In France’s Election, Anti-Fascists Should Vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon

With polls showing Marine Le Pen closer than ever to winning the French presidency, anti-fascists should use all possible means to stop her. Voting for Jean-Luc Mélenchon can block her path — and stop France's decades-long slide toward far-right dominance.

Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon delivers a speech during his final campaign rally before the first-round election. (Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images)

In France, we face three kinds of disaster. One is that Sunday’s first-round result will produce a fresh runoff election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, as in 2017. The others follow from that: either Macron’s reelection, or else — disaster to the nth degree — Le Pen winning.

Such a duel would itself further harden France’s political-ideological field around the opposition between authoritarian neoliberals like Macron and Les Républicains’ Valérie Pécresse and neofascists like Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. This would probably initiate an intensification of the reactionary offensive seen over the past few years. Any prospect of social change, however partial, would be put beyond view of a good part of the population — especially those little present in social struggles, even if they may watch them with some sympathy.

A Macron victory would inevitably lead to a new cycle of mass casualization, impoverishment for the working classes, and destructive counterreforms for wage earners in general. It would also mean projects destructive for the environment, since Macron, despite his fine words, leads a violently productivist policy. One example is the French state’s commitment to Total’s 1,440-kilometer oil pipeline megaproject to bring oil pumped from western Uganda to the port of Tanga in Tanzania, stirring strong opposition locally.

With a Le Pen victory, we would enter the second stage of fascization: the possible construction of a fascist government. The far right would obviously face obstacles (in society, in the street, in certain sectors of the state). But it would have new institutional levers to impose its project, out of all proportion to the means it can currently draw on. This would no longer be a case of elements of fascization advancing more or less masked within the framework of capitalist democracy but a determined fascization effort, supported by the state apparatus (including the repressive apparatuses) — with immediate effects on the most oppressed groups, in particular migrants and ethno-racial minorities, but also sexual and gender minorities.

Rassemblement National (RN; formerly Front National) has gained heavily from the banalization of its ideas by parties and intellectuals across the spectrum. It could not have taken root without French politics being impregnated with a xenophobia and racism for which the political-media elites are primarily responsible. However, it would be wrong and dangerous to claim that RN reaching power would only be an extension of policies already being pursued. A party whose success is based on xenophobia and racism, a party that is massively perceived by racists of all stripes as the best defender of the interests of whites, could not reach and maintain itself in power without constant further pledges to its electorate.

In particular, it would be driven to institutionalize racist discrimination, which is so strong in France even though big media, and especially the political elite, are totally uninterested in it, and to unleash a police force that is already largely in agreement with its positions, in particular with the need for a “purge” — in short, to go much further in the enterprise of subjugating postcolonial immigrants and their descendants, Muslims, Roma people, and certainly Jews (whatever RN leaders are currently saying), and to engage in the crushing of the Left, the unions, and social movements. Macron has already dissolved several organizations that stand up for Muslims, as well pro-Palestinian collectives and anti-fascist groups; the numbers suppressed would inevitably increase under a far-right government.

Anti-Fascism on All Terrains

In this situation, what tools do we have? Some people say that fascism is fought in the street. This is not wrong, but it is very vague. The street, in the sense of street demonstrations, has never been enough, and will not be enough, to stop the rise of fascism. No, fascism is fought by collective organization (at all levels: in companies, in neighborhoods, in schools and universities, etc.), by popular mobilization, and by political battles.

This struggle is not limited to one or a few demonstrations. It is a never-ending struggle, because defeating fascism will ultimately mean building a completely different society from the capitalist, racist, and patriarchal one we are forced to live in. There will be no great battle to prepare for and decide everything but rather a succession of confrontations that have been going on for a long time and that will not stop. This involves the use of various weapons: street demonstrations, strikes, self-defense structures, politico-cultural battles, electoral campaigns, etc.

The anti-fascist struggle must therefore be waged on all terrains: that of trade union struggles, because solidarity between workers, in the workplace, is a powerful antidote to the racist poison that the extreme right secretes all the time; that of anti-racist and feminist struggles, because they oppose head-on the fascist worldview and draw the horizon of an egalitarian society, in opposition to the hierarchical and intrinsically violent project of the fascists; that of environmental struggles, where the far right tries to implant its xenophobic rhetoric by claiming, with Le Pen’s right-hand man Jordan Bardella, that “ecology is the border”; that of the battle of ideas and imaginations; and also the electoral terrain.

We can sharply criticize “election-night anti-fascism”: those who trivialize racism all year round before trying to rally the troops before the second round, when the far right is at the gates. But that doesn’t mean anti-fascism can’t or shouldn’t be deployed on the electoral terrain. Elections aren’t the alpha and omega of anti-fascist politics or emancipatory politics in general. And we are doubly right to think that only intensive popular mobilization, in which millions of people come to take their affairs into their own hands, can initiate a break with the present order of things, exceeding and overwhelming the existing political institutions and parties.

Even when we don’t think winning elections is enough to really hold power and be able to radically transform society, that should not make us forget that elections are an important moment of politicization and mobilization. Succeeding in them — not taking 3 or 4 percent but winning a mass audience — is necessarily part of a strategy of reinforcing the forces of rupture and emancipation projects.

To return to our present situation, how can we say that we must fight the rise of fascism by all necessary means but then refuse one of the ones immediately available to us — that is, the vote to stop the extreme right’s advance? Even if neofascist forces chalked up a high score in the first round, Le Pen’s failure to make the second round would constitute a defeat for the far right, a factor for demoralization, disorientation, and division among its troops and supporters.

This would not solve anything in itself. But it would halt the mechanism that has so heavily fed the far right’s political advance over recent decades; namely, its electoral success. In a comprehensive, sustainable strategy against fascism, as in any strategy, it is necessary to know how to define achievable tactical objectives, because we (always) need partial victories. We can’t just say over and over again that the struggle is necessary, now and in the future, even if we specify that it must be a united struggle. For some could rightly retort: So why was there no anti-fascist unity at election time? Why shouldn’t this need for unity apply there?

Fighting for an Alternative

There is another reason for this: today the neofascists mainly mobilize the electoral and media scene, unlike in the 1920s and ’30s, when the occupation of the streets and extremely brutal attacks on the labor movement were an essential component of fascism’s success. As a result, street protests — and even the major social movements that have marked France over the last thirty years, including in 2016–2020 — have had little impact on the far right’s advance.

This is not to say that anti-fascism does not involve street mobilizations: these are a central element of the anti-fascist response and can destabilize the fascists, but they are not enough. We need a political alternative, and we need a hope of rupture and emancipation around this alternative. Now, the candidate who can beat Le Pen in the first round, who embodies a political alternative, a desire for radicalism, or simply a means of defense for millions of people — in particular, it seems, for the most oppressed layers of the working classes, those who suffer from racism and Islamophobia — is Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Whether we like it or not. Because of course there are disagreements, and that’s normal; differences that may have been important over the last fifteen years. But to those who reject this option in the name of these differences, we must point out that, on fundamental points that have to do deeply with the rise of fascism in France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France Insoumise have held fair and courageous positions over the last few years (unlike the Green Yannick Jadot or the Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel), faced with unanimous disapproval from the dominant media-political elites. In particular, Mélenchon and France Insoumise have firmly denounced Islamophobia, which has become even more institutionalized with Macron’s “separatism” law and state authoritarianism, as expressed through endemic and systematically unpunished police violence, particularly in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods.

Let’s add that, on other points, they have contributed to making audible and credible on a mass scale, during this campaign, a critique of the authoritarian neoliberalism that Macron embodies so perfectly, and also proposals for a break with the past that are clearly going in the right direction and that are points of support — notably, ecological planning, a central element for any ecosocialist transition process and one that we imperatively need to confront climate change.

This is only the beginning, and much work remains to be done after the election, both in the struggle for hegemony and in building a mass political force rooted in the working classes. The campaign and program of the Union Populaire will be a point of support for what follows, and success would come with great responsibilities for France Insoumise. But even to hope to achieve this, it will be necessary for activists from various horizons, movements, and organizations that have for the moment remained outside this dynamic to get involved, in the spirit indicated by the activists from working-class and immigrant neighborhoods who signed the “On s’en mêle” (Let’s dig in) appeal.

More immediately, if the first round should end in a failure for the radical left, as embodied by Mélenchon, and if we are once again condemned to the disaster of a Macron–Le Pen duel, we should not give in to discouragement. Rather, starting from the period in between the two rounds, we should initiate the broadest possible mobilization.

Taking Responsibility

It is said that it is unlikely, given the polls, that Le Pen will lose out to Mélenchon. This is true, but not out of the question. I want to contribute with my vote to the hope of a second round opposing Macronism with the simple perspective of an immediate improvement of the situation of the poorest and most precarious, of a strong return to public services and social protection, of a stop to Islamophobic and xenophobic policies, and even of a break with productivist policies.

Each person will vote as he or she sees fit on Sunday, and forms of pressure, guilt-tripping, or blackmail to make a “pragmatic vote” are often counterproductive. However, the debate between the “pragmatic vote” and the “vote of conviction” is always badly posed when it pits those who would vote only for tactical reasons against those who remain faithful to their ideas or values. Voting always mixes aspects of conviction (the opposite would lead to cynicism; i.e., to losing sight of any principle, any political value, and even any morality) and tactical aspects (raising the question of the concrete impact that each person’s vote can have on the overall situation).

In this case, the question above all posed to the Left is the type of vote that each person will choose: a vote to testify to their convictions, to show that they exist, but in a somewhat timeless way; or a vote that could have great political importance in the current situation of a race between the emancipatory left and fascism

One may very well feel closer to another candidate. In my own case, I can think it is good that the New Anticapitalist Party’s Philippe Poutou has been able to formulate, on the mass scale that this election allows, analyses and proposals that no one else would have formulated, and yet vote for another candidate. This is only contradictory for those who fetishize the vote as the ultimate expression of their convictions and the electoral score as the only way to exist politically. One can very well lead an agitational campaign, aiming first and foremost to use the elections as a platform, to make another voice heard, make bold proposals, widen the horizon of the possible, etc., but disconnect this from the vote itself.

Maybe the votes we can muster count for little — not enough to bridge the gap between Le Pen and Mélenchon. This may be true, but it’s all in the “maybe.” In the uncertainty, I hope that my vote can have a (modest) positive impact on the situation. More generally, as an activist, it seems to me that, individually and collectively, we can only hope to be taken seriously by those we seek to address if we take ourselves seriously. To argue that we are marginal in order to avoid making the right decision is to refuse to take ourselves seriously. To situate ourselves outside the real movement would only the more surely condemn us to marginality.