On Sunday, the French people conducted their second round of votes in the 2022 presidential elections. They could choose between incumbent Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen. In the end, Macron won by a few percentage points so that he can continue to govern France for another five years.
But it was an unsatisfying election. Just like the one before it. Back in 2017, the results looked very similar. In the first round, the hopeful candidate for the left, Jean-Luc Mélénchon came in third. In the second round, only Macron and Le Pen remained.
A liberal, pro-capitalist candidate who is committed to democracy versus a far-right and equally pro-capitalist candidate, albeit not as much committed to democracy.
What unites Macron and Le Pen then and now is that none can offer a perspective for a scarred country.
Scarred not just by the many political crises of the twentieth century, but also by deep inequality. France is known for challenging riots. Back in 2005, the Parisian banlieues have been ravaged by weeks of burning cars. I remember vividly that one joke that was pretty popular back in my school at that time. “What does ‘advent wreath’ mean in French? Four burning police cars in a roundabout.”
Not that long after, the riots of the “Gilets Jaunes,” the yellow vests, were a news highlight for months. These protests prompted me to write one of my first published papers (German). The protests by the yellow vests may have abated, but the root causes remain.
And that can also explain why so many people did not vote for Macron. No, a large majority voted against Le Pen:
This. https://t.co/m0I6rsxJ10— Hendrik Erz (@sahiralsaid) April 24, 2022
And I can honestly understand the French people. I can understand why many leftists struggled to go to the booths on Sunday. I can understand why so many hesitated to vote for Macron.
Macron is a symbol of the status quo of a societal order that deepens the economic distress that prompts so many people around the world to vote for fascists and so many leftists to abstain from voting altogether.
Do not get me wrong: I think that it is a mistake to not vote for Macron as a leftist. Because in the end, not voting at all inflates the votes for right-wing candidates, making the elections into a symbol for the successes of regressive forces — even if they are in the minority.
However, at the same time the old lore of the “leftists who benefit fascism because they attacked the liberals” is obnoxious, too. A scholar whom I view as an incredible enrichment of German discourse, Hedwig Richter, but who unfortunately sides more and more with a “there is no alternative” perspective on liberal democracy, wrote shortly after the results were made public:
Had the left-wing extremists not purported the myth of the brutal, cut-off from reality capitalist Macron, the results would look less fascist. (My translation)
This claim is dishonest. How can leftists further fascism by criticizing Macron? Is it not his deeply neoliberal politics which drove voters in masses to the right? Who made use of McCarthy-ist tactics to make sure Mélénchon did not make it to the second round, only to then purport the narrative that people must vote for him to prevent yet another descent into fascism in France?
To be fair: I do think that the 42 % for Le Pen are exaggerated. France does not consist of almost half a fascist population. However, due to many voters abstaining from the vote, those loyal to the Front/Rassemblement National looked like more — because a percentage is relative, not absolute.
And that is what I mean with an unsatisfying election. For many people, neither Macron nor Le Pen are good options. And as such, it should not surprise us that over 90 % of those voters who voted for Mélénchon in the first round did not vote for Macron, but rather against Le Pen.
However, a lot of people commented on my retweet that it should not surprise us that Mélénchon voters didn’t like Macron. But that is only half the truth. Aaron Bastani aimed for a larger frame, which caused me to retweet his.
He wrote: “Democracies only run like this for so long.” And what he meant by it (or, at least, what I think he meant) is that if political alternatives to liberalism become less and less available and if elections really become a matter of “there is no alternative” (because authoritarianism of any couleur is never an alternative), then what is the point of an election? And sooner rather than later, the chances of sliding into authoritarianism mount.
The election in 2017 was a clever strategic win by Macron. The election a few days ago was a warning sign. The next election in 2027 may already be on the threshold of France descending into authoritarianism once again.
So, what is to be done?
First, I think, Emmanuel Macron needs to finally start leveling the economic inequality ravaging France not just since the subprime crisis in 2007/2008. Whether he does this by himself or under pressure doesn’t matter that much. But if he really is serious in preventing Le Pen (or any other right-wing or openly fascist candidate), this is his best bet.
Second, the left wing in France needs to provide a plausible political alternative to the neoliberalism of the twentieth century. And that means to oust the Trotskyists (why does France still have those around?!) and other overly conservative communists and focusing on a modern socialist alternative to both the neoliberalism of Macron and the nationalism of Le Pen. Something that not just embraces the European Union, but that also shows that socialism works well with democracy.
The next five years will be hard. The democratic forces in France – both Macron and Mélénchon – need to work hard to improve the livelihoods of the French poor. If they fail this, Le Pen may easily secure an electoral victory in 2027. And we all know what that will mean for the European Union.
Let’s not let it get that far.