French elections: Mélenchon and division of the ‘left’

Three days before the first round of the presidential election in France, one thing is for certain: Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the only left-wing candidate with any hope of reaching the second round. In a few weeks, he went from 10 percent to 16 percent in the polls. However, the same polls put Marine Le Pen in second place behind Macron, with a lead over Mélenchon that varies from between four to six points. What is the position of the Marxists?

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Of course, these figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, especially in the context of a deep economic, social and political crisis, which has led to huge volatility in public opinion. For example, a stronger turnout than expected could significantly shift the result. However, a number of general trends are emerging. On the evening of 10 April, the current top three will most likely emerge as the leading trio in the vote, and Macron will undoubtedly come first. It must be said that the second place is not guaranteed to Marine Le Pen. It is possible that Mélenchon could surpass the far-right candidate.

Across the country, tens of thousands of activists and sympathisers of Mélenchon’s party La France Insoumise (FI) are working day after day to win as many votes as possible. The campaign's “action groups” have put up posters, distributed leaflets door-to-door and held public meetings. Everyone is striving to convince their colleagues, friends and family.

Meanwhile, the other so-called ‘left’ candidates – the quotation marks here are essential – are doing everything they can to ensure Mélenchon's defeat. They do this not by their words but by their deeds, because their remaining in the race can have no other effect than helping Marine Le Pen qualify. This is clearly a source of anger for many young people, workers, unemployed citizens and pensioners who aspire for the victory of a leftist candidate.

Certainly, we must point out that Mélenchon is not only lagging behind Le Pen and Macron due to the competition of the other ‘left’ candidates. Since 2017, the leadership of FI has made a number of right-wing deviations, which we have regularly highlighted. These errors are now taking their toll. They will not be corrected by the first round of presidential elections on 10 April. As a result, attention has now shifted to other factors that can tip the scales one way or another. On this point, the greater responsibility falls on the other ‘left’ candidates.

A serious obstacle

The different ‘left’ candidates are not all alike. To reproach Yannick Jadot of the Greens and Anne Hidalgo (mayor of Paris and member of the Socialist Party) for “dividing the left”, we must first classify them as left-wing candidates, which is in itself very debatable. Politically, Jadot and Hidalgo are much closer to Macron than to Mélenchon. These two champions of the capitalist “free market” are completely incapable of supporting Mélenchon.

That said, the pro-capitalist ideas and programmes of Jadot and Hidalgo are one thing; the social and political composition of their respective electorates is something else. In particular, a fraction of Jadot's potential voting base is made up of young people and workers who vacillate between the Green candidate and that of FI. In fact, in recent weeks, the polls have recorded a shift in support from Jadot to Mélenchon. This movement could continue over the next few days, despite the demagoguery deployed by the Green candidate to try to cut across it. The higher Mélenchon rises in the polls, and the more credible his programme becomes, the more the left-wing of Jadot's potential electorate will be drawn toward him.

jadot Image Etienne FlickrPolitically, Jadot and Hidalgo are much closer to Macron than to Mélenchon – these two champions of the capitalist “free market” are completely incapable of supporting Mélenchon / Image: Etienne, Flickr

Indeed, by violently attacking Mélenchon, Jadot and Hidalgo clarify their own views by underlining their unfailing loyalty to the establishment.

But what is even more lamentable, from our point of view, is the role played by the candidates Fabien Roussel (Communist Party), Philippe Poutou (New Anti-Capitalist Party) and Nathalie Arthaud (Lutte Ouvrière, ‘Workers’ Struggle’), who claim to be on the ‘radical left’. By dividing Mélenchon’s potential voter base, they impede his candidacy. The effect of this cannot be reduced to simple electoral arithmetic. The problem is not only the number of votes which, instead of going to Mélenchon, will be captured by the PCF, the NPA and Lutte Ouvrière. The problem is much broader. This division undermines the electoral potential of the FI amongst other sections of the voters.

Let's present things positively. Suppose that, tomorrow, Roussel, Poutou and Arthaud announce that they are withdrawing from the race and, without renouncing their ideas, call for a vote for the best-placed left-wing candidate. On the one hand, a significant fraction of their respective voters would follow their lead and, on 10 April, vote for the FI.

On the other hand, this withdrawal and appeal would have very positive repercussions for Mélenchon's candidacy amongst layers of voters who look at the division of the left with scepticism. “These people are unable to unite because they are less interested in our fate than in that of their little operations”. This is what, in one way or another, millions of the exploited and oppressed think about the left, especially among the abstentionists and working-class voters of Le Pen’s National Rally (RN).

Moreover, it has to be said that this reproach is completely understandable: by maintaining their candidacies, the leaderships of the PCF, the NPA and LO are essentially seeking to defend their own sectarian interests. These are the very parties that will come out of the elections even more discredited than they already are because of the counter-productive role they are playing in this campaign.

Of course, Roussel, Poutou and Arthaud do not say: “vote for my tiny operation which has no chance of winning”. No: they present their candidacy as a positive contribution to the struggle of the exploited and oppressed. No matter how much we point out to them that, from the point of view of this fight, a second round between Macron and Le Pen would hardly be a positive outcome, the leaders of the PCF, the NPA and LO do not budge.

Last February, we devoted an article to Fabien Roussel's pathetic PCF campaign. We don't have much to add to it. Since then, the so-called “dynamic Roussel” – carried for a time by favourable treatment in the bourgeois media – has fallen back to around 3 percent in the polls. This was in fact predictable: hundreds of thousands of potential Roussel voters took note of Mélenchon's rise and rallied around FI, hoping to defeat the right and the far right.

Like Jadot, Roussel reacted aggressively against Mélenchon, imploring his potential voters not to give in to the “useful vote”. The PCF candidate insists that a vote for his candidacy “is not a useless vote”. One has to wonder what use he thinks it is serving. Roussel's campaign is not only useless; it is in fact harmful in all respects, in particular with regard to the objective of defeating the right and the extreme right. We bet, by the way, that if Mélenchon is eliminated in the first round, the PCF leadership will not hesitate for a second to call for a vote for Macron against Le Pen, after having helped the latter to qualify.

Misery of the ‘extreme left’

Let's come to the two candidates of the ‘extreme left’: Poutou and Arthaud. As in 2017, the leaderships of the NPA and Lutte Ouvrière are unable to rise above a sectarian, ultra-leftist, counterproductive position.

Take, for example, the interview with Philippe Poutou in Franceinfo on 28 March. To the journalist who asked him if he was going to withdraw in favor of Mélenchon, the NPA candidate replied that this idea was “absurd", before continuing:

“We are being tricked into the useful vote. (…) [But] the NPA vote has a purpose: it is to say that we are fed up with this capitalism. (…) We do not at all believe in an institutional solution. Even if Mélenchon could squeeze his way into the second round (…), it will be even more complicated: we do not see how he could win, because the electoral balance of power is not on our side today, it is not on the side of the left. So, we might as well discuss plan B. If Macron wins, which is most likely, or if the far right wins (…), how do you defend yourself right after the election? And this is where the problem arises of rebuilding a political tool, a radical party, and rebuilding the unions. (…) The solution is in the streets, in the strikes. (…) The only way out, for us, is not revolution at the ballot box, as Mélenchon says. It's the revolution in the street.”

These few lines are typical of sectarian reasoning. As it happens, the voters of the NPA are not the only ones fed up with this capitalism: this is also the case for many of the voters of Mélenchon. Despite its reformist limitations, Mélenchon's programme targets the power and privileges of the bourgeoisie. And the fact is that it brings together 15 to 20 times more ‘anti-capitalist’ voters than Poutou's programme, meaning it is Mélenchon, and not Poutou, who is likely to qualify for the second round. If Mélenchon does not succeed, the second round will pit two declared enemies of our class against one another – two strong supporters of capitalism: Macron and Le Pen. We do not see how this would mark progress in the fight against the capitalist system!

Mélenchon Toulouse Image MathieuMD Wikimedia CommonsWhile calling for a vote for the FI candidate, we insist on the need for a programme to rupture with capitalism / Image: MathieuMD, Wikimedia Commons

But Poutou advances another argument: that even if he qualifies for the second round, Mélenchon will not be able to win it, because “the electoral balance of power is not on our side today, it is not on the side of the left”. This pessimism is characteristic of the ultra-leftists: they constantly refer to the workers, but do not trust them, deep down. In reality, the qualification of Mélenchon would be a political earthquake with shockwaves spreading to the depths of our class. This would awaken even the most inert workers, who would face a fairly clear alternative, from a class point of view: Macron or Mélenchon. Between the two rounds, the political polarisation would be intense, so Mélenchon would have a chance of winning by capturing many abstainers from the first round and a fraction of the popular electorate of the RN.

None of this crosses the minds of Poutou and his comrades. Instead of seizing the opportunity to sweep away Macron and Le Pen, the leaders of the NPA are weakening the dynamic that is developing around Mélenchon, while proclaiming that this battle is lost in advance, that Macron has already won, that we must all retreat, dig deep trenches – and, from this comfortable position, “rebuild a political tool, a radical party” and prepare “the revolution in the street”!

This typical sectarianism will not advance the construction of a “radical party” one millimetre, let alone contribute to the victory of a revolution. Poutou's candidacy will result in further aggravating the crisis in which the NPA has been stuck in for more than 10 years. However, the most serious thing is that this candidacy constitutes – in the same way as those of Arthaud and Roussel – a significant obstacle to the qualification of Mélenchon.

And concerning Nathalie Arthaud, let us simply note what she wrote in her last editorial:

“In the upcoming elections, nothing good will come out of the ballot box for the workers, nor for the vast majority of the population. Candidates who promise miracles or claim to have ‘solutions’ under this system are really hucksters.”

The candidacy of Mélenchon is neither mentioned. In the end, we are presented with the view that all the other candidates are essentially the same, from Mélenchon to Macron. This kind of hollow abstraction is Lutte Ouvrière's stock-in-trade.

Revolution calls for people to turn their backs on the sectarian calculations of the PCF, NPA and Lutte Ouvrière leaderships, to take note of the possibility of beating Macron and Le Pen in the coming weeks, and to mobilise massively to achieve this. In doing so, no one needs to renounce their ideas. Revolution has not given up theirs. While calling for a vote for the FI candidate, we insist on the need for a programme to rupture with capitalism. From the point of view of revolutionary Marxism, this is the only constructive step in the current context.

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