henri Pena-Ruiz, Jean-Paul Scot and Bruno Streiff defend La France insoumise and refuse to be blackmailed into supporting Macron (Insoumis, osons penser librement!). They claim that their movement is at the forefront of the battle against the FN. On the one hand they have waged the “battle of ideas”, defending the role of immigrants n producing French national wealth, and the duty of “universal hospitality” to strangers advanced by Kant, a refusal to divide the world into “us” and “them”. On the other hand their “révolution citoyenne”, a 6th social, ecological and economic Republic, offers a message beyond short-term election battles. Federating the people, it can equally capture the best traditions of the left and those marginalised by globalisation.

Henri Pena-Ruiz has himself helped avoid faults that Birnbaum’s Un silence religieux attacked. That is the incapacity, mixed with an opportunistic eye to new recruits against ‘globalisation’ and ‘imperialism’, of some of the left confronted with Islamism. His Qu’est-ce que la laïcité? (2003) stands as a significant defence of secularism, and a rebuke to groups like the British Respect, and the Socialist Workers Party, who allied with the Islamic far-right.

Yet it does not help Mélenchon’s supporters that they choose to deny the accusation that they mirror 1930s sectarianism to cite the role of the German SPD in preparing the way for Hitler by, between 1924 and 1929, accepting a policy of austerity through their alliance with the centre (Catholic) party. This transparent attack on the Parti Socialiste, by Macron interposed, and its (mild) fiscal austerity indicates that in some way it holds  responsibility for the le Pen, and the far right. This is can easily be interpreted as indicating that the Macron ‘finance’ class are not only an enemy, but the real foe, beside which the Front National is a ‘diversion’.

Some readers may also consider that one could have done without the text’s references to their movement’s remarkable “intelligence collective”. Their is a feel of the courtier when they talk of the “honneur” of “non-guru” Mélenchon for organising a “consultation” of his supporters to know their views on voting in the second round. Others might wonder why there is no reference to the 15-16% of voters for this candidate in the first ballot that, polls indicate, who are ready to vote Le Pen on Sunday.

Populism and Sovereignty.

One problem remains. If those who refuse to ‘choose’ between Macron and Le Pen reflect a French debate, the underlying issues affect the left across the world. In Europe particularly ‘populism’ is not the preserve of the far right. Mélenchon’s intellectually ambitious advisers may look to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s efforts to theorise contradictions between the “power bloc” and the “people”, and as the a handbook for constructing a force, filling the “empty signifier” of the People with a voice that articulates the needs and feelings of a broad constituency, against the ‘oligarchs’. In doing so their own demands for ‘national independence” to “produce French”, not to mention lyrical rhetoric about the French revolutionary tradition, or references to Kant’s universal principles of right, have been criticised as nationalist. Their ‘movement’, La France insoumise, which lacks any serious democratic structure, has claimed to be “beyond” traditional political divisions, while falling back into one of the most traditional oppositions of all: the Nation against the other Nations. If Macron represents economic liberal policies, for them he embodies something more: the Cosmopolitan European project. They have, in short, entered the orbit of Sovereigntism.

La France insoumise at an impasse.

After pursuing this path, Mélenchon and la France insoumise won a strong vote but a position as Number Four in the poll. They look less like a force that has abandoned the anti-fascist front, than a movement unable to offer anything more than continued protest. Instead of attempting, as Birnbaum and many others argue, to mobilise against Le Pen, for the unity of democrats against illiberalism, with the prospect of future social conflicts against Macron in mind, they are marching in disorder, a third abstaining a third voting blank and a third for the representative of ‘globalisation’, and their own “excluded” voters still set to back le Pen. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to gather together enough strength to gather together with those they now pour scorn upon to reach agreements on the left for the June legislative elections.


15 Responses

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  1. There’s a conversation recorded in the Guardian today which makes me want to set my remaining hair on fire. Highlight:

    Sure, I hear that. But let me say it again so it sinks in. We run the risk of having a far-right president. In France. Next week. When the Front National won the first round in 2002, I remember taking to the streets with millions of people, saying, “Never again”. It was a key political moment for a lot of us. And now, here we are. What do you expect will happen if she’s elected?

    It’s going to be a catastrophe.


  2. Exactly, it’s really getting to me.

    Andrew Coates

    May 4, 2017 at 12:53 pm

  3. Of course a tactical vote for Macron to keep Le Pen out makes sense. But it may be no bad thing if Macron does not imagine that the left voters are in the bag for him already simply by dint of him not being a fascist. If he understands that support from people to his left is conditional and above all has to be *won*, not just at the election but also afterwards, then the outcome of a Macron presidency may be positive. Otherwise, the left will have further marginalised itself by hitching its wagon to the ruling class and its politics, and the FN will continue to hoover up support from the people who used to place their hopes in the left. Le Pen’s support, after all, is not a reaction against the politics of people like Mélenchon. It’s a reaction against the politics of people like Macron.


    May 4, 2017 at 1:52 pm

  4. That is true, but there are some deeper problems in La France insoumise’s reactions which are not going to go away, to begin with their belief that they are some kind of real populist movement and not an exercise in capturing the existing left vote.

    Andrew Coates

    May 4, 2017 at 2:02 pm

  5. Andrew, it’s doing my head in. Just been told calling MLP a fascist is ‘McCarthyism’. Need to switch off Twitter/hit the bottle.

  6. Andrew Coates

    May 4, 2017 at 3:15 pm

  7. Some polls now say that 20% of of Mélenchon voters will cast their ballots for the extreme right, Le Pen.

    Some ‘left’ vote.

    Sondage: 20% des électeurs de Mélenchon prêts à voter Le Pen.


    Andrew Coates

    May 4, 2017 at 4:36 pm

  8. Strategically, the choice facing voters between Macron and Le Pen for the French presidency a choice between whether a Great Evil or a Greater Evil will control the executive of one of Europe’s most important states. Like Yanis Varoufakis, the right choice is to fight and defeat the Greater Evil in this election while continuing the struggle against the Great Evil.


    Mélenchon’s treacherous and sectarian neutrality in the struggle to defeat the Greater Evil should not be forgotten, nor should his egotistical decision to run a presidential campaign against the winner of the Socialist Party-sponsored all-left primary. His candidacy divided the left vote of ~25% between two candidates and allowed Le Pen and Macron to advance to the second round in an election that the left could have won. Why leftists take Mélenchon seriously when his actions keep leading to regressive outcomes is hard to understand.


    May 4, 2017 at 8:42 pm

  9. The “anti-fascist Left” who refuse to support Macron against Le Pen are playing their part in a “voter suppression” campaign which can only aid Le Pen. In fact, by stating that they will not support Macron, they encourage people to vote for Le Pen as in “if she’s not that bad, maybe we can vote for her protectionist policies”.

    Btw, a big part of the Trump campaign was to put out negative stories about Hilary Clinton, not so as to win those votes, but to discourage people who would vote for her from just not bothering.

    “But a large part of the team’s strategy now mirrors the negative slant of the larger Trump campaign. In the words of an unnamed senior official quoted by Bloomberg, they’re running “three major voter suppression operations,” aimed at lowering turnout among liberals, young women, and black voters.”


    John Rogan

    May 5, 2017 at 10:30 am

  10. I think Badiou, Rancière or Birnbaum have NO influence on most Left wing voters who dont want to vote for Macron, so I dont understand why you give so much importance to these guys who have never provided any detailed analysis of the National Front and the problems this national populist party poses. I already posted articles on the national front on mondialisme.org in English and I can only recommend a recent article I wrote about Hénin Beaumont. Basically the NF is a party which does not accept the basic rules of bourgeois democracry as Marine Tondelier’s book I reviewed tries to show. But the Left and the Far Left who vote for Macron dont want to deal with this fact. They dont want to fight for a ban of the FN which would be a minimum if they really believe it’s a fascist party. They accept to debate with Marine Le Pen and at the same time claim she is fascist. They call to vote for Macron who will give more MPs to the NF by changing the electoral law as he announced during the last debate. So voting for Macron is 1) to refuse to ban a socalled fascist party 2) vote for a guy who already announced he will give more space in the Parliament to this sa


    May 5, 2017 at 3:14 pm

  11. Sorry I continue

    to this socalled fascist party 3) accept to discuss with a party which violates the basic laws of bourgeois democracy when it controls a municipality (see the article in French on npnf.eu


    And this one (written in 2015) in English

    The National Front and its influence among French workers …

    So I think instead of lecturing about “antifascism” (which failed also in France and in Spain in the 1930s as well all of us should know) one should discuss what could be efficient to maintain the masses of the exploited far way from national populists, fascists, radical rightwingers, whatever you call them. Trusting that a Macron ballot will change ANYTHING is just nonsensical . And please don’t cry if at the next elections the number of votes for the NF are higher because you supported Macron…. Exactly like the SPD supported Hindenburg to avoid Hitler this kind of electoral petty calculations lead to disastrous results… This is something no Badiou, Birnbaum, Rancière and Co will ever say or think of


    May 5, 2017 at 3:41 pm

  12. I posted the Badiou reference because, er, I can’t stand his pretensions.

    Next question….

    I have read the Mondialisme articles (though the site was down recently) and recommend them Yves. They are important.

    It was in reference to your comrades that I made a clear distinction between the principled absenteeism of the extra-parliamentary left and the current Ni…Ni…stand.

    Andrew Coates

    May 5, 2017 at 4:39 pm

  13. “Trusting that a Macron ballot will change ANYTHING is just nonsensical.”

    Who is advocating ‘In Macron We Trust’ as an anti-fascist strategy in this thread? No one.

    “… the SPD supported Hindenburg to avoid Hitler this kind of electoral petty calculations lead to disastrous results…”

    The SPD was absolutely correct to back Hindenburg as a means of defeating Hitler in the 1932 presidential referendum. The problem was that that was basically the sum total of their anti-fascist strategy — they never anticipated the possibility that Hindenburg might appoint Hitler chancellor and when he did so, they were totally blindsided. (The KPD was also completely blindsided by this and they refused to support either Hindenburg or the SPD when the SPD came under fascist attack, so their anti-fascist strategy was actually worse than the SPD’s.)

    Yes, winning the masses away from the National Front is an important strategic goal but keeping France’s military-police apparatus free of Le Pen’s control by working to defeat her at the polls is just as important. What Macron is able to get away with in office ‘tomorrow’ will depend directly on the scale, intensity, and character of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary mobilizations directly against Le Pen that develop ‘today.’ To use a Russian analogy, if you refuse to fight Kornilov now you won’t be in a position to topple Kerensky later.


    May 5, 2017 at 5:59 pm

  14. Is anyone really comparing the NF today with the NAZI party in the 1930s? if they are they clearly have no understanding of fascism and cannot distinguish between it and right wing populism. Presumably they would think fascism is already in power in Hungary? Equally important as understanding when to use the united front against facism is knowing the dangers of using the term fascist as a term of abuse – as some of the left in the USA is doing in relation to Trump. You don’t cry wolf when it comes to fascism – we will certainly know it when the bourgeoisie turns to it to destroy the labour movement.

    When we are faced with the choice of a bourgeois right wing populist candidate or a right wing neoliberal banker the working class has no candidate and the only option is active abstain. Over four million voters did precisely that in the elections. Were they all “hopeless sectarians” – no in a choice between cholera and plague we vote for neither. Those who campaigned for Macron in the second round take responsibility for his victory and his policies, a crippling position in the struggles ahead for any party in France.


    May 8, 2017 at 6:39 pm

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