Why France’s Left Isn’t Lining Up Behind Emmanuel Macron

In Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, two-thirds backed either abstention or spoiled ballots in the presidential runoff. Emmanuel Macron’s record of slashing welfare and repressing protests has hobbled his call for a vote to stop the far right.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron takes part in an expanded videoconference with the Quint group, including the United States, Japan, Canada, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and EU leaders, dedicated to the war in Ukraine at the presidential Élysée Palace in Paris on April 19, 2022. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

This Sunday’s French presidential runoff will set the staunch neoliberal Emmanuel Macron against the far-right Marine Le Pen. In the April 10 first round, they each took about a quarter of the vote (27.4 and 23.1 percent, respectively); to win the second round, they both need to attract broader support, particularly among the Left’s electorate. While its top candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon narrowly failed to make the runoff, his impressive 22 percent score boosted the overall vote for the Left (32 percent) and put him in a strategic position for the next stage of the race. Unlike the defeated soft-left parties (Greens and Socialists), Mélenchon did not endorse Macron, though he did strongly emphasize that none of his voters should back Le Pen.

Mainstream media were quick to dismiss Mélenchon’s position as trivializing the far-right threat. But he is aware that endorsing Macron would be highly divisive among his own electorate. An online vote among the supporters of Union Populaire — the movement that supported his campaign — confirmed the split. It saw two-thirds of the 215,000 participants opt for a blank (or null) vote or for abstention (respectively 37.6 percent and 29 percent), while only one-third (33.4 percent) backed a vote for the incumbent; the movement did not even consider endorsing Le Pen. Center-left daily Le Monde commented that “among Mélenchon’s supporters, the Macron ballot is in the minority for the second round.”

If the paper expressed surprise, this trend is not new. Already in 2017, for the first time in the history of French presidential elections, abstention rose between the two rounds (by 1.6 million votes), and the number of blank and void votes (i.e., casting a ballot to express one’s rejection of both candidates) jumped from 960,000 to over 4 million. According to estimates, between 24 percent and 36 percent of Mélenchon’s voters abstained in that runoff, with 17 percent opting for a blank or null ballot; among voters for then Socialist/Green candidate Benoît Hamon, abstention was between 17 and 24 percent and the blank or null vote 10 percent. A small but not negligible minority of the left-wing vote even went to Le Pen — between 7 and 19 percent of Mélenchon’s electorate, according to various polls.

There is, however, a major difference: in 2017, the chances of Le Pen winning the election were close to zero. This is not the case today: the available polls all give Macron an advantage, but it is far narrower than five years ago. For the first time in French history, the far right is at the threshold of power. Yet it appears that the option of a “stop Le Pen” vote — casting a ballot for Macron — is even less popular among the left-wing electorate than it was back then. The available polls show that between 60 and 70 percent of Mélenchon’s electorate plans to abstain, to vote blank or null, or even to vote for Le Pen. The “neither Macron nor Le Pen” slogan that flourished during last week’s occupation of la Sorbonne and other university buildings suggested something similar.

Ugo Bernalicis, an MP for Mélenchon’s France Insoumise movement, summed up its position:

Our point is that there should not be any additional vote for Le Pen. But we cannot be in a common front with the Republique en marche [Macron’s movement]. It is politically impossible. After the five years we have just had, it would not be understood. It is up to Macron to convince the voters who voted for us.

This is the real issue: “after the five years we have just had,” it is politically untenable for the main left-wing formation to call for a Macron vote. This impossibility is reflected in the fact that a significant part of its electorate — even a clear majority, according to the available indicators — refuses to endorse the outgoing president.

Politics of Fear

In public debate, this position is dismissed out of hand. For those on the Left, we are told, refusing to vote for Macron means to succumb to “anger,” to be a prisoner of “emotions,” and thus to “pave the way” for the far right. To be on the side of “reason” entails, so this logic goes, opting for the “lesser evil” — thus Macron — whether to “stop fascism,” in the left-wing version,  or to “defend the Republic,” in the mainstream’s language.

Certainly, one could advance rational arguments for a tactical Macron vote. But clearly, the reasoning just mentioned also draws on the emotions. It is even about the master emotion of modern politics — fear.

In Niccolò Machiavelli’s words for the sovereign, “It is much safer to be feared than loved.” And we also know that when this fear no longer operates, it turns into the fear that grips the sovereign power when confronted with insurgent subjects, thus exhibiting its true origin: brute force. But “lesser evilism” can also be read as a reaction to “what scares us the most.”

In the history of political thought, fear plays an ambivalent role, a necessary factor for the emergence of any sovereign power and, at the same time, one that concentrates its internal instability. For Thomas Hobbes, the fear of death pushes humans to decide to institute a sovereign power as the only way to escape from the “natural condition” of the “war of all against all.” Any political order, including the most authoritarian, thus seems preferable to the chaos that takes hold of social life when sovereign power collapses, leading to a civil war like the one Hobbes saw in Britain during the 1640s. For him, consenting to sovereign power is a voluntary action but also an act of self-dispossession, by which the subject, moved by the fear of death, transfers his “natural freedom” to an authority that guarantees the self-preservation of all. When this guarantee ceases to be effective, the citizens regain their natural freedom, until the fear of death leads them to decide to enter a new pact of sovereignty.

The idea of Le Pen as the supreme “danger” is therefore predictably at the forefront of all calls to vote for Macron in the second round. To take just one example: on Saturday, April 16, the day of his campaign’s main rally in Marseille, the president-candidate began his speech by drawing up a long list of subjects on which he believes that the far right presents a “danger to our country.” The same day, the president of the employers’ union Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF) in Hauts-de-France declared that “Marine Le Pen’s program is a danger for France,” while at the national level, the same organization declared that her program “would lead the country to lag behind its neighbors and place it on the fringe of the European Union.” This language sounds very similar to that used to characterize candidates seen as “hostile to business.” According to MEDEF, Le Pen’s program “would damage the confidence of economic actors, thus reducing investment and job creation. The very strong and unfunded increase in public spending could lead the country to a deadlock.”

For years, pollsters have built up a sort of “fear rating” for Marine Le Pen, designing surveys to measure the “danger” she represents according to public opinion. In this fear-based discourse, the opponent is, necessarily, to be demonized essentially through his or her “image” and much less through the content of the policies she proposes. The far right’s response thus plays at the level of this public image, seeking to “de-demonize” the individual person without really changing her positions — a game Le Pen has played rather skillfully. The success of her de-demonization strategy is based above all on the weakness of the opposing strategy, which aims not at raising awareness of the real character of her politics but at arousing fear. In its most cynical version — as promoted by Macron — this emotion is manipulated to blackmail reluctant voters, the only way for a minority force such as his to prevail electorally.

An Antisocial Candidate

Yes, it is perfectly true that Le Pen does represent a “danger” — or, more precisely, that the implementation of her program is incompatible with any notion of a humane life. This point can’t be made enough and should be made with all the necessary rigor and strength. However, to reach beyond those already convinced of Le Pen’s badness, it is also necessary to emphasize the profoundly antisocial character of her program and the fact that far from attacking only “minorities,” it attacks the rights and vital interests of the great majority.

For the Left, the challenge is to deconstruct what makes her discourse attractive for a considerable part of the working people, namely the promise of an improvement of its material condition and its social status by institutionalizing discrimination against — the exclusion of — “foreigners” and all those considered threats to the nation, with Muslims the first target.

To do this, one needs to demonstrate, in particular, that even if big business overwhelmingly supports Macron, Le Pen’s economic and social agenda is profoundly neoliberal, based on tax cuts benefiting above all the wealthiest. It is an agenda to destroy everything that remains of public services without offering any improvement for wages and social protection — apart from excluding those who massively contribute to the latter through their professional activity.

Yet these arguments, too, also appeal to all kinds of emotions. Focusing on fear while claiming to speak in the name of “reason” alone might not be the most effective political argument. If emotions are not only on one side, if they are not disconnected from rationality, and if emancipatory ideas also entail an emotional dimension, it could be that “anger” is not necessarily bad counsel. Inspired by Albert Camus, the philosopher Sophie Galabru stated recently that, contrary to fear — which encourages passivity and renunciation rather than revolt —

anger is an emotion that pushes us to act, to take initiatives, intimately as well as collectively. Anger, in the end, is a beautiful, noble emotion, linked to freedom, to justice, to the hope for a better world. If it remains connected to this joy, it can lead to success.

Authoritarian Drift

The question then becomes: What does the immense anger aroused by Macron reveal? What sort of symptom is the refusal of left voters to support him, even at the risk of seeing Le Pen winning?

Ugo Bernalicis’s statement quoted above provides an answer: endorsing Macron for the second round would be at odds with the experience of his presidency. This experience certainly arouses widespread anger, but it also leads to a few plainly rational arguments, starting with this one: Macron’s first term was not a linear continuation of the policies carried out before, as just another “ordinary” neoliberal presidency. Rather, it has passed qualitative thresholds in the process of building an authoritarian neoliberal regime. The term essential to understanding it is “violence” — social, physical, and symbolic.

The repression of the gilets jaunes movement was the tipping point of Macron’s presidency, encapsulating the crossing of this qualitative threshold. Blood was spilled — literally — and the scale of the repression unleashed at that moment caused a rupture in the collective consciousness. The way this outburst of brutality was organized and justified revealed the extent of the hatred gripping the ruling classes and their representatives and their determination to resort to potentially unlimited violence to suppress a popular movement.

Even more than sinister figures like then interior minister Christophe Castaner or Paris police chief Didier Lallement, it was Luc Ferry, the philosopher and former education minister, who best expressed the French bourgeoisie’s bloodthirst, declaring, “Let them [the police] use their weapons once and for all. That’s enough! . . . We have the fourth-largest army in the world, and it is capable of taking out this scum.” From then on, the idea of somehow being “on the same side” with these people became simply unthinkable for large sectors of society, above all — but not only — among the working class.

The “active abstention” advocated by gilets jaunes spokespeople radically opposed to the far right, such as Priscillia Ludosky or Jérôme Rodriguez, testify to the popularity of this position across wide social layers — as do these words of a young France Insoumise activist, reported by Le Monde:

“It is out of the question that I’d vote for Le Pen. But so is backing Macron.” In 2017, however, this activist did cast a ballot for the En marche! candidate [Macron]. “And then, during the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations, I saw this neoliberal government, with its violence, attack and mutilate people, which stirred up feelings of guilt.”

Similar voices are heard in the multiracial banlieues, where Mélenchon had massive support in the first round. The rejection of Macron has reached such a level that the “anti–Le Pen” cause doesn’t work even among those most directly targeted by far-right discourse.

Electoral Revolt

This break between the body of French society and Macron’s regime did not take place in any single moment. It has been carefully prepared and reactivated by the outpouring of police brutality and the judicial crackdown that preceded and followed it. The stick fell both on the massive social movements of the last five years and on ordinary individuals caught up in their daily lives. It has been coupled with a striking series of liberticidal laws that perpetuate the state of emergency, target migrants, drastically restrict the right to demonstrate, and hand police and intelligence agencies exorbitant powers. State Islamophobia has reached a new level with the “anti-separatism” law, which casts suspicion on all Muslims and allows the dissolution and closure of hundreds of their associations, businesses, and places of worship — no fewer than 718, according to journalist Widad Ketfi.

Escalating authoritarianism also targeted antifascist organizations and has continued with the grotesque campaign launched by education ministers Jean-Michel Blanquer and Frédérique Vidal against “Islamo-leftism,” a “gangrene” supposedly taking over the country’s universities. Finally, one of the most distinctive features of Macron’s term was the display of arrogance and contempt — actually a mixture of hatred and fear of the people — that animated the outgoing president and his ministers.

This uninterrupted symbolic violence is only the other side of the physical violence that has marked these years. Commenting on this famous concept coined by Pierre Bourdieu, the anthropologist Emmanuel Terray observed lucidly in the early 2000s:

Symbolic violence does not constitute a distinct, autonomous and self-subsistent species of violence that could be opposed to physical violence and the use of brutal force. More specifically, it cannot be used independently [of other forms of violence]. In its origin and, if I may say so, in its central core, it is and remains physical violence. . . . Physical violence and symbolic violence are two sides of the same coin.

Coming from supporters of Mélenchon’s radical program, the refusal to vote Macron — or even, in some extreme (and thankfully minority) cases, the vote for Le Pen — must be understood as an electoral revolt against the violence experienced, directly or indirectly, by the social body during his presidency. For them, it constitutes a kind of transgression, the ultimate act of self-defense against the mechanism that imposes this impossible choice through pervasive violence. So, yes, one must also consider its possible consequences: this time, Le Pen might win the presidency, even if, at this stage, this is not the most likely scenario. If she does, the responsibility lies entirely with Macron and his government, and certainly not with Mélenchon and that Left that refuses to pay allegiance to the ruling bloc.

Whatever the individual or collective position on the second round — abstention, blank/null vote, or a tactical vote for Macron — it is crucial for the Left not to cut itself off from the social sectors who refuse to be blackmailed by the electoral game today on offer. To that end, it is necessary to get rid of the habitual moralistic posturing and go beyond simply repeating historical references that make little sense to large sections of the population — precisely the people who need to be convinced. It is equally crucial to get out of the culture of fear and instead to rely on collective intelligence to explain what the far right’s real politics are.

At this point, it is no less urgent to start thinking seriously about the strategy to follow if Le Pen does win. It is clear that incantatory calls for “uprising” or “resistance” will not do. To rise up on a mass scale against an election result — let alone create the conditions for its reversal — is far from an easy undertaking. Popular mobilization needs to be built up, step by step, and its success also depends on a strategy of alliances and struggles at the institutional, political, and electoral levels.

June’s parliamentary elections already appear as a crucial moment in this regard. Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, the Left can transform this next contest into an electoral “third round,” a decisive date for defeating both the Macronist bloc and the far right, for whom this is the least favorable terrain. This is exactly Mélenchon’s argument. He has asked the French to elect him as prime minister and lead a parliamentary majority whoever is the president-elect. What remains to be seen is whether this audacious bet, against the logic of fear, can pursue the mobilization that took his Union Populaire to the radical left’s best-ever result in a presidential election.