Spirits were low last Tuesday at the Dorothy, a café and community space in Paris named after Catholic American labor activist Dorothy Day. Two days earlier, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing France Insoumise, had finished third in the first round of France’s presidential election, a little over 400,000 votes shy of qualifying for the runoff. The reality was sinking in that on April 24, voters will again have to choose between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. The incumbent Macron and the slew of conservative candidates divided up some 68 percent of the first-round electorate, an unmistakable sign of the country’s lurch to the right.
With a keen eye for timing, the anti-capitalist, Christian-inflected magazine Limite chose this moment to host a public discussion with François Bégaudeau. A novelist, filmmaker, and essayist, Bégaudeau is one of the few great polymaths in contemporary French culture, a keen observer whose unpretentious novels channel a frank realism. His 2008 film The Class, on a teacher assigned to a difficult Paris school, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards.
But it’s as a social critic that Bégaudeau has most distinguished himself. His controversial 2019 essay, The Story of Your Stupidity, pillories the moral pretensions of what Bégaudeau now calls the “cool bourgeoisie”: the upper-middle-class Macronists who go to such ends to distinguish themselves from crass reactionaries like the Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour ilk. When their interests depend on it, Bégaudeau argues, the hip side of the ruling classes shed their easygoing mystique and become indistinguishable from their stiffer cousins. The pressure to do so would only become more intense as capital struggles to sustain itself through the twenty-first century’s wave of social, economic and climate shocks. This is a fine description of the lopsided politics of the Macron era, and has made Bégaudeau one of its most lucid observers.
Except on one subject. Bégaudeau did not vote on April 10, and, needless be said, he won’t be voting on April 24. Reared on decades of political retreat, he has become one of the leading voices for abstention on the French left. In mid-March, he released How to Occupy Yourself on an Election Sunday, a lively essay on the inanity of electoral politics and the totem of voting. The book stated in clearer form what was already one of the central threads of The Story of Your Stupidity: Bégaudeau’s abstention from the last Le Pen–Macron face-off.
The struggle, real or imagined, between the “cool” and the “hard” wings of the French elite — the Macronists and the far-right — was the official the subject of the April 12 talk at the Dorothy. But this was a natural pretext to discuss the subject on everyone’s mind: voting. “For someone with the luxuries that you have,” a woman in the audience commented, “I find that your position is irresponsible.”
“Luxury . . . irresponsibility . . .” Bégaudeau retorted. “When I hear those words, the Nietzschean in me starts to get riled up.”
In less intellectualized form, Bégaudeau’s dilemma is something that many French people will be facing today. Already on April 10, roughly 26 percent of the electorate abstained — the highest level since 2002, when the far-right then led by Jean-Marie Le Pen first qualified for the runoff. Macron seems to have a strong enough lead to win anyway: 15 percentage points, according to an Ipsos poll released on April 21. But this is still a historically small margin, with some polls showing him only 6 percentage points ahead. And he surely can’t count on votes from the Left. According to an internal consultation by Mélenchon’s France Insoumise released on April 17, 38 percent planned to cast a null ballot, expressing their discontent at the runoff, while 29 percent would abstain entirely.
For left-wing voters specifically, relativism between Le Pen and Macron is fed by the experiences of the last five years, which have been lived as a series of attacks and humiliations that quickly earned Macron the nickname “president of the rich.” Le Pen, however, would not mark a rupture from the deeply antisocial democratic tenor of the Macron years, despite her attempt to position herself as an advocate of France’s lower and middle classes. Le Pen has, notably, abandoned her 2017 campaign plank of reversing recent changes to the labor code that undermined job security. Her propositions on purchasing power, mainly to achieved through tax rebates, are a reminder of the Reaganite origins of the 1980s National Front.
Social and economic policy aside, it’s Macron’s attacks on public liberties and his cynical exploitation of right-wing cultural anxieties that have left-wing voters most dismayed by the choice faced. But there is fundamentally a difference of kind between Macron and Le Pen when it comes to preserving democratic norms. Macron’s administration has done little to stop a slippage that began well before his administration. The 2017 turning of the state of emergency into law, the 2018 “Collomb law” on immigration and asylum, the 2021 “global security law,” the 2021 law on “Islamic separatism,” the dissolution of associations, and Macron’s cajoling of police forces have only accelerated this trend. A Le Pen presidency would close the circle entirely.
Rule by Referendum?
Le Pen plans to kick off her term with a series of attacks on France’s constitutional architecture. One of her main propositions is the establishment via referendum of what the far-right calls “national priority,” institutionalizing a hierarchy of rights between French citizens and foreigners in employment, housing, and social welfare. To clear the way for measures that would directly contradict European and international law on immigration, asylum, and human rights, she also plans also plans to impose the primacy of French law over European law, a reversal that Sorbonne law professor Bastien François said would amount to a “de facto exit from the European Union.”
A French president bolstered by a parliamentary majority, and therefore with a pliant prime minister, leads an extremely powerful executive. Enjoying the initiative in much legislative activity, the president and prime minister can in some cases circumvent Parliament entirely via constitutional pathways such as Article 49.3, which allows the executive to force a law through unless the National Assembly approves a censure vote in under twenty-four hours.
Without a parliamentary majority, however, the president’s agenda-setting capabilities are severely weakened. This is why, throughout the campaign, Le Pen has highlighted her intention to govern by referendum — a way to circumvent a likely hostile Parliament. In doing so, Le Pen hopes to position herself as a direct tribune of the French people, using the bully pulpit to force through opposition from mediating institutions such as the court system, the National Assembly, and the Senate — at the risk of provoking a constitutional crisis.
The actual legal argument for this is flimsy. Constitutional reform in France is organized under Article 89 of the constitution, requiring supermajority approval from both chambers of Parliament. A hypothetical Le Pen majority in the National Assembly, the lower chamber, is already a stretch. The advantage enjoyed by entrenched parties in the Senate suggests that the upper house would almost certainly be under opposition control.
In the April 20 presidential debate, however, Le Pen again insisted that she would use Article 11 of the constitution to bypass the official constitutional reform process. This article, which is meant to be used for the approval of traditional pieces of legislation or questions pertaining to “the organization of public powers,” was controversially used in 1962 by Charles de Gaulle to institute the direct election of French presidents by universal suffrage. The article stipulates, however, that a referendum must result in a consultation from the government in Parliament — a detail that De Gaulle ignored in 1962.
Le Pen has also brushed over these technicalities. “Only the people are sovereign,” she stammered during the April 20 debate, implying that it’s a simple question of the balance of power — between institutions, but more importantly, between institutions and segments of French society of which a rogue president would claim to be the sole representative.
“It’s at this point that we can start speaking of a coup d’état” François said.
What exactly happens? We don’t know. The Parliament can decide to impeach the president. Do state functionaries call a general strike? We’d enter into very murky terrain. It’s like seeing what would have happened if the January 6 assault on the Capitol had worked: as soon as we step outside the rules, it becomes very difficult to say how things will go.
“I have a hard time actually seeing her go down this path,” François tempered. “We don’t have the spoils system,” anticipating that, within state administrations at least, Le Pen would find little enthusiasm. An opposed Parliament could lead Le Pen to call for dissolution, of course, ushering in a snap election in the unlikely hope of demanding and winning a new parliamentary mandate.
But even what the attorney and legal expert Jean-Pierre Mignard called a “shackled” Le Pen — boosted by a presidential mandate, hobbled institutionally — would bring the country to the limits of a “regime crisis.” This sort of situation would only further galvanize France’s confident far-right ecosystem. Friendly media organizations, retired generals, and extra-parliamentary political clubs already relish talk of civil war and seek to constantly outdo each other in racist saber-rattling. This flattered though minoritarian counter-society would become a dominant pole in possession of actual state power. They would eagerly follow Le Pen’s anti-institutional adventurism — just what France can’t afford right now.
For all these reasons, left-wing voters need to be clearheaded about what today’s vote really means. In the society that they want to build, there is space for “neither Le Pen nor Macron,” as the slogan rejecting the election goes. But from today, France’s next president will be either Le Pen or Macron.
That is the only thing being resolved. Bégaudeau is surely right to point out that elections are only one aspect of our political existence: a vote on Sunday is a momentary intervention to reduce the harm that can come from a figure with major sway over what people are able to do elsewhere in their social and political lives. The everyday injustices already endured by many French people have festered or been swollen by Macron — they would grow exponentially through a Le Pen administration. On the erosion of democratic institutions and rights, the response is no different. Without question, fighting back against, or eventually reversing, France’s rightward drift would be massively less difficult during a second Macron term.