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With the second round of French presidential elections seeing Macron square off with Le Pen, where the left-wing vote goes is hard to predict with certainty – but calls for a ‘useful vote’ to block the far right leave all the big political questions unanswered, says Nick Wright writing in the Morning Star before the second round.

THE first round of the French presidential election has put the frighteners on the French ruling class and the wind up the European Union Establishment.

The second round takes place this coming Sunday and the two highest-scoring candidates face a run-off.

Top of the poll, but with a less than overwhelming 27.84 per cent, is the incumbent Emmanuel Macron. 

As a former banker and a “technocratic” minister in the last Parti Socialiste (PS) government, he was a reliable advocate of big business. When he formed his own political vehicle, La Republique En Marche, he cannibalised the PS apparatus, its functionaries and local authority and parliamentary eleve and a big chunk of its substantially middle-class vote to win the presidency.

The destruction of the PS (but not social democracy) is more or less complete, while the right-wing Les Republicains are a shadow of their former selves.

In a desperate manoeuvre to ramp up support, its candidate Valerie Pecresse took from the eccentric racist Eric Zemmour his violently racist theme of a “great replacement” of the French by aliens.

Second was Marine Le Pen with 23.15 per cent and close behind was Jean-Luc Melenchon on 21.95 per cent.

The reconfiguration of French bourgeois politics around a fully neoliberal programme and neoliberal president is now challenged from two different directions.

These two compete, in some senses and on some issues, for the same electorate.

Le Pen has fashioned a strong electoral following by combining anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric with criticism of the EU and the French Establishment and an increasingly “left-wing” economic programme that appeals both to a wide working-class constituency and the large, and increasingly cash-strapped, layer of commercial petit bourgeois, self-employed micro-entrepreneurs and urban and rural retraites.

Melenchon, too, appeals to the increasingly distressed working class and rural and urban poor, challenges the French political and economic elite and is critical of the EU. 

Both stand outside the Establishment consensus on foreign policy, are resistant to calls to join the Nato chorus, while Le Pen finds it expedient to tone down her mutual admiration society with Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile Melenchon endures an assault from the liberal left Mediapart operation for “leniency towards Russia.”

The French electoral system operates on a two-stage electoral process in which electors traditionally vote “with heart” for their preferred party or candidate in the first round.

In local authority elections candidates winning above the threshold can stay in for the second round, where traditionally voters cast their ballots “with the head.”

This encourages a certain “republican unity” with most forces on the left and often the ecologists open to the idea that the strongest candidates enjoy reciprocal support with the weaker candidates retiring.

Thus, in the communes, and at departmental and regional level, this notional left has been quite successful in winning seats and office.

The tensions that exist between the communists, now recovering much of their combative identity, the Socialists, now much weakened and divided, and Melenchon’s La France Insoumise and a host of left tendencies, means that this forced unity is under stress. 

In presidential elections different processes are at work, with only the first two candidates going through to the second round.

The liberal left and some ultra-left elements criticise the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF), the ecologists and the two Trotskyist factions, with first-round candidates for attracting votes which, the calculation goes, would have allowed Melenchon to beat Le Pen and go through to the second round and challenge Macron.

While this is arithmetically possible — Yannick Jadot of the Greens won 4.63 per cent, Fabien Roussel of the PCF finished with 2.28 per cent, Anne Hidalgo of the PS 1.7 per cent and two Trotskyists topped 1 per cent between them — the grim reality is that Macron will be able to count on much of the Establishment right wing, including the 4.78 per cent won by Valerie Pecresse and the 3.19 per cent won by mountain communities’ champion Jean Lasalle.

The alternative far-right vote that went to the oddball racist Zemmour in the first round is set to rally behind Le Pen in the second.

Where the left-wing vote goes is hard to predict with certainty. Melenchon has simply advised that no vote should go to Le Pen, but he does not command a disciplined vote and many working-class voters are deeply hostile to the neoliberal Macron and cannot be commanded to vote for him.

On the basis of Le Pen’s economic programme, some will feel they have something to gain in voting for her and much to lose if Macron wins again. 

Last weekend’s opinion polling suggests that only a third of Melenchon’s voters will back Macron, while half won’t say, will abstain or will cast a blank vote.

Le Pen is set to get 16 per cent of the Melenchon vote while the huge number of first-round abstainers remain an unpredictable constituency.

Macron thinks he can win some ecologiste votes and has unconvincingly ramped up his rhetoric to include Melenchon’s trademark planification ecologique phrase, but without much policy detail.

France’s fractious Greens, who are a little lost after their symbiotic relationship with the PS withered, are much like Greens everywhere with a principled core who take their environmental policies seriously, a ruralist and sometimes quite reactionary fringe and an opportunist tendency much given to compromise with neoliberalism.

The PCF is in dialogue with Melenchon about what advice to give the left-wing electorate.

In criticising the election system, the PCF candidate Fabien Roussel pointed out that the “supposedly useful vote” worked “exceptionally spectacularly” in killing meaningful debate.

The PCF has been absent from presidential contests for 15 years and while in alliance with the wily Melenchon’s now mothballed Parti du Gauche provided many of the boots on the ground for his campaigns.

Melenchon has had a varied career, starting off as a student Trotskyist in the same intensely sectarian grouping as Lionel Jospin and a whole host of latter-day PS figures, and ascending the ranks alongside them.

He broke away to form the small Parti du Gauche and allied to the PCF and other left formations, standing for the presidency several times.

A decade ago I loyally voted for Melenchon when he was elected as the Left Front candidate for the South West of France in the European Parliament elections.

At the time I shared the views of many in the PCF who were critical of his opportunist politics.

His unprincipled behaviour, which often appeared to be aimed at marginalising the PCF, has hardened attitudes to the point where French communists came to a collective view that their absence from the presidential ballot weakened working-class influence on French politics and threatened their own credibility.

During the campaign opinion polls showed Fabien Roussel’s support growing fast.

A combination of a vicious hit-job by the same media organisation that targeted Melenchon questioning his integrity and the inexorable operation of the two-round system chopped his numbers back from 5 per cent.

After the vote Roussel said: “I absolutely do not blame those who, in the end, changed their ‘Fabien Roussel’ ballot to a ‘Jean-Luc Melenchon’ ballot. They sincerely voted to avoid the Macron/Le Pen duel first.”

The PCF advises a vote to defeat Le Pen: “We will do so without any concessions to Emmanuel Macron, the person primarily responsible for this situation, of which we have been throughout the five-year term and of which we will remain resolute adversaries.”

Roussel made the point that the aggregate left vote had increased and projected that in the elections for the national assembly the left could finish up with 150 deputies against the 60 today.

“Of course, Jean-Luc Melenchon, whom I congratulated for his result, is the one who can send this signal and allow many, many leftist MPs to win. I repeat to him today the full availability of the PCF and myself to find this agreement.”

The key question across the left as a whole is the nature of such an agreement. 

Melenchon’s latest manoeuvre is to call on the Greens and the communists to form an alliance for the Assembly elections based on the votes gained in the first round.

One astute observer suggests that this allows Melenchon to appear as a unifying figure while ensuring that his long-term strategy to eliminate all left forces he cannot control is carried through into the next electoral round.

It is a self-serving but sterile strategy that fails to take into account the extreme fluidity and complex ideological, economic and demographic factors shaping electoral politics.

But is also reduces politics to electoral manoeuvres while the economic situation drives a different dynamic.

If only voters over retirement age had voted in the first round, Macron would have won 40 per cent of the vote. But among the younger French, Melenchon won the largest share of the vote, while Le Pen had more support than Macron among the 25 to 64-year-olds.

The abstention rate among younger voters is high, which is why the higher proportions of votes won by Melenchon and Le Pen among the 18 to 35 group did not translate into more decisive numbers.

Two-thirds of Macron’s voters are over retirement age with just one in 12 among 18 to 24-year-olds voting for the Establishment candidate.

It is Le Pen who will face Macron in the run-off. Le Pen’s strategy has been to rebrand herself and the political machine she inherited from her fascist father including renaming the Front National to Rassemblement National (National Rally); downplaying the toxic theme of immigration where she has these votes in the bag, instead focusing her campaign on economic issues, the cost-of-living crisis, unemployment and precarity and energy prices.

Despite this makeover and her emphasis on basic economic issues, her vote rose by less than two points compared to the previous election but, in the second round, will be buttressed by most of the 7.07 per cent won by Zemmour and the 2.06 per cent gained by right-wing sovereigntist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.

In the midst of a political crisis for bourgeois politics — one that reflects the deep economic problems which grip the French economy — the clamour for a vote utile (a useful vote) to defeat Le Pen makes clear the the reality that a systematic challenge to neoliberalism is absent in this election. 

In addition to its utility in blocking the far right, the bid to rally opinion behind Macron functions as a mechanism to secure a consensus around the policies favoured by big business, the banks and the EU. 

How that can be successfully challenged is the next issue for the left.

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