Yes, we’ve had enough optimistic commentary on near-misses and heroic failures. The result is bad: Jean-Luc Mélenchon ran for president a third time, and again hasn’t made it.
Even with an energising campaign and a likely sizeable tactical vote in his favour—allowing the radical-left candidate to score 22 percent, beating even his best poll scores—Mélenchon couldn’t force his way into the top two. As in 2017, far-right Marine Le Pen (23.4 percent) edged him out, with Emmanuel Macron further in the lead (27.6 percent)
With polling predicting a narrow race in the second round, both Macron and Le Pen will surely make considerable overtures to Mélenchon’s voters. While in 2017 he came fourth, with the conservative François Fillon also in the mix, this time third-placed Mélenchon was the only other candidate to score in double figures. His base—and its propensity to vote—will decisively shape an overall outcome.
Yet, it should be frankly admitted that the political field will also take on a far worse complexion than it would have, if there was a left-wing candidate in the run-off. Firstly, this is because there is a serious prospect that Le Pen could win the election, and the debate itself will reflect her preferred themes. True, Macron’s governments have a dismal record of repressing protests and breaking up activist groups, including the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. During his rule, politicians from across the spectrum (including Greens, Socialists and Communists) have lined up with police unions and fed a grim reactionary turn.
But Macron’s Interior Minister is wrong: Le Pen is not ‘soft on Islam’. Her rule, even if she failed to secure a parliamentary majority in June’s legislative elections, would massively empower all manner of authoritarian and far-right forces in the state machine. True, she has moderated her image and proclaimed her party has changed (as do almost all European parties with fascist roots, since at least the 1990s). But the reason why failed far-right candidate Éric Zemmour, a partisan of ‘great replacement theory’, instantly announced he would back her in the second round, is that the most racist parts of French society can still hear her dog whistles. She could certainly draw on existing anti-democratic aspects of the French state machine and existing repressive legislation introduced during anti-terrorist ‘states of emergency’. But it would be much, much worse.
Even if, as still seems most likely, Le Pen loses the second round, the matchup with a president who promises to raise the retirement age, and already made serious progress eroding the welfare state, will help her consolidate a sizeable blue-collar base, and the threat from the far right will be used by a victorious Macron to advance further reactionary legislation.
Following the first estimate at 8pm last night, most of the other nominally left-wing candidates instantly announced their support for Macron in the second round: Paris’s mayor Anne Hidalgo, of the neoliberalised Parti Socialiste (PS), took mere seconds to do so, apparently hungry for the TV coverage her result would not otherwise have warranted. She took 1.7 percent, in the fullest expression yet of the destruction of historic workers’ parties by free-marketeer leaders, pushing ‘reforms’ that made people’s jobs more precarious and their retirements shorter. While Mélenchon is often termed divisive, the unity achieved by the PS—in power just five years ago—has been to coalesce the entire French working class against it.
Calls for a ‘pragmatic vote’ have often been used by parties like the PS to guilt reluctant young and working-class voters to turn out against the (far-)right, with ever-diminishing returns. This time, tiny soft-left forces and liberal media spent pre-election season seeking a ‘unity candidate’, for which role they cast a series of milquetoast progressives with neither records nor prospects of mobilising working-class support.
If some people making this call had naïf good intentions, such efforts were squarely directed at getting Mélenchon to desist from standing. But, in the end, he had a far bigger core base, and in the days before the vote it was he who called for an ‘effective vote’. Those who voted Green (4 percent) or especially for the post-Communist PCF (2 percent) should ask themselves whether it was worth it; the scores for Zemmour and hard-right Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (totalling 9 percent) made up a smaller pool of ‘wasted votes’ otherwise liable to vote for Le Pen than the small left-wing parties did (10 percent).
Recriminations over the split vote will surely continue in coming days, especially as these same parties attack Mélenchon for not already endorsing Macron for the runoff. As in 2017, he has announced he will consult his base on whether to make a declaration in favour of the lesser-evil, while also insisting that there must be ‘not one vote’ for Le Pen. Clearly these parties have institutional interests of their own which made sense, from their perspective, of running separately, including with a view to the parliamentary elections in June.
In 2019, in the hours following the UK exit poll, I wrote that despite the defeat, the Left was much more strongly organised than before Jeremy Corbyn had become leader, with a mass of young activists who had higher expectations of what was possible, even through institutional politics, than those like myself who had grown up in the Blair era. While in that election-night article I pinned much blame to the soft-left forces who had—through malice, obsessive Remainism, or the one inspired by the other—sabotaged Corbyn’s leadership, I did not expect that they would so fully trash its legacy in such a short span of time, with so little opposition.
In the United States, too, while Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, alloyed with revulsion against the far right, have driven a surge in socialist organisation, the DSA is very far from becoming a mass party, in the sense of a force that regularly intervenes in and draws dividing lines for national politics. There is a broader and diffuse mood of sympathy for socialism, but it generally lacks organisation of the kind typically seen of historic socialist or communist parties.
In France, too, the late polling surge for Mélenchon is also a sign of a limit. In general, France Insoumise performed poorly in local and regional elections throughout Macron’s term, with soft-left candidates proving perhaps more resilient than expected. With parliamentary elections in two months’ time, there is, however, something of a difference to 2017. Then, it was clear that the PS’s support would crater after François Hollande’s dismal presidency and its 6 percent score in the presidential election. But it had around 330 incumbent MPs (with the activists and organisation that went with that), and still held on to 45 of them, on around 10 percent support. This time, France Insoumise (which went into that contest with no sitting MPs) has a small but effective cohort in the National Assembly, and is more clearly the dominant ‘social’ alternative to Macron’s rule.
But this campaign was also better than last time, and points to positive change in France Insoumise. Mélenchon is a brilliant orator, without parallel in French politics, but this time there was something less of the leader-centrism, even in a contest by definition dominated by individuals, as well as better stances on certain questions (notably on Islamophobia). Stirrings about the possible creation of a more formalised party structure for France Insoumise (or the 2022 campaign vehicle People’s Union) are also highly encouraging, with the prospect of making it a more enduring part of the political landscape, able to build organisation and rootedness over time. Sanders’s primary bid for a corporate electoral vehicle, and Corbyn’s only precarious leadership of Labour, never allowed them to do that.
Even in the French case, where France Insoumise is not similarly beholden to liberals ‘on their own side’, this is an uphill battle. Despite some remarkable social struggles in recent years—as in the case of the gilets jaunes, sometimes decidedly alien to the traditional language and codes of the workers’ movement—there has been a long-term drop-off in working-class political participation and even of left-wing media. Building a strong opposition will be difficult under Macron and would have to steel itself for enormous hardships under a Le Pen presidency.
Sunday’s result was a defeat. But there is reason for a little optimism of both intellect and the will. With this campaign, France Insoumise avoided a rout, showed itself to be a serious mobilising force, and earned itself the right to hope.