First, the total left vote is (I am assured) the highest since 1988. Second, the Left Front has still improved the radical left vote since 2007, in a situation where that was by no means a guaranteed outcome given the sharp decline in working class struggles over the last few years. 11% for a radical left candidacy is far from insignificant. We should have problems of this kind, where millions of votes for the radical left is a disappointing result. It is particularly not to be sniffed at when Mélenchon so rattled the capitalist class that the president of the French business confederation MEDEF referred to him as the heir of Terror. And what did Mélenchon say to induce such drool-spattered venom? Oh, this:
Anything above €360,000, we take it all. The tax bracket will be 100%. People say to me, that’s ideological. I say too right it is. It’s a vision of society. Just as we won’t allow poverty in our society, we won’t allow the hyper-accumulation of riches. Money should not be accumulated but circulated, invested, spent for the common good. … Look, we have to smash this prejudice that the rich are useful just because they’re rich.
The Left Front seems to have really shaken things up and even, in the short campaign, forced the establishment parties to make some concessions. Sarkozy adopted a Mélenchon policy of pursuing tax exiles and forcing them to pay their taxes. Hollande adapted to Mélenchon’s rhetoric, eventually sounding ‘left-wing’ enough to give the jaded, faded old liberal hack Nick Cohen “an erection”. (Do I really misrepresent him?)
But with the results as they are, it is now the fascists who are exerting the stronger gravitational pull on the mainstream. Both Sarkozy and Hollande have cited Marine Le Pen’s strong vote as a reason to be all the more protective of France’s borders - exploiting legitimate fears which we must not ignore, you know the drill. I am assured by people who know better than I do that the FN also adopted a sort of ‘Strasserite’ platform of protectionism and corporatism that went down well with sections of the working class, and may have contributed to their becoming more ‘respectable’.
But the single biggest issue that galvanised far right voters according to the polls was immigration. Integrally linked to this was Le Pen’s campaign against Islam, and the ‘footprint’ that it is said to be leaving in French cities. Alas, she was only expressing in radicalised form the Islamophobia that is respectable in almost every section of French society, and in almost every party. Mélenchon was the only major politician who came out fighting against Le Pen, and defended Muslims against racism. Unfortunately, even he is compromised by a problematic left-republicanism, which led him to vote for the ban on the ‘foulard’. I am just saying that the racial populist idioms that have availed the far right are bound up with this doomed, crisis-ridden French republicanism, and with the failure of any sizeable section of the French left to come to terms in any meaningful way with the colonial legacy. This is one issue on which I genuinely don’t envy the French left (allow me to have one). Moreover, there is no national organisation with any weight in France giving expression to its traditions of militant anti-fascism (please don’t say SOS-Racisme unless you want me to laugh-barf), which is a serious absence in terms of the impediments that could exist for the far right.
Lest I seem to be giving an overly political reading of the fascists’ success, allow me to qualify what I am saying. I can agree, readily and enthusiastically, that certain factors such as the specific composition of classes in France, the large rural population, the way in which its rapid imperial decline and the absorption of the pied-noirs was experienced, the effect of this loss of imperial fantasies of omnipotence on the petty bourgeoisie, and the effect of regionally concentrated long-term unemployment, have presented conditions favourable to the growth of fascist politics in France. All of these aspects, conjoined with the crisis of the Socialists, the Eurozone calamity, the demise of le petit Nicolas, are undoubtedly present as overdetermining factors in Marine Le Pen’s ascendancy. Nonetheless, ultimately these conditions and the multiple antagonisms they produced have had to be resolved (or not) at the level of political struggle; there is nothing automatic about the way these factors impact on politics. The fascists continually reconstruct and maintain a fairly huge coalition behind far right politics, (at present, some 6.4m votes) by working on these antagonisms, by producing racist-populist articulations that ‘mention’, in their own idiom, the conditions alluded to already. And they can do so to the extent that a) their ‘quilting point’, the issue of racism around which they organise their whole popular platform, is supplied almost free of charge by the bourgeois parties, and b) the left refrains from efforts at systematically disorganising their actions, at mobilising the constituencies who would be their victims in self-defence.
This time the FN has a lot more legitimacy. One reason is that mainstream political discourse has shifted to the right. A consensus has developed around the idea of “national identity”.
The growth of racism and Islamophobia, legitimised by the idea of secularism, has been led by the right. But it has had the support of much of the left. Last year the parliamentary left took control of the Senate. The first law they passed was to ban Muslim mothers from coming to school if they wear a headscarf.
This has had an effect on what we can mobilise. When Sarkozy’s interior minister Claude Gueant gave a racist speech a few years ago, there were demonstrations straight away. Now it’s a lot harder—and the Islamophobia that exists even on the radical left has been a real handicap.
Then there’s the question of the specific problem of the FN. Even on the anti-racist left that is willing to combat Islamophobia, there has been a loss of any will to fight fascism.
Many go along with the idea that the FN has changed—that it’s no longer fascist but just another racist party. With this goes another idea—that the FN should no longer be fought on the streets but only through official politics. Only 300 people turned out to protest outside the FN’s pre‑election rally in Paris last Thursday.
Recognising the specifics of the FN will be incredibly important in what comes next. What distinguishes fascism from the conservative right is that it needs to build a popular movement around it.
The FN hopes to use the legitimacy it won in the presidential election to win seats in the coming parliamentary elections. It then aims to use these seats as a tool to build its organisation.
It hopes to put down roots in local areas where it can build an activist base around a set of hard reactionary ideas—racism, nationalism, homophobia and sexism.
After the elections the FN will use the same violent methods we’ve seen before to build a fascist movement. But the contradictions of its project also show the possibilities of challenging it.
The Nazis are trying to moderate their image and win over new voters while radicalising activists into a hardcore of traditional fascists.
A response from the left—especially the radical left—to mobilise anti-fascists can isolate the fascist hardcore and prevent the FN from building a mass fascist movement.