Emmanuel Macron won the second round of the French presidential elections on May 7, receiving 58.21% of the vote compared to the 30.01% share for far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen.
Despite the apparently decisive victory, the vote signals continued political uncertainty in France fuelled by widespread disillusionment with France’s democracy. It raises questions as to whether Macron’s supporters, organised in a new centrist movement called En Marche!, will be able to form a working government out of legislative elections scheduled for mid June.
Despite Macron winning the first round, there were doubts over whether sufficient numbers of voters who had supported other candidates would shift their vote to Macron in the second round. The desire to deal the FN a defeat was strong, but many were put off by the hard neoliberal platform of Macron, the personification of an establishment technocrat.
Macron’s total vote ultimately more than doubled his first round vote, but in the context of the lowest turnout in a presidential vote since the 1969 presidential elections, which occurred in the aftermath of repression of the mass mobilisations of May-June 1968.
More than 25% of voters abstained from the contest between the far-right and centrist candidate. There were also 11.47% blank ballots cast.
The abstention and blank ballots reflect the extent to which voters were alienated not just from the racist pro-capitalist politics of Le Pen, but also Macron’s promise to continue and deepen the neoliberal attacks on French society carried out by successive governments.
Some of Macron’s policies include budget cuts totalling €60 billion; lowering corporate tax from 33.3% to 25%; creating a 5000-strong EU border force; adding 10,000 extra police; and expanding jails to house a further 15,000 prisoners.
Le Pen was always seen as unlikely to win the second round — the only real chance for her to win was huge abstentionism. Her objective in the second round was always to further build the position of the FN for the legislative elections as well as the 2022 presidential elections.
Le Pen’s final vote of 10.5 million (a 38.62% increase over the first round) was significant. But it was widely greeted with relief that the vote was not as high as some feared, with polls up until May 3 suggesting that the FN vote could be more than 41%.
Le Pen's weaker performance was partly a consequence of the release of further allegations from the European parliament in which she is implicated in a fake jobs scandal. Le Pen’s performance in the second round debate was also widely panned.
The rise of the FN and Le Pen poses a serious threat, but their forward march is not inevitable. They face significant challenges.
One of these is that, despite Le Pen’s efforts to detoxify the FN’s image, its overt racism continues to alienate significant sections of the French working class — particularly Muslim and migrant communities. This reality was reflected in Le Pen’s cynical move immediately after the first round on April 23 to stand down as FN president so she could be “the candidate for all of France”.
However, her efforts were undermined by her replacement Jean-Francois Jalkh, a long-term party member who had joined as a 17-year-old in 1974. He had to resign just days later for previous statements minimising the Holocaust.
The FN also faces significant internal division over the way forward. Le Pen wants to continue moving the party into the mainstream of French right-wing politics and challenge the centre-right Republicans as the main party of the right.
The most unreconstructed reactionary wing of the party continues to resist this push. It is seeking to use Le Pen’s poorer than expected showing to attack this project.
Marine's father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who Marine had expelled from the party in 2015, publicly attacked his daughter on the eve of the second round. He said she was unfit to be president.
How to respond to such a second round contest was a source of debate within the French left. A particular focus was the extent to which the danger posed by Le Pen made it incumbent on the left to support Macron’s candidacy.
Of particular interest in this regard was the stance taken by Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise (France Unbowed, FI). Melenchon’s campaign posed a radical, left-wing pole in the first round of campaigning, mobilising tens of thousands and securing just under 20% of the vote.
The FI called for not one single vote for Le Pen. However, it put the other options to a membership vote: calling for a vote for Macron; abstaining or casting a blank ballot. More than 36% of FI members backed the organisation calling for blank ballots to be cast.
The French Communist Party (PCF), which campaigned for Melenchon in the first round, called for a vote for Macron, as did and the French Confederation of Democratic Workers (CFDT), France's second-largest union confederation.
PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent called for “beating Marine Le Pen on May 8 and to build legislative victories to defeat both Emmanuel Macron and the extreme right”.
The General Confederation of Labour (CGT), France’s largest union confederation, called for a “vote to block the extreme right”, but refused to publicly call for a vote for Macron.
The CGT said Le Pen posed “a danger to democracy, social cohesion and the world of work”, but that “the governments, which since 2002 have followed one another without ever meeting the legitimate aspirations for greater social justice, failing to create opportunities for a better future, bear a heavy responsibility [for the growth of the FN].”
The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) went further, arguing against a call for a vote for Macron. It said: “Macron is not a bulwark against the FN; to impose a lasting retreat [on the FN] there is no alternative but to take the streets against the far right and against all those who, like Macron, impose or try to impose anti-social measures.”
With Macron’s victory, the focus for the left will shift to a struggle on the streets against Macron’s looming assault and on efforts to build a legislative opposition. The CGT called for mobilisations against Macron for May 8, which drew thousands of protestors.
In its call for mobilisations, the CGT said the FN vote was too high and “reflected the level of social despair unleashed by liberal policies a consequence of the refusal of successive governments to fight for social justice.
“Fighting the FN requires a break with liberal policies. It is the perspective of the CGT to work, through social mobilisations, to impose alternative choices, act for social justice and win a world of peace.”
The legislative elections could pose an opportunity for those to the left of the now severely weakened Socialist Party (PS) to achieve a greater parliamentary voice than the 10 MPs that the Left Front (an alliance including the PCF and Melenchon’s Left Party) achieved in the 2012 elections.
The traditional party of French social democracy, the PS candidate won just over 6% in the first round of the presidential elections, leaving a large space on the left.
The position of the left heading to the poll is relatively weak - the combined vote for the left in the presidential elections, including the PS, was just under 10 million. However, parties to the left of the PS won about 7.7 million.
If this was maintained in the legislative elections, it would likely result in a significant expansion in the number of seats won.
However, the bulk of Melenchon’s increased vote in the presidential contest came from PS voters shifting to Melenchon as support for the PS’s Benoit Hamon collapsed. This is unlikely to be replicated.
An added complication is that, at present, there is no agreement between the parties that supported Melenchon’s presidential candidacy on a united campaign in the legislative elections. There is a chance that the FI and the PCF will run candidates against each other, including in constituencies currently held by the PCF.
If this occurred, it could risk a reduction in the number of seats held by the left. In the face of this danger, Ensemble (a far-left regroupment within the Left Front) has called for building a united force of the “defiant left” that breaks with neoliberalism to contest the legislative elections.
“The next legislative elections will be decisive in mobilising the hope raised by Jean-Luc Melenchon’s success in the first round of the French Presidential election,” it said in a statement.
“We need to elect genuine left representatives who will fight Macron’s policies and build an alternative. We have everything to play for.
“Macron must be prevented from obtaining a majority of deputies, drawn from the traditional parties of the right and the French Socialist Party, which will continue and worsen the policies of Francois Hollande’s last five years in power.
“For this reason, it is essential that the progressive forces who supported Jean-Luc Melenchon’s candidacy stand in constituencies across the country and build on the success of the first round. It is necessary to unite left and environmental activists in choosing candidates and break from the social liberals.
“This will give sufficient force to opposing the policies of Macron and challenge both the extreme right and other conservative forces.”
[You can read a series of translated statements from the French left on the presidential elections at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Lisbeth Latham maintains the blog revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com.]